The starting point for Graham Paarman’s cabin-like tree house in the famously beautiful wine region of Constantia in 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. Together with garden designer Mary Maurel, they 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 the three architects 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."
To mediate the combination of inspirations for the tree house – the organic forms of the woods on the one hand and the sharp-edged squares of the ponds on the other – the architects turned to the work of Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa. "There are certain geometrical ideas that 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."
The tree house began its existence as a sketch of a square. Along the edges of each side of the square, four circles represented four trees, creating a floorplan resembling a pinwheel. Steel pillars, in groups of four, represent the trunks of the trees and the rings overhead suggest branches, while branch-like beams 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 doubles as 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.
The rooms are arranged vertically, with one living space per floor. The living area is on the first level, the bedroom on the next and, at the top, the open-air deck. At the same time, a double-volume space makes for a vertical connection between the levels. Some of the rings extend beyond the edge of the almost imperceptibly square floorplate, creating cantilevered outdoor 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," explains 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.
Graham adds that, despite its compact size, the house doesn’t feel small. "There are tall sliding doors at the front that open up over both levels," says Pieter. The large vertical space opens up the living area, blurring the inside and outside. "It also plays with the idea of scale," says Jan-Heyn. "You are in this vastness of the landscape, but you are also in the building."
"It’s the encapsulation of cocoon living," explains Graham. "But at the same time, I think we all have a connection to nature – and this house captures that in a very special way. You can see the fantastic night skies and the squirrels in the trees. You can hear the birds from inside, too."
The architects found that their choice of materials provided clues to prompt many of their final design decisions, including Corten steel, manufactured only in flat sheets rather than the standard round steel sections. The idea of the steel being folded appealed to them, as well as the fact that it gains a patina over time, rusting and turning a coppery or ferrous orange colour. The cedar they used will also weather. "Materials are allowed to change," says Jan-Heyn. "It works in a natural, organic direction."
The colour of the steel’s patination and its high copper content led to the decision to use warmer metals such as brass and copper for the junctions. This was picked up again in many of the other finishings, such as the taps, showerhead and lamps. The architects designed the interiors and chose the furnishings, too.
"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, it also provides a mediation on man’s relationship with nature.
Photography: Greg Cox | bureaux.co.za
Styling: Sven Alberding | bureaux.co.za