PHOTOS Wil Punt WORDS Ami Kapilevich
Architect Johann Slee’s latest creation hovers over and among milkwood trees above the dunes in Sedgefield.
The word “honest” comes up often when architect Johann Slee speaks about his work. “Honesty in architecture to me means no gimmicks,” says Johann. “It means that one stays true to the function of the material used, and that everything that is not necessary is left out.
It’s a philosophy that has garnered Johann’s designs multiple awards, including for the Red House on the Vaal River, Sinkhuis, Johann’s own home in Stellenbosch, and a residence on Waterkloof Ridge in Pretoria, which have all been featured in VISI. His most recent triumph is the Floating Dune House in Sedgefield on the Garden Route, which won the Cape Institute for Architecture’s 2017 Award for Architecture as well as the South African Institute of Architects’ Award of Merit 2018.
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“I have always had a great love for our own true South African architectural vernacular,” says Johann. “And my design philosophy has always been to reflect the honesty found in this architecture – the honesty in choice of materials, honesty in design, and respect of place.”
Johann grew up in Ermelo. In the 1950s the Group Areas Act resulted in the destruction of an entire street of historical buildings occupied by the Indian community. The young artist (Johann is also a painter) rushed to the street to document the atrocity and sketch the old buildings before they were razed.
The incident affected Johann profoundly, and today the architect’s designs contain trademark traces of historical South African buildings. It is from this that the corrugated roof and wood cladding of the Floating Dune House artfully echoes the old tin and wooden structures built by the foresters who lived and worked along the Garden Route so many years ago.
The name of the house comes from its minimal impact on the sensitive and unique dune vegetation. “The footprint of the house was kept as compact as possible,” explains Johann, “by introducing a cantilevered building edge that is raised above the vegetation, giving the illusion of floating on the dunes.”
During the building process alien plants were removed, leaving gaps in the indigenous milkwood trees that created natural portals to the sea views. The brief was to embrace the milkwoods, and the result, in fact, was to be embraced by them.
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Inside, the timber cladding creates intriguing angles, and it is here that you can sense the architect leaving his unique mark on the space – the reach of a lintel around a corner, the planes and angles of the ceiling, the ever-unfolding dimensions of the interior.
And yet, at its heart, the Floating Dune House is one of the most quintessential South African buildings that has defined a culture for generations: a holiday house. In that sense, the primary function of the house is a sense of peace and relaxation, of connecting the spirit of the inhabitants with nature, a deep breath of fresh air, an exhalation.
“One enters the house by walking along a suspended walkway over the milkwood canopy,” says Johann. “Upon entering the house you experience the quietness and the smell of wood, immediately putting you in a holiday mood.”
Mission accomplished. And then some.