Steenberg Home

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Greg Cox/ Bureaux PRODUCTION Sven Alberding

A bold, sculptural holiday home on the slopes of the Steenberg mountains in Cape town is designed to frame a transformative experience of place.

There are houses in beautiful settings that try to disappear into the landscape. Others like to perch on a prominent spot and lord over all they survey. This one – a holiday home on a big semi-rural plot on the side of the Steenberg mountains in Cape Town – does neither. Its weighty walls and solid masses seem to emerge from the ground and assert themselves unapologetically on the mountainside, yet the indigenous gardens around its edges blend with the natural fynbos, so it looks as if it is being reclaimed by nature. It is undeniably there, but somehow doesn’t seem like an imposition.

Parts of it form big, monolithic blocks, and others are almost pavilion-like – glass-sided, so you can see all the way through the house from one end to the other – but even they have heavy-looking roofs. An oversailing canopy seems to rest on one section but float above another, overlapping. In many ways, the house has no obvious “face”. It twists around, without a clear front or back. It’s a house that, from the moment you see it, prompts questions. Why does it have those angles? Why doesn’t the floating roof touch the roof below? Why is it even oversailing? But that’s the point. “It’s a bit of a mystery,” says its architect, Chris van Niekerk. There’s a randomness about the way parts of the house have been assembled, intuitively, “like a child playing with blocks”. It has a pleasing, comfortable composition, but it doesn’t explain itself or seem to comply with any rigid and ordered logic.

This arrangement was loosely inspired by the rocky crest of the mountains behind the house, which has a fragmented, almost geometric quality. “It almost looks like something that could have been built by a person,” says Chris. It was a concept he wanted to connect with – that look of something assembled but not premeditated. You might even say the house meets the landscape halfway, adding a new dimension to your experience of it.

The house appears as a series of blocks and pavilions emerging from the landscape – “half-buried, half-exposed”, says Chris.

The building is arranged in a horseshoe shape, which creates a courtyard with a swimming pool sheltered from the prevailing winds. “The living room is a big pavilion, with a heavy concrete roof,” says Chris. On either side of this central space, which includes the kitchen, are two bedrooms: one with a study alongside it, nestled into the mountain; and the main bedroom on the other side, projecting out where the site slopes downwards. Here, you will find the only section of the house that is double-storey, which adds to the impression that it is emerging from the landscape. You enter from below, following a gravel path to the front door and a staircase. There’s a guest bedroom downstairs, and various services.

Although Chris’s rather open brief asked for a concrete house, in the end he didn’t build it entirely from concrete. He used it just for the roof and columns, but went to great lengths to match the other materials, so the house looks as if it’s a single, unified object. The walls are brick, deliberately roughly laid to create an uneven surface, then covered with a lime mixture to create another finish which, while hard to identify – almost like “a new kind of material”, says Chris – is pretty much the same colour as the roof. The granite on the floors is “exactly the tone of the concrete and the walls”. Even where he designed a stone bathtub and basins, and wall cladding for the shower, Chris found a local sandstone that matched perfectly.

Especially from inside, having solid walls in such a beautiful landscape might seem counterintuitive. The site offers views towards False Bay and, in the other direction, towards Table Mountain, yet some of the rooms deliberately turn away from them. But there’s good reason for that: this kind of architecture concerns itself not with the view, necessarily, but with the experience of the view. “You have to go to a certain place to see the view,” explains Chris – which brings a more considered or concentrated quality to the experience of looking out. “When you want to see outside, you see outside in the most profound way.”

As a holiday home, it goes beyond simply providing respite and a change of scene. It takes you out of the realm of the everyday. It not only “makes” its setting, but also refreshes everyday life. In that sense, it is a bit like a secular spiritual retreat, powerfully connecting its inhabitants, the landscape and a sense of what it is to be alive.

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