Home Tour: A Contemporary Cape Town Home Inspired By Californian Mid-Century Modernists
From busy Kloof Nek Road in Cape Town, architect Greg Truen’s house plays a little game with passers-by. The road is one of the city’s (and the country’s) oldest—originally a supply route for soldiers linking Camps Bay and the Atlantic seaboard with the city. The wall outside his house, facing the street, is made from stone, like the remnants of historical walls you find all around Cape Town. “Whether it’s the wall down Buitengracht Street that separates the Bokaap from the city, or the walls at the Castle or around the harbour, they all use exactly this kind of construction,” says Truen. They’re part of the fabric of the city, immediately familiar and at home on the winding road between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. “Kloof Nek Road is a very strong representation of the urban environment,” he explains. “The wall tries to set up a dialogue with the history of architecture in Cape Town.”
Beyond the boundary, however, is a tantalising vision: a glass roof that peeps over the top of the wall with a kind of inverted pyramid floating inside it. “It becomes a light box at night,” says Truen. This mysterious “hat” on top of the house is part of the building’s response to what the architect calls its “powerful” but complex site. “It’s got a set of almost opposing forces at work,” he muses.
Once you’ve left the road, you find yourself descending a steep slope. The views around you close in, but open onto an incredible panoramic vista. “You’ve got a big, expansive view of the city, the bay, and the mountains in the distance,” explains Truen. “But, although you are surrounded by the mountain, you’re not that aware of it. You’ve kind of turned your back on it. You’ve got to look up to see it.” And that’s where the roof comes in: it’s origami-like structure takes the form of an inverted pyramid so that it can create clerestory windows and openings that let in views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head behind the house.
Truen’s solution to building on such a steep incline was to design a house that “cascades down the site”.
“I wanted each constructed level to feel like it was first and foremost a piece of the landscape with planting in it,” he explains. “I wanted to create slabs of landscape, and to bring the landscape right up to the edge of the internal spaces, as if the mountain comes right up to the house and then runs through it, so the floor surfaces are positioned on the land, as it were.”
He has even tiled the floors with granite slabs chosen because “they have the colouring and composition that you often see in the Cape.” The idea was to have the internal spaces and rooms seem as if they were simply covered strata of the mountainside. “You feel that you’re sitting in the landscape,” he says. “I’m quite interested in this idea of taking a slab of landscape and just putting a hat on it and living under that hat.” As he puts it, this archetypical idea of a shelter is articulated, “by a ceiling and floor level changes to give definition to different spaces.” He talks about the way that the “big, simple spaces” inside the house borrow space from outside.
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The house is arranged on three levels, with garages and services at the bottom, bedrooms in the middle and living areas on top. In and around the rooms, there are planted courtyards–pockets of greenery–that make you feels as if you are “surrounded by landscape”. They enhance the effect of that amazing geometric roof, which Truen says is vividly animated by the sky, sun and the moon, and “reinforces the connection to nature and the mountain”. The courtyards and smaller views create a sense of layering. “It’s not just a big view,” says Truen. “in some ways [the small views] are more rewarding.”
The gardens bring the landscape up and into the house, also bringing nature to his doorstep. “I was expecting birdlife,” says Truen, “which has been abundant and great, but the insect life that has emerged has been really interesting. I’ve got some really cool bumble bees that visit every morning.”
Inside, the open plan spaces continue the sense of connectedness that the house strives for in its blurring of landscape and building. Truen’s house isn’t just about engaging with Cape Town’s urban heritage and relating it to the powerful presence of nature that the city has. There’s a broader cultural sense in which he wants to engage with the spirit of place.“I also want the building and what’s in it to reflect the cultural space that it comes from, both at a micro level of Cape Town, and at a macro level of Africa.” The architect’s firm, SAOTA, does a lot of work throughout the African continent. “I have a very contemporary view of the continent as a modern place,” he says. “It’s exciting, and I wanted the house to reflect that.”
In fact, the washed oak interior finishes, particularly the ceilings, have their joints articulated with beautiful brass details, which is picked up in various fittings throughout the house. “One of the prompts for using a vein of metal through the house was the story of goldmining on Lions Head,” says Truen. In the mid to late 1880s, prospectors discovered gold deposits on Lions Head, and attempted to establish a mine. Although the mining venture never came to anything, it remains a fascinating footnote to the city’s industrial history. “The depression is still visible opposite the house,” says Truen.
The art and furnishings continue the dialogue the architecture begins with its starting point in the optimism and newness of early California or Brazilian modernism. “I wanted that enthusiasm and optimism to come through,” says Truen. “It’s definitely got that new-world feel.”
At the same time, while the furnishings make good use of custom pieces from OKHA, the furniture design studio attached to SAOTA, there are pieces Truen has collected that reflect a modern, globalised African aesthetic. The Sefefo Series table and stools in the master bedroom—a collaboration between Botswanan designer Peter Mabeo and Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola—is a prime example. “It encapsulates all of these ideas about a global world, and a new modern African sensibility in that globalised world, as an equal partner,” says Truen. The outdoor furniture from Moroso combines Senegalese and Italian design and craft techniques with contemporary materials in a similar way.
Truen’s new house is a home in the most profound sense—an attempt to create a vision of the future for today: optimistic, sophisticated and of its place.
This article was originally published in Philippine Tatler Homes Vol 24.
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