Johannesburg House

WORDS Graham Wood PRODUCTION Sven Alberding PHOTOS Warren Heath / Bureaux

This bright and open family home is an ode to creativity and playfulness – but it has a strong element of responsibility underpinning all that vibrancy and innovation.

What Toni Twidale wanted even more than a house was to live among the trees. “I wanted to see green all the time,” says Toni, who owns this home with her partner Graeme. “I wanted the outside in.” And so they decided to build a house that would, more than anything, be about the site.

The couple enlisted the help of architect Gregory Katz, known locally for his creative, experimental and often unconventional approach. Toni wanted to keep all the indigenous trees; Gregory’s brief, therefore, became something of a mathematical puzzle around fitting the dimensions of a house between the trees. In the end, he settled on two long, slim “bars”, with alternating strips of open space on either side and between them for the driveway, central courtyard and swimming pool. The two wings are connected by what Gregory calls an “umbilical cord” – a glazed corridor that steps down slightly with the slope of the site. The branches of the trees reach up and over a flat concrete roof, which is planted with wavy grass, essentially lifting what would have been on the ground up a level, and adding to the greenery.

Floor-to-ceiling glass walls let the outside in, especially when they’re opened up and the house is transformed into something more like a garden pavilion, the interiors becoming part of the garden itself. Some trees are so close they seem to be inside; sections of the eaves had to be cast with cutouts through which the branches could grow.

Johannesburg House Designed by Gregory Katz
Architect Gregory Katz nicknamed the house the “Wing Wing” house because of its structure: two wings connected by an “umbilical cord”, all surrounding a central courtyard.

Nevertheless, Gregory considers the design as following a fairly typical double-storey model, with bedrooms upstairs and living space downstairs – but flipped onto its side. This way, all rooms face north so they have lovely natural light and are warmed by the sun in winter (although the deep eaves keep direct sun out in summer). Every single room opens out onto the garden. The result is “almost like a resort”, as Gregory puts it. “Joburg has the most amazing country feeling in the suburbs,” he says, so it’s actually quite an appropriate response: a real suburban sanctuary, so self-contained you could be almost anywhere.

Johannesburg House Designed by Gregory Katz
The more “solid” character of the front of the house ensures privacy, but the entrance itself, via a floor-to-ceiling door, remains welcoming, with generous eaves, a raised pathway and a glimpse of the interior through a floor-level window.

While the configuration may have been dictated by logic and necessity, Gregory still found opportunities to exercise his creativity. The roofs are flat, but he’s played around with volume by changing the floor level. The open-plan living area, which includes the lounge, kitchen and dining room, opens onto an outdoor sunken lounge with a barbecue and pizza oven. A skylight above it seems to open to the sky, exaggerating the sense of height.

Another key part of Gregory’s approach is his love of brick as a building material. “Face brick tones so well with our environment,” he says. “It’s the same colour as the ground.” All around Johannesburg, the soil has a ferrous tinge, so bricks “somehow feel more relevant than some kind of imported colour palette”.

Especially at the entrance of the house, which necessitated solid walls for privacy, Gregory has played around with various bricklaying patterns. He’s used bricks to design breeze-block “veils” and parapets for the roof garden. At other points inside, he’s used variations in colour and created built-in shelving. They’ve even been sliced thin to create skirting and bathroom tiles. There’s a textural richness and expressiveness that seems filled with infinite possibility.

It’s not only an aesthetic principle. “I think restraint is a good design principle,” he says. “You’re not overconsuming; you’re not overdoing things.” Rather than leading down a path towards minimalism, in Gregory’s hands it becomes a rich, tactile, expressive approach, which proves that using less might yield a whole lot more than you expected.

Toni’s response in furnishing the house is highly sympathetic to Gregory’s approach. “The structure speaks for itself,” she says, “so you don’t need to add anything. When simple is done well, it’s the best.” She also sought out locally designed and manufactured furniture wherever she could, as much to keep the carbon footprint low as to celebrate local skills. There’s a kind of easy elegance that results – a resonance that isn’t too self-conscious or overdetermined.

You could say the same for the house. While superficially it might look like an homage to Mid-century Modernism, it’s actually a dazzlingly complex and highly original response to Johannesburg suburban life. And, like all the best Modernist design, it’s deceptively simple-looking. |

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