House Tour

IN PICS | This Joburg home is African modernism at its most inspiring

While a classic modernist house can be thought of as a 'machine for living', this one cleverly incorporates elements that give it a sense of being more of a 'handmade object'

29 March 2020 - 00:00 By Graham Wood/Bureaux
The kitchen was designed so that whoever is cooking can interact with people in the dining area, and also look out over the garden.
The kitchen was designed so that whoever is cooking can interact with people in the dining area, and also look out over the garden.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux

While Johanne Balfour and her family were in the process of building their house in the Johannesburg suburb of Inanda, they stayed in a rented house designed by Norman Eaton.

Eaton was a fiercely individualistic, somewhat neglected, mid-century South African architect who is now understood to have been way ahead of his time. He designed houses for some of SA's best-known artists, including Walter Battiss, Alexis Preller, Anton van Wouw and ceramicist Esias Bosch. 

His legacy is probably best summed up as pioneering a kind of Highveld regional modernism. While he created beautiful modern-looking houses with simplified forms — low-slung horizontal arrangements with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling windows he strove for what Preller called "an African quality" in his work.

Not only did this involve pioneering climatically and site-appropriate design elements deep overhangs, high ceilings with cool volumes, cross-ventilation and a strong connection between landscape and building but he also included local materials and design details at odds with the pristine internationalism that was gospel among avant-garde architects at the time. He designed brick patterns influenced by local grass weaving, used wood, rock and other natural materials, and included decorative details influenced by the carved doors of Zanzibar.

Joburg's preeminent architectural historian Clive Chipkin is clear when writing about Eaton that in his later work his take on African architecture was not literal. He refers to how Eaton endeavoured to "achieve a visual quality and character which 'bears reference to the general feel', if not the actual form, of man-made things particular to the African continent; a sort of inherent rather than wholly tangible quality."

The blue strip of the swimming pool runs the length of the house.
The blue strip of the swimming pool runs the length of the house.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux
The clean lines of the house are contrasted by the wild nature of the indigenous garden.
The clean lines of the house are contrasted by the wild nature of the indigenous garden.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux

As Johanne, who is French, contemplated building a new home with architect Charles van Breda, she and her family could not have chosen a more beautiful, thoughtful, nuanced example of local architecture to shape their response to their new country.

"From the beginning, my idea was modern, because I find it difficult to do anything else," says Johanne. But she's not by any account a pristine minimalist.

After extensive research, she discovered the "Tropical Modernism" of contemporary Brazilian architecture, particularly the work of Marcio Kogan. Tropical Modernism, as opposed to its European counterpart, combines the clean lines and elegance of modernist architecture with richer, more textured natural materials and a more expressive approach.

When she began working with Charles on the design, they found themselves adapting the influence of contemporary Brazilian modernism for their Highveld setting, and melding it with some of the thoughts and principles that animated Eaton's architecture in the late mid-20th century.

Effectively, [the house] is a structure floating on another structure, with a glass box below
Architect Charles van Breda

The result is a highly sophisticated version of modern African architecture. While there are some quite direct influences, such as the timber screens on the first floor, the influence of both Africa and Brazil is "catalytic" and "sublimated" rather than overt, although the resulting "atmosphere of elegance and richness" and the "African quality" are both undeniable.

At a glance, the house takes the form of two horizontal blocks intersecting at 90 degrees, one resting on top of the other. "Effectively, it is a structure floating on another structure, with a glass box below," says Charles. The lower wing houses the garage, and the other, which rests on it at one end, houses the living spaces. The bedrooms are above, framed by an off-shutter concrete box, and the living areas are glassed in below, configured around the kitchen, which "formed the nucleus of the house".

Johanne wanted the garden and architecture to be well integrated. She worked with landscaper Tim Conradie to create an indigenous - largely endemic - garden, that stands as a wild and naturalistic counterpoint to the disciplined linearity of the architecture.

The downstairs living area is an open-plan space combining kitchen, dining room and sitting room, with a covered patio.
The downstairs living area is an open-plan space combining kitchen, dining room and sitting room, with a covered patio.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux
The shelves in the living area are packed with glass and- ceramic designs that the homeowners have collected from around the world.
The shelves in the living area are packed with glass and- ceramic designs that the homeowners have collected from around the world.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux
The wood and leather chairs in the living area are a local take on the classic Danish mid-century Spanish chair by Borge Morgensen.
The wood and leather chairs in the living area are a local take on the classic Danish mid-century Spanish chair by Borge Morgensen.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux

Charles found that the idea of the glass box on the lower level, with doors that slide away, helped create "a sense of immediacy and light" and facilitated the impression that "the garden came into the house".

The garden includes a modern take on the boma, a circular fire-pit where the Balfours light a fire for an after-dinner coffee or cognac. The circular form offsets the linearity of the house and formalises the naturalistic patterning of the garden.

From the floating block of the house itself, there's an interesting transition to the garden. There's an almost ethereal separation between the built part of the building — the concrete floating block — and the ground. Then you step out onto a "median strip where you've got the pavement around the building", as Charles puts it.

Beyond that is a strip of manicured lawn, and then the blue strip of the swimming pool running the length of the house. Then the neat lawn, which undulates and curves, gradually becoming wild grassland and endemic flower beds.

The circular form of the boma sits to one side — an architectural punctuation mark in the transition. "The juxtaposition between the architectural box rising out of this slightly chaotic landscape is quite nicely played out," says Charles.

The idea of a man-made "jewel in the landscape" of classic modernism is tempered by a more complex approach around the edges of the building. The materials were chosen to weather and change over time. The wood of the screen on the first level will turn a softer, silver-grey colour, and will bring, as Charles expresses it, another dimension of "life to the front of the building".

The walls are plastered with Tyrolean, a flicked plaster technique that leaves a stippled finish. The idea is that it will be "left to fade and stain and do what Tyrolean does", says Charles, while the concrete and glass will maintain the clarity and integrity of the form.

The effect is to shift the idea of a modernist house from a "machine for living" to a design that "acknowledges the idea of the handmade object". It's not rustic or rural by any stretch, but inside and out there are references to the crafted and handmade elements embedded in the highly disciplined framework of the design.

The master bedroom, with its bed by Italian designer Roberto Lazzeroni for Ceccotti Collezioni, is spacious and airy. The simple elegant forms of the furniture sink in to the kilim and waxed concrete floors.
The master bedroom, with its bed by Italian designer Roberto Lazzeroni for Ceccotti Collezioni, is spacious and airy. The simple elegant forms of the furniture sink in to the kilim and waxed concrete floors.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux

This is perhaps even more emphatic in the interiors of the building. "I was worried about the concrete at the beginning," says Johanne. But in the end, she retained the raw concrete of the columns. "I love it now. When you live in it - it's such a natural material that it almost feel like it's a stone."

Johanne also insisted that the floors were polished concrete. "I wanted to keep some of the roughness and the natural quality of the materials," says Johanne. "We just waxed it, like in the old farms. It's been waxed three or four times already, and slowly it's going to get a nice patina."

A stool by Dokter and Misses in the bathroom, which also has polished cement floors.
A stool by Dokter and Misses in the bathroom, which also has polished cement floors.
Image: Greg Cox/Bureaux

The kitchen, with its light oak finish, continues the dialogue between the man-made object and natural materials. The cabinet-making, both in the kitchen and of the walnut floating shelves, is beautiful and skilled. The cabinetry maintains the sense of the crafted object and allows the characteristics of its materials to speak for themselves.

"I love the stone as well," says Johanne of the flamed Zimbabwean granite kitchen countertop, selected as much for its texture as for the fact that it's from the African continent.

This tendency to allow softness and irregularity to shine through are found in a number of places, from the fairly free-form geometry of the mosaics in the bathrooms to the almost organic quality of the patterning on the steel balustrades.

The furnishings are an expertly layered combination of designs from various eras. Natural materials predominate: wood, leather, grass, mohair, metal, stone. Woven through are local traditional handcrafts such as carving and basket weaving.

On the other end of the spectrum are local contemporary modernist-inflected design, such as the Mezzanine coffee table outside, the Dokter and Misses stools in the bathroom and lighting by MOS. Mid-century classics such as an Eero Saarinen Tulip side table and a Finn Julh chair seem to resolve the eclecticism in a kind of visual commentary about elegant, simplified forms in general.

Similarly, the ceramics, vases and smaller design pieces explore overlaps of materiality and skill - the Italian hand-blown Murano glass as well as glass ornaments from Ngwenya glass in Swaziland. Johanne's favourite German mid-century ceramic vase, the Artichoke, is an abstracted natural form. They are all combined with examples of nature's own shapes and patterns: a weaver bird's nest, seed pods, a tortoise shell.

Like an object shaped by nature itself, the design of the house carefully considers its environment. Its wide overhangs protect the house from the heat of the sun in summer, while letting it in during winter. There is shielding where it needs to be to stop the rain.

Perhaps one of the most interesting ways that you can transform the old dichotomies between "traditional" and "modern", "landscape" and "architecture", "European" and "African" is through context - the way in which they're framed. This house manages to frame the argument in all sorts of complex ways, not least by complicating the idea of the frame itself.

Its form is simple; Charles sees the house as a kind of architectural Haiku. "The fewer parts it has, the more you can assign significance to them, and they become weightier," he says. Without being literal in its own striving for an "African quality", the house picks up on the heritage of the likes of Norman Eaton and the influence of European modernism via contemporary Brazil, presenting a kind of resolution through complication. Through the way that it is framed, the relationship between modernity and tradition is given new possibilities.