Sylvan Symphony

Jun 26, 2017 | Beautiful Spaces, Features, Slider

This modern cedar-clad cabin in a wooded setting in Constantia reinterprets tradition as it mimics its surroundings, blending with the trees and making a bold statement while creating a sanctuary for its owner

The front of the tree house has two-storey-high glass sliding doors that open a double volume space inside. In an interesting play on scale, this space creates a sense of the interior being connected to the vast space around it; the tree house is positioned in a clearing in the gardens of a tree-rich estate in the Constantia Winelands. Its slatted western red cedar envelope is designed to blend in with the trees so that it almost disappears in the landscape

I’m a fan of warm materials and textures – wood, stone and leather”

GRAHAM PAARMAN – OWNER

The starting point for Graham Paarman’s cabin-like tree house in Constantia, Cape Town, was a particular spot he’d chosen on his family estate: a clearing among the trees overlooking four square reflection ponds.

The estate has extensive landscaped gardens, a manor house and a number of dwellings and buildings arranged along the lines of a modern interpretation of a Cape Dutch Werf or traditional Cape farmyard. Architects Pieter Malan, Jan-Heyn Vorster and Peter Urry of Cape Town-based firm Malan Vorster Architecture Interior Design had worked on various buildings on the property for quite some time and, together with garden designer Mary Maurel, had been instrumental in creating the quartet of reflection ponds in what had previously been a field of lavender.

The ponds seemed to bring a certain magic to the clearing and galvanised Graham’s decision to build a cabin there. He called on Pieter, Jan-Heyn and Peter to help him realise his idea for a tree house. ‘I always wanted something in the tree canopy,’ says Graham. ‘I never wanted a building that was going to impose itself. I didn’t want something symmetrical. I hoped it would blend in and enhance its surroundings and would invite the outside in.’ And he wanted something small. The ‘pure geometry of the square’ prompted by the ponds became a ‘subliminal link’, as Jan-Heyn puts it, in the scheme they devised to bind together the various elements of the floating architectural interpretation of the forest. To mediate the combination of inspirations for the tree house – the organic forms of the woods and the sharp-edged squares of the ponds – the architects turned to the work Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa.

‘There are certain geometrical ideas they used that inspired us,’ says Pieter. ‘We investigated a rigorous geometric framework that also allows a sense of freedom, curved flowing from straight lines, rectangular shapes that become drums and the celebration of the connections between different elements.’ So the tree house began its existence as a sketch of a square the same size as one of the reflection ponds, divided into nine smaller squares, each the size of a reflection pool. Along the edges of each side of the square, four circles represented four trees, creating a floor plan resembling a pinwheel. Steel pillars, in groups of four, represent the trunks of the trees and rings overhead suggest branches. Branch-like beams in turn support the floors above. Each ‘tree’ is a slightly different height. ‘The tree that terminates at roof level became the circular drum for the staircase,’ says Pieter. It leads to a rooftop deck, an entertainment space that is also a viewing platform, looking over the beautifully landscaped gardens and, of course, the reflection ponds. Ascending the stairs feels a little like climbing a tree.

01

LEVELS

The rooms are arranged vertically: one living space per floor. The living area is on the first level.

02

STRUCTURE

Some of the rings extend beyond the edge of the almost imperceptibly square floorplate, creating cantilevered outside balcony spaces. The structure is glassed in and covered with a veil of vertical cedar slats. ‘They create privacy at certain points and articulate the building in others,’ says Pieter

03

HAVEN

The bedroom is the place owner Graham Paarman finds himself gravitating to most often. The shelving is by Versfeld Custom Furniture (customfurniture.co.za); the bed linen and mattress are by Hastens (hastens.com) while the bed comforter is from Mungo (mungo.co.za)

The structure is glassed in and covered with a veil of vertical cedar slats. ‘They create privacy at certain points and articulate the building in others,’ says Pieter. The lines they create echo the ‘verticality of the surrounding trees’, so the building blends beautifully with its surroundings. The staircase drum is the only really solid mass in the building. ‘We wanted the contrast between something that is completely open and one really solid volume,’ says Pieter.

The architects found that their choice of materials provided clues to prompt many of their final design decisions as the building went up as much as the concept did. Pieter proves a useful example: ‘Generally the vertical elements are steel. They support the horizontal elements, which are timber beams and floor plates. Those connections are expressed in little turned brass, hand-machined connections. The idea of crafting the structural components, to express it, gave us an opportunity to design those things beautifully. We turned them into elegant sculptural elements, so they would not appear too engineered.’ The architects used Corten steel, manufactured only in flat sheets, rather than standard, round mild steel sections. The idea of the steel being folded appealed to them, as well as the fact that it gains a patina in time, rusting and turning a coppery or ferrous orange colour. The cedar wood they used will also weather. ‘Materials are allowed to change,’ says Jan-Heyn. ‘It works in a natural, organic direction.’

The kitchen is from the Sine Tempore range by Italian kitchen manufacturer Valcucine (valcucine.com); you enter the cabin via a suspended timber and steel ramp, which enhances the sense that the building is floating or that once inside you are raised off the ground, as if in the branches of a tree. The architects chose Corten steel for the walkway mainly because it rusts with time and gains a beautiful red-brown ferrous patina; visible from the patio on the first level are four reflection ponds, which preceded the house. A half-round ring accommodates the patio. Their edges, also made from Corten steel, inspired the architects’ choice of the material for the cabin’s structural steelwork, executed by Link Engineering.

 

The kitchen is from the Sine Tempore range by Italian kitchen manufacturer Valcucine (valcucine.com); you enter the cabin via a suspended timber and steel ramp, which enhances the sense that the building is floating or that once inside you are raised off the ground, as if in the branches of a tree. The architects chose Corten steel for the walkway mainly because it rusts with time and gains a beautiful red-brown ferrous patina; visible from the patio on the first level are four reflection ponds, which preceded the house. A half-round ring accommodates the patio. Their edges, also made from Corten steel, inspired the architects’ choice of the material for the cabin’s structural steelwork, executed by Link Engineering.

Due to the lush surrounding gardens, the architects steered away from green in their choice of fabrics and furnishings, instead using complimentary colours such as ochre, deep blue, taupe and browns. The furnishings are almost all Antonio Citterio-designed pieces by Flexform (flexform.it). The coffee and side table in black steel with marble tops are from Roche Bobois (roche-bobois.com). The circle and square motif of the coffee table and side table is a playful reference to the underlying geometry of squares and circles of the building itself. The dining table is by Moooi (moooi.com). The natural dyed linen fabrics of the sofa’s scatter cushions are by Mark Alexander from Romo (romosouthafrica.com). The light-filled kitchen also looks into the surrounding gardens; a cedar-clad drum contains the staircase, which is the one solid form in the building, contrasting with the light, veil-like transparency of the rest.

The colour of the Corten’s patination and its high copper content, lead to the decision to use warm metals such as brass and copper for the junctions. This was picked up again in many of the other finishing such as the taps, showerhead and lamps. The architects designed the interiors and chose the furnishings, too. As Jan-Heyn points out, ‘It’s lovely to have the opportunity to take the concept right through to the furnishings. The same care goes into choosing a piece of furniture as making the space.’ ‘I’m a fan of warm materials and textures – wood, stone and leather,’ says Graham. This perfectly suited the architects’ idea to work with natural materials and metals. ‘We tried to keep the colours subdued and almost neutral so that you’re really more aware of what is going on outside the house rather than being colourful and flashy on the inside,’ says Pieter. They stuck predominantly to linens, wool and leather in ochre, deep blue, taupe and brown.

‘The architecture makes quite a strong, singular statement,’ says Graham. ‘But at the same time, it has become a sanctuary. It has almost become transformative as far as lifestyle is concerned.’ Just as the floating tree house immerses itself in nature and subtly mediates between its inhabitants and the nature surrounding them, it also provides a mediation on man’s relationship with nature, another way in which it is like those four ponds that proved to be the seeds of its inspiration.’

Credits: Photographs: Sven Alberding/bureaux.co.za, Text: Graham Wood/bureaux.co.za, Styling: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za