Stellenbosch Marvel: A Family’s Homage to Mid-Century Design

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Inge Prins

Reprising lessons from local and international Modernist masterpieces, this home creates a unique sense of place in the winelands sun.

A family affair is how architect Bettina Woodward describes the design of this Stellenbosch house. And it quite literally is. Bettina is the principal architect at her practice Open City, and she designed the house for (and with) her brother Roland Andrag, sister-in-law Juandi and their family.

Roland and Bettina grew up in a modernist home. Their German-immigrant grandparents had a house full of original Mid-century design and, says Bettina, “My parents were very interested in modern and abstract art. My mother always pushed radical ideas.” Bettina has subsequently restored a spectacular 1970s modernist home in Cape Town, and is fascinated with the rich vein of regional Modernism in and around Stellenbosch, created by the likes of architects Pius Pahl (who studied at the Bauhaus), Gawie Fagan and Revel Fox.

Roland and Juandi lived in a “typical Mid-century Modern house” in Stellenbosch before building this one. Add to this their love of pioneering US Mid-century architect Richard Neutra – they once went on a road trip visiting some of his iconic houses in California – and it was inevitable that what would emerge from this family affair would be an homage to Modernism. Roland and Juandi had found this site in their neighbourhood a few years prior – chosen for the views more than anything else. “We have a clear view of Table Mountain and of the Stellenbosch Mountain to one side,” says Juandi.

Of course, when it came to designing their house, they made sure not just to frame those views, but also to orient the house in a way that would help manage the sun, and provide passive heating and cooling. Its clean-lined, horizontal form faces north. The upper level is lifted on columns – “pilotis” in modernist parlance – to catch the views while letting the outside flow in underneath, especially when the sliding doors are open. Deep overhangs and pergolas (and some strategically planted trees), particularly to the west, are precisely proportioned to keep the direct sun out in summer and let it in during winter.

In the Neutra tradition, the distinction between landscape and architecture is blurred; in some instances, the garden is quite literally invited in with built- in planters, notably in the entrance hall and on the terraces. Bettina says the home is designed to “embed itself ” in its setting. “It’s not a small house,” she adds, “but I wanted to move away from the current situation where many new homes are over-scaled.” There’s a cosiness and modesty in the proportions of even the grandest modernist buildings.“What I love about Modernism is how everything is ergonomically the correct size.”

She strove to recapture that sense of human scale and comfort here. The living area may be large and open-plan, but there are opportunities to be “apart together”. Built-in furnishings – from the breakfast nook in the kitchen to the benches, window seats, bookshelves and desks – not only reprise a classic feature of Mid-century design, but also deftly balance togetherness and privacy. Some other “typical Neutra tricks”, as Bettina calls them, include his trademark “displaced corners” – or, as she explains, the “idea of taking the structure from the inside through to the outside”. In the family room upstairs there’s a beam that starts inside and continues out onto the terrace, simultaneously framing the garden. In the same way, the fascia in the main bedroom extends beyond the edge of the overhang, leading the eye outwards to the view.

The interiors have a Mid-century flavour, with a twist. There’s lots of beautiful timber detailing, bespoke cabinetry by Wolfgang Kretschmer of Blackbird Interiors, and terrazzo floors (another favourite of the era), but in this instance with quartz and mother-of-pearl in the aggregate, so that they shimmer.“Much of the colour palette was drawn from the sunsets, which range from pink, light orange and purple to all the darker shades,” says Juandi.

Neutra was influenced by Japanese architecture, and Roland and Juandi travelled to Japan for inspiration, too. (The kimonos exhibited outside her studio are among her mementoes; Juandi is a fashion designer and her label, Mantua Silkwear, has a dedicated wing in the house.) The distinctive green is something they picked up there. “I tried to repeat that colour scheme in the garden,” says Juandi, “making use of various orange and purple plants, with grey plants in between.” She worked with landscape architect Vikki Crawley of Verdigris Consulting on the design of the garden.“We didn’t want the garden to be too formal,” she says. “We wanted it to hold the house loosely.”

Despite its strong Mid-century influences and its joyful homage to the likes of Neutra, this house remains highly personal. At the same time, it’s very much about conjuring a spirit of its place, doing what this kind of architecture does best: connecting people and place harmoniously, uniquely and with a sense of serenity |

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