WORDS Graham Wood IMAGES Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes
Architect Joe van Rooyen has breathed life into a run-down but marvellously located farmhouse overlooking the Crocodile River.
When you own a share in a farm just outside Joburg with the Crocodile River running through it, setting up a weekend getaway place makes more than a little sense. But the owners of this property took their time. In fact, years went by, says architect Joe van Rooyen of JVR Architects, before they decided to commit to the project.
The perfect spot was patiently awaiting them. On a picturesque site overlooking the river stood the ruin of a stone cottage, believed to be the original farm manager’s house. It had so much potential that Joe and the owners decided to renovate, although it would be more accurate to describe what the project developed into as a reinvention rather than a renovation.
“It’s not a cottage any more,” says Joe. It has, however, retained its charm, sense of place and authenticity, and, more literally, three of the original stone walls.
“It’s quite a specific type of stone,” says Joe; “you can see it was built from round river stones.” He reused as much of the stone as they could from the walls that were knocked down to create the main barn-like section of the house. “When we ran out of used stone, we got more from the river and farm.”
The homestead is essentially made up of three “pods”, Joe says, built around three old trees. Trees and views, that is. “Every room has a view,” he says; “to me, this is a very appealing aspect of the house.”
The living area – comprising kitchen, dining room and lounge – is a big informal gathering space at the centre of the house. Leading off it are guest bedrooms and bathrooms. Connected via an elevated boardwalk is a bedroom pavilion on stilts, which, in contrast to the stone-barn look of the living-area pod, has a modern aesthetic and appears to float.
This bedroom pavilion has some of the most magnificent views of the river and the koppie behind it. “The owner liked the idea of having a separate pod that you can close up,” says Joe. “It’s a sort of introverted space.”
The arrangement of the buildings has created wonderful courtyards, with one having a wild olive tree as its focal point. Outside spaces contrast big and open with enclosed and intimate. Whereas the facade of “the barn” looks out expansively over a lawn, with a swimming pool and deck, the courtyard with the tree is, by contrast, quite imitate and protected. “You have two very different exterior experiences,” says Joe.
Inside, the finishes are an interplay of refinement and rawness. A corrugated-iron roof reinforces the farm-building appeal. Inside, the wooden trusses and chipboard ceilings may be exposed, but the fine metalwork detail Joe designed finishes them. “It’s quite an old dairy-farm kind of detail that became quite a strong language throughout the house.”
The decor, which was also done by JVR Architects, is spare and elemental: screed, wood, steel, leather, sisal. The materials are all simple, honest and hard-wearing. “You don’t have to stress about guests or dogs and kids.” The house is purposefully uncomplicated, meant to be easy to open up after a few months away. Which does not mean compromising on luxury. It’s about how you apply your creature comforts, Joe says, like having fantastic linen.
The palette was kept simple, with warm orange and blue accents inspired by the strelitzias that Gregory Mark Landscapes introduced in the courtyards. The landscape – already part of the house in its stone – infuses the interiors with its spirit. The result may be a radical reinvention of the stone cottage that once stood here, but it’s been intricately knitted into its surroundings so as to enhance the experience of the remarkable site.