More than meets the eye
The low-slung street facade of this three-storey cliff-hugger in Fresnaye betrays little of the beauty that lies beyond the threshold.
As you step from the street through the artfully weathered steel perimeter door of this arresting Fresnaye home, the ground below your feet literally drops away two storeys. A gangway, which casts dappled light on the courtyard below, leads you to the front entrance, while an expansive Atlantic vista rushes forward through the framed view. Bought in 2009, the original house – of which all that remains is the site footprint – was excavated to create a new property that would maximise the verticality of the 20 metre-wide plot. The design brief from the client was straightforward, recalls project architect John Doyle: ‘Really, all he insisted on was a thoroughly contemporary home.’
And thoroughly contemporary was just what he got. Together with design consultant Neil Jeffery, Doyle conceptualised a house that comprised a series of horizontal planes cantilevered out from the cliff face, with all vertical elements – the lift shaft and chimney stack, for instance – essentially slicing through the floating planes. The result, four years later, is a multi-storey work of construction art that accommodates the entrance alley and a master suite on the top level, entertaining areas and an open-plan kitchen and dining room that lead out to a pool deck on the level below, and four bedroom suites, plus a private lounge that opens to a courtyard, beneath that. At garden level are two staff suites as well as an additional kitchen and a gym.
A feat of engineering genius that involved 190 tons of reinforced steel and 300mm-thick concrete walls was what it took to achieve the spectacular finished result. Perhaps the most spectacular of the property’s many structural triumphs is the breathtaking 50-metre-long rim-flow pool, which runs the length of the house and wraps around its front to seamlessly meet the horizon. Even from inside, you are keenly aware of the slender body of water that hovers outside the windows, underneath the stairs and as a vertical threshold as you descend in the elevator to the ground floor.
Honest, unadorned materials have been used to celebrate, rather than obscure, the property’s structure: off-shutter concrete, galvanised steel and frameless glass. The industrial edge of the home’s attire is softened on the inside by the selective use of bright colours and the warm textures of natural wood and stone. Like the façade, the clean lines of the airy interior belie the complex systems that support the comfortable habitation and sustainable ethos of the home. Heat pumps and solar panels that warm domestic water as well as a second, smaller pool optimise energy efficiency, for instance, and, although the house is air conditioned and served by water-fed underfloor heating, Doyle also factored passive climate control into the overall design: ‘The house is actually very well insulated, offering a naturally comfortable living climate. The courtyard acts as a green lung, allowing natural light to flood inside and hot air to escape as through a giant chimney.’
It is not only the striking structure or future-forward sustainable solutions that give the design its edge. Even small details, such as light-switch plates and the street number, have been transformed from ordinary to exceptional. ‘Each light fitting and switch plate was individually made to spec,’ explains Doyle. The fireplaces, too, are bespoke designs clad in steel by Tavasci Engineering’s Iliano Tavasci, and the sheet-metal street door was artistically distressed and then tagged with a cheeky graffiti-style number by artist Sam Brown.
Yet, despite the complexity of the engineering and the myriad support systems simultaneously at work here, Doyle’s deft architectural wizardry and discerning eye for detail give the resounding impression that the house grew organically from the cliffside, as effortlessly, you could say, as the flowing water that envelops it.
In the Zone: Fresnaye
- This upmarket Cape Town suburb cascades down the foothills of Lion’s Head above Sea Point and adjacent to Bantry Bay on the Atlantic Seaboard side of the peninsula.
- Popularly referred to as ‘windfree Fresnaye’, many homes in the area offer views of Table Bay harbour and Robben Island with spectacular sunsets towards the west.
- Predominantly residential, Fresnaye is a stone’s throw from Sea Point’s Main Road with its mix of shops, restaurants and urban green spaces, while the V&A Waterfront and CBD are a short drive away.
- As a result of its prime location and myriad architecturally inspired homes, property prices, which start from around R6 million, can peak at R110 million. High density and demand make empty plots of land a rare find in Fresnaye, but, for the few around, prices start from approximately R21 000/m2.
Text: Alma Viviers
Production: Kate Boswell
Photographs: Greg Cox