The deck extends to the edge of a cliff that drops away dramaticallyWhen you arrive at this low-slung, ground-hugging white holiday home just inland from Plettenberg Bay, its greatest asset remains invisible. In fact, the spectacular clifftop views the home commands from its rocky promontory have been deliberately obscured.
As you cross the raised meadow of waving grasses from your point of arrival, the house forms a screen of sorts. It’s all part of what its architect, Christiaan van Aswegen, calls "an unfolding sequence of spaces" or "architectural tantra" – a carefully choreographed progression as you arrive.
When you arrive at this low-slung, ground-hugging white holiday home just inland from Plettenberg Bay, its greatest asset remains invisible. In fact, the spectacular clifftop views the home commands from its rocky promontory have been deliberately obscured. As you cross the raised meadow of waving grasses from your point of arrival, the house forms a screen of sorts. It’s all part of what its architect, Christiaan van Aswegen, calls "an unfolding sequence of spaces" or "architectural tantra" – a carefully choreographed progression as you arrive.
From the meadow, you pass a pool and descend a few stairs onto a deck. "Then the surroundings really disappear, because you are enveloped by the white walls of the house," says Christiaan. "The idea was that there would be a compression of space, a closing off. Only once you enter the house do you get a glimpse of the view beyond – and then as you work your way towards the deck in front, it just expands and blows your mind."
The house belongs to South African-born British investor Julian Treger. "The landscape falls 1,000 feet, and you have caves and birds below you," says Julian. "Sometimes you wake up and the cloud level is below the house." There isn’t another building as far as the eye can see, and indigenous fynbos vegetation covers the meadows and ravines as they fade from view, transforming into layer upon layer of the receding Tsitsikamma mountains.
The site had been abandoned for about a decade and was only inhabited by an incomplete building – Julian describes it as a "square, minimal sort of ’70s Case Study House type design" – when he first took Christiaan there. "The whole place was overrun and overgrown," adds Christiaan. Given its position, however, Julian says, "It was natural to build onto that."
Christiaan set about devising a design for the house. "Instead of trying to fight the language that had already been established, we tried to enhance those qualities," he says. "We inscribed a rectangle across the entire house, using the front of the existing structure, and worked our way back onto the escarpment. The rectangle was then broken up into a series of courtyards."
The admirable restraint of the arrival sequence is about as wilful as the building ever becomes. For the rest, it seems almost to disappear or at least serve as a neutral backdrop facilitating views. "The building itself does not demand attention," says Christiaan. "Instead, it focuses you outward." Its straight-lined monolithic appearance may take its cue from the original ruin, but it’s a style that lends itself to "strong and simple form and natural light." The spaces are unified in their white finish, and the slate floors create cohesion and continuity inside and out. "On the one hand, it creates a simple and elegant backdrop for Julian’s collection," says Christiaan. "On the other hand, it allows the architecture to disappear in the sense that the setting becomes what really matters. So your eye is drawn up to the sky, to the horizon."
The home is perfect for showcasing Julian’s eclectic collection of design, art and furnishings. One avenue of his thinking is exemplified by the Pierre Jeanneret furnishings; Jeanneret took over from his cousin, Le Corbusier, as the architect and urban designer for Chandigarh, the new capital for the state of Punjab in the 1950s. Characterised by a clash of rustic and modern design, here the style combines cowhide and the sleekness of Willy Rizzo, while somewhere in between are the various geometric forms of Paul Evans and Harry Bertoia. Julian calls it "Le Corbusier meets Ricky Lauren – that camping, rustic, modernist cowboy idea."
The art collection, mostly from the 1960s and ’70s, explores the links between Europe and Africa. Around the house you will find sculptures by the likes of Edoardo Villa, an Italian sculptor who stayed in South Africa after being captured during the Second World War and detained there. Erik Laubscher moved in the opposite direction: he was born in South Africa and ended up studying with Ferdinand Léger in Paris. Then there’s Cecil Skotnes, another influential South African artist who had a pioneering interest in African art but was heavily influenced by German expressionism. Another favourite of Julian’s is Trevor Coleman, who grew up in Johannesburg and spent time in New York and London in the ’60s, where he was influenced by the bold geometry and bright colours of the hard-edge painters.
The house itself explores similar ideas to the Chandigarh furniture, in its insistence on beauty and modernism, but at the same time it has complete off-the-grid self-sufficiency and appropriateness to its setting; it runs on solar power, and stores and recycles its own water. "It was an opportunity to prove something that I feel very strongly about – that sustainability and green architecture can never be an excuse for not producing a beautiful building," says Christiaan.
The building’s character is at once humble and powerful. Christiaan comments on "the quiet that comes with the place. Perhaps because of its setting and its monastic quality, a lot of people find it very inviting," he muses. "There was something about the quality of the flat horizontal plane and the waving grasses on the very first day that we arrived that seemed so essential to the place." Christiaan believes that remains central to the experience of visiting the home. Julian, for his part, agrees that it has "a very spiritual quality. You feel grounded and it’s very restful."