WORDS Graham Wood/Bureaux PRODUCTION Jeanne Botes PHOTOS Greg Cox/Bureaux
A mantra that good architecture needs history informed the design and construction of a cosy family home that keeps getting better with the passage of time.
“We got some very funny reactions because it really wasn’t pretty,” says architect Sean Mahoney, recalling friends and colleagues visiting his newly completed house in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia for the first time. “The exterior was raw brick, and the garden had rubble lying everywhere. My architect friends, in particular, were just… quiet.”
The house, where he lives with his wife, artist and sculptor Justine Mahoney, and their daughters Ella and Biba, is an extreme example of one of his architectural mantras – as a partner in the firm StudioMAS, he believes the buildings he designs should look their worst on the day he hands over the keys. Or, in more marketable terms, they should look better with time. “Good architecture needs history,” he says.
Now beautifully engulfed in Boston ivy and immersed in a wild, naturalistic garden, the home’s history has begun. There’s an eco-pool and a vegetable garden, and a series of pergolas and other structures woven from branches and twigs that Sean and Justine add to continuously. It does, indeed, look better.
When the Mahoneys decided to move to the suburbs to be close to their children’s school, they deliberately sought out an empty site so they could build from scratch. “We’d never built a house for ourselves,” says Sean. They snapped up a “problematic” site at a great price – its odd L-shape and restrictive building lines had clearly proved too baffling for other would-be buyers.
Designing the house presented both opportunities and constraints. On the one hand, it was a chance to realise some of Sean’s architectural ideals without compromise. On the other, he was working on a shoestring budget. “We stripped it down to basics and built rough on purpose,” he says.
Apart from timber flooring, there is nothing sleek about the materials he chose, with stock brick used inside and out. It’s largely off-grid, too. The fireplace has a boiler to heat the water in winter. “We have solar heating in summer,” he says. The stove runs off gas; water comes from a borehole.
Sean and Justine’s living room does have big glass doors that open to the garden, but there’s a clear distinction between indoors and outdoors. Justine calls the “internal environment” they chose “intimate” – even “cave-like”. And maintaining the distinction hasn’t in the least affected the family’s tendency to live outdoors in summer.
There are covered verandas and courtyards, a firepit in the garden, a circular clearing in the wild grass – a “crop circle”, as Justine and Sean call it – where they can lie on a towel and dry off in the sun after a swim, and a vegetable and herb garden. “And in winter, it’s more cosy,” says Sean. “You close the curtains, and then it’s a cocoon-type space. It’s a really nice change.”
While thoughtfully furnished, the interior, like the architecture, is not “conceptual” in its approach. There is an eclectic mix of antique shop and market finds, as well as the occasional mid-century or contemporary piece. But once again, what Sean and Justine find most grounding and homely, even humanising, is a sense of history – the passage of time.
Rather than a predetermined style, there’s a sense of chance in the selection of furnishings. It speaks of the joy of the hunt for a piece of furniture; the lucky discovery. Justine calls it “magical” when you find just the right item, and loves the way disparate pieces come together. “It’s the whole patina of a dining-room table needing to get scratches and stains and marks,” muses Sean. “You’re either a person who doesn’t want that – you want to keep it perfect all the time – or you want to have that history.”
While building a house might have seemed to Sean a stripping away of non-essentials – a return to the fundamentals of his occupation – it is also an exercise in getting to the heart of the matter. What is architecture? What is a home? What is family? What does it mean to live in a place? The answer, perhaps, is to go on asking.