WORDS Graham Wood PRODUCTION Sven Alberding PHOTOS Elsa Young/Bureaux
Johannesburg architect Anthony Orelowitz designed a home for his family that reinvents the meaning of a haven in the city.
In Johannesburg, there’s no mountain and there’s no sea,” says architect Anthony Orelowitz, referring to homes in Cape Town that tend to look outwards, seeking to catch a glimpse of the ocean or frame a view of Table Mountain. “Here, you have to create your own habitat.” And that, at heart, was the basis of his response to Johannesburg’s urban character when he designed his own home in the city’s forested suburbs. Anthony’s firm, Paragon, is responsible for some of the city’s most significant commercial architectural landmarks – but, he says, “I hadn’t done a house in nearly 15 years.” Nevertheless, working closely with architect Elliot Marsden and interior designer Julia Day, he conjured a vision of what it means to make a home in Joburg, at once perfectly suited to the city and utterly unlike its neighbours.
To create his habitat, Anthony turned to the archetype of the atrium house: an internal courtyard wrapped on all sides by the house, creating a peaceful sanctuary at its heart, open to the sky. He calls it a “self-contained oasis in the city”. The house is essentially a series of pavilions, with vast sliding doors and screens that can be opened and closed to reconfigure a mosaic of spaces in a variety of ways. (A new rail system had to be designed to manage the massive glass panels that make up the sliding doors.)
Rather than simply surround the central courtyard, however, Anthony describes the way in which he “pushed” the landscape through the pavilions and out to the edges of the site. “The ground plane washes through the house completely from one end to the other,” he says. This, he explains, creates “secondary courtyards” around the house, where the pavilions open onto private, peaceful nooks under the trees, and the boundary walls in effect become the walls of the house.
Despite its long, low-slung appearance, the house also rises to create an upper level in the treetops, carefully designed around branches that lean into and over it. It’s like a “big, adult treehouse”, says Anthony. The effect is a sense of space knitted together vertically as it is horizontally,drawing you up to the terraces as much as through the house and gardens below.
Anthony designed it “upside down”, with the bedrooms at ground level, nestled under the trees, and the living and outdoor entertainment areas – even the pool, with portholes underneath looking down into the central courtyard – on the level above. He says that when he wakes in the morning, he wants to “touch the ground” and “be in the forest”. He also speaks of wanting “sensory feedback” when touching surfaces throughout the house, from the walls to the floors. The rough sensuality of stone, the lushness of plants and the elemental presence of air and water lean away from the minimalism of European modernism in the direction of tropical modernism, with its early origins in Brazil.
Julia has echoed this with a carefully controlled palette of interior finishes selected for their natural, tactile, raw attributes. She’s also continued the sense of surprise and discovery throughout, particularly in the detailed cabinets and wall panelling that conceal storage and even entire rooms. The effect is that it brings the house down to a comfortably human scale.
For the furnishings, Julia drew heavily on designs from DePadova, Ligne Roset and Wiener GTV, as well as local designers such as Haldane Martin, selecting pieces that combine beautifully without competing. She favoured low-slung designs – often light, fairly transparent pieces that don’t interrupt the lines of sight or “break” the views and the sense of flowing, continuous space. “There’s nothing that interrupts the eye,” as she puts it.
The secret to this home remains in the detailing, in being able to sustain a clear vision from the “big idea” right through to the tiniest detail. Of course, such painstaking attention only pays off if the idea is convincing in the first place. If it is, the idea is elevated, and you have the makings of an architectural landmark. In this case, the idea was not so much to create a building or a house in the traditional sense,as a place. “Can you make your home your favourite space in the city?”asks Anthony. The open courtyard at the heart of this home is an invitation to do so.