George Meets Jungle Modernism

INTERVIEW BY Steve Smith PHOTOS Supplied

Here’s a sneak peek at Arbour Nature Estate a new development in George penned by Robert Silke & Partners. If you’re familiar with Robert’s retro-modern work, you’ll know it’s something special…

If you’re a fan of VISI, you’ll know we’re a fan of the buildings designed by Robert Sike & Partners. The apartments, hotels and homes he has conceived illustrate a signature style that looks back to anything from Deco, to Bauhaus, Tropical Modernism and PoMo, translating those aesthetics into a contemporary style that sees his thoroughly modern creations sit very comfortable in among Cape Town’s heritage architecture.

He’s got a couple of new projects on the go – and you’ve had a glimpse of the PoMo inspired Spindle – and here’s the latest… Arbour Nature Estate in George. To be completed by 2026 it’s a development that Robert describes as “Jungle Modernism”. On its riverside site, Arbour Nature Estate will offer everything from homes and apartments, to community amenities like a resort-style lifestyle centre with a double-storey clubhouse, heated outdoor swimming pool, padel court and an open-air cinema.

This is not the first housing estate you have designed, right? 

Long ago we designed Silwerkloof, a neo-Cape Dutch PoMo estate (72 houses) in Plattekloof in the 2000’s, so it’s been nearly twenty years.

So what was the brief for Arbour Nature Estate?

David Cohen (the MD of Signatura) had been talking to us for some years about his dream of developing a completely-immersive modernist environment; a “new town” where we could design all the aesthetic details, and where every way you look would be sculptural “white plastic” modernism. So when Signatura came accross 11ha of prime riverfront land in the centre of George, David called me (it might have been New Year’s Day 2022) to say it’s time for us to build that “new town” we’d been talking about.

And what inspired the design … and how would you describe its aesthetic?

The environment is the starting point of course. Half of the site is a sensitive riverine forest, and the other half is lawn. So the first decision was not to touch the forest or the river, which means that the estate has its own private nature reserve. The Garden Route’s coastal temperate climate is “sub-sub-tropical”, which means that George can have trees and plants that we can only dream of in Cape Town … and thus we conceived of Jungle Modernism, where curvaceous smooth white walls juxtapose against Strelitzias, palms, Cape Chestnut trees and the occasional Loerie.

Who is this estate aimed at and how does the design meet the needs of the community it’s aimed at?

Signatura’s starting point was to develop a new Garden Route suburb with a broad range of accommodation – something for everyone. Having said that, people don’t come to George to live in a micro-flat, but rather they come here for a better lifestyle. Thus the smallest living units range from 60m² 2-bedroom apartments ; to 140m² 3-bedroom duplexes; to 170m² 3-bedroom simplexes ; to 220m² 4-bedroom villas. But the estate also needs a heart and soul and a communal focus. To this end there’s a multi-storey clubhouse and sports centre, with entertainment deck, padel tennis court, large pool, fire pits and braai terraces – with a massive sculptural projection wall for night-time drive-in-style movies and major televised sports events. There’s even separate dog parks for small and large dogs. A Garden Route utopia celebrating the best of the South African way of life.

In designing a housing estate, what are the specific architectural challenges you need to solves during the design and construction of the housing estate… and how did you overcome them while preserving the architectural style?

Architects (whose buildings are often object-orientated) sometimes struggle with urban design, because good urban design is rather about developing a keen interest in the spaces between those buildings. The key to a successful and beautiful urban environment is to design the homes in such a way as to create desirable, sheltered and defensible spaces between the houses. We designed a system of closes and cul-de-sacs, whereby smaller neighbourhoods of houses are clustered around quiet, landscaped dead-end lanes – the kind of environment where you might still find kids playing cricket in the street.

What choice of materials and construction techniques will be used in the project, particularly with regard to creating the architectural style you’ve designed?

Our “house style” is very much centred around the traditional Western Cape vernacular of white-plastered masonry walls with parapets around their roofs. Just because we’re building in the Garden Route doesn’t mean we have to chop down forests in order to clad buildings in timber – which is environmentally pretentious and detrimental. Rather we use ubiquitously-available sand and clay and “white-wash” to make our architecture – somewhat like the Cape Dutch – and we take pure joy from extracting the maximum quantum of sculpture from tried-and-tested Cape construction techniques that intersect happily with the principles of pure international modernism.

Are there any sustainable design principles and innovative technologies that will be used to enhance its functionality and reduce its environmental impact?

The apartment buildings have very large north-facing roofs that will be fully-exploited for solar power collection for the use of the development, whilst there will be not one conventional electric geyser in any of the estate’s 179 dwelling units. The entire electrical system is designed to be impervious to load shedding. Half of the site comprises a riverine forest, which remains entirely undisturbed.

Other than that the estate is embarking on a rehabilitation process to replace exotic trees and shrubs with indigenous. 5ha of flat Kikuyu (a proverbial dessert of lawn) is being replaced with 179 comfortable new households and associated landscaping – which is in itself a gift to the environment.

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