House Tour

IN PICTURES: This unbelievable home has to be SA's most stylish tree house

This modern cedar-clad cabin in Constantia, Cape Town, was designed to blend in with its wooded setting while still making a bold statement

15 October 2017 - 00:00 By Graham Wood
The front of the house has two-storey high glass sliding doors that open a double volume space inside, which takes in the living area below and the bedroom above.
The front of the house has two-storey high glass sliding doors that open a double volume space inside, which takes in the living area below and the bedroom above.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za

The starting point for Graham Paarman's cabin-like tree house in the beautiful wine region of Constantia in Cape Town was a particular spot he'd chosen on his family estate - a clearing in the trees overlooking four square reflection ponds.

The estate has extensive landscaped gardens, a manor house and a number of dwellings and buildings arranged along the lines of a modern interpretation of a "Cape Dutch Werf" or traditional Cape farmyard.

Architects Pieter Malan, Jan-Heyn Vorster and Peter Urry of Cape Town-based firm Malan Vorster Architecture Interior Design had worked on various buildings on the property and, with garden designer Mary Maurel, been instrumental in creating the quartet of reflection ponds in what had been a field of lavender.

The solid 'drum' shape contains the staircase.
The solid 'drum' shape contains the staircase.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za

The ponds' magical qualities galvanised Graham's decision to build a cabin there. He called on Pieter, Jan-Heyn and Peter to help him realise his idea for a tree house.
"I wanted something in the tree canopy that would blend in and enhance its surroundings - and invite the outside in." He also wanted something small.

The "pure geometry of the square" prompted by the ponds became a "subliminal link", says Jan-Heyn, in the scheme they devised to bind the elements of the floating architectural interpretation of the forest they began to envision.

To mediate the combination of inspirations for the tree house - the organic forms of the forest on the one hand and the sharp-edged squares of the ponds on the other - the architects turned to the work of Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa.

"Certain of their geometrical ideas inspired us," says Pieter. "We investigated a rigorous geometric framework that also allows a sense of freedom, curved flowing from straight lines, rectangular shapes that become drums, and the celebration of the connections between different elements."

The tree house began its existence as a sketch of a square (the same size as one of the reflection ponds, divided into nine smaller squares, each the size of a reflection pool). Along the edges of each side of the square, four circles represented four trees, creating a floor plan resembling a pinwheel. Steel pillars, in groups of four, represent the trunks of the trees, and rings overhead suggest branches. Branch-like beams in turn support the floors above.

Each "tree" is a slightly different height. "The tree that terminates at roof level became the circular drum for the staircase," says Pieter. It leads to a rooftop deck looking over the landscaped gardens and the reflection ponds. Ascending the stairs feels a little like climbing a tree.

Ascending the stairs feels a little like climbing a tree

The rooms are arranged vertically: one living space per floor. The living area is on the first level, the bedroom on the next. At the top is the open-air deck. At the same time, a double-volume space makes for a vertical connection between the levels.

The structure is glassed in and covered with a veil of vertical cedar wood slats. "These create privacy at certain points and articulate the building in others," says Pieter. The lines they create echo the "verticality of the surrounding trees", so the building blends with its surroundings. The staircase "drum" is the only really solid mass. "We wanted the contrast between something that is completely open and one really solid volume," says Pieter.

The fact that the building is small and that the structure is expressed in every aspect of the design, means nothing could be hidden. As Jan-Heyn says: "All of the mechanics of the building are aesthetic, design elements."

You enter via a suspended timber and steel ramp, which enhances the sense that the building is floating.
You enter via a suspended timber and steel ramp, which enhances the sense that the building is floating.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
Due to the lush surrounding gardens, the architects steered away from green in their choice of fabrics and furnishings.
Due to the lush surrounding gardens, the architects steered away from green in their choice of fabrics and furnishings.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
 The living area includes a kitchen and seating area. It's a compact space, but seems spacious because of the vastness of the views.
The living area includes a kitchen and seating area. It's a compact space, but seems spacious because of the vastness of the views.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
Sparkle and visual interest were added throughout the home with the addition of brass and copper elements.
Sparkle and visual interest were added throughout the home with the addition of brass and copper elements.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za

 

Despite its compact size, the house doesn't feel small. "There are tall sliding doors at the front that open up over both levels," says Pieter. The large vertical space opens up the living area, blurring the inside and outside. "It plays with the idea of scale," says Jan-Heyn. "You are in this vastness of the landscape, but you are also in the building."

"It's the encapsulation of cocoon living," says Graham. "At the same time, we all have a connection to nature which this house captures in a special way. You can see the fantastic night skies, and the squirrels in the trees."

All of the mechanics of the building are aesthetic, design elements

The fact that the building is small and that the structure is expressed in every aspect of the design, means nothing could be hidden. As Jan-Heyn says: "All of the mechanics of the building are aesthetic, design elements."

The architects found that their choice of materials prompted many of their design decisions.

Pieter provides a useful example: "Generally, the vertical elements are steel. They support the horizontal elements, which are timber beams and floor plates. Those connections are expressed in turned brass, hand-machined connections. The idea of crafting the structural components to express it gave us an opportunity to design those things beautifully. We turned them into elegant sculptural elements, so they would not appear too engineered."

The architects used Corten steel, manufactured only in flat sheets, rather than standard, round mild-steel sections. The idea of the steel being folded appealed to them, as well as the fact that it gains a patina in time, rusting and turning a coppery or ferrous orange colour. The cedar wood will also weather. "Materials are allowed to change," says Jan-Heyn. "It works in a natural, organic direction."

The colour of the Corten's patination, and its high copper content, led to the decision to use warm metals such as brass and copper for the junctions. This was picked up again in other finishings, such as taps, showerhead and lamps.

The architects consider the staircase to be one of their major achievements in the design of the tree house.
The architects consider the staircase to be one of their major achievements in the design of the tree house.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
On the first level, the living area, a half-round ring accommodates a patio.
On the first level, the living area, a half-round ring accommodates a patio.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
The bed and other cabinetry were all custom made in solid oak with traditional jointing details.
The bed and other cabinetry were all custom made in solid oak with traditional jointing details.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za
The Corten steel used throughout the house has a high copper content hence the choice of copper bathroom fixtures.
The Corten steel used throughout the house has a high copper content hence the choice of copper bathroom fixtures.
Image: Greg Cox/bureaux.co.za

The architects also designed the interiors and chose the furnishings. Says Jan-Heyn: "It's lovely to have the opportunity to take the concept right through to the furnishings. The same care goes into choosing a piece of furniture as making the space."

"The architecture makes a strong, singular statement," says Graham. "But at the same time, it has become a sanctuary."

Just as the floating tree house immerses itself in nature and subtly mediates between its inhabitants and their surroundings, it also provides a mediation on man's relationship with nature. - bureaux.co.za

• Production: Sven Alberding/bureaux.co.za  


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