The starting point for Graham Paarman’s cabin-like tree house in the famously beautiful wine region of Constantia in Cape Town was a particular spot he’d chosen on his family estate—a clearing among 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.
The 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 for several years and, together with he garden designer Mary Maurel, had been instrumental in creating the quartet of reflection ponds in what had previously been a field of lavender.
The ponds seemed to bring a certain magic to the clearing, and galvanised. Graham’s decision to build a cabin there. He called on Pieter, Jan-Heyn and Peter to help him realise his vision for a tree house. “I always wanted something in the tree canopy,” says Graham. “I never wanted a building that was going to impose itself. I didn’t want something symmetrical. I hoped it would blend in and enhance its surroundings, and would invite the outside in.” And he wanted something small.
The “pure geometry of the square” prompted by the ponds became a “subliminal link,” as Jan-Heyn puts it, in the scheme they devised to bind together the various elements of the floating architectural interpretation of the forest that they envisioned.
To mediate the combination of inspirations for the tree house—the organic forms of the woods on the one hand and the sharp-edged squares of the ponds on the other—they turned to the works of celebrated modernist architects the likes of Louis Kahn and Carlo Scarpa. “There are certain geometrical ideas that they used that 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.”
So 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 of 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, an entertainment space that is also a viewing platform looking over the beautifully landscaped gardens and, of course, the reflection ponds. 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, and at the top, the open-air deck. At the same time, a double volume space makes for a vertical connection between the levels, and some of the rings extend beyond the edge of the almost imperceptibly square floor plate, creating cantilevered outside balcony spaces.
The structure is glassed-in and covered with a veil of vertical cedar wood slats. “They 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 beautifully with its surroundings. The staircase “drum” is the only really solid mass in the building. “We wanted the contrast between something that is completely open and one really solid volume,” says Pieter.
Graham adds that despite its compact size, the house doesn’t feel small. “There are tall sliding doors at the front that opened up over both levels,” says Pieter. The large vertical space opens up the living area, blurring the inside and outside. “It also 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. “But at the same time, I think we all have a connection to nature, and this house captures that in a very special way. You can see the fantastic night skies, and the squirrels in the trees. You can hear the birds from inside, too.”
That the building is small, making minute attention to detail possible, combined with the fact that the structure is expressed in every aspect of the design, meant that nothing could be hidden. As Jan-Heyn says, “All of the mechanics of the building are aesthetic, design elements.”
The architects' choice of materials prompted many of their final design decisions so that the building went up as much as the concept did. 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 little 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 beautiful, 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 into a coppery or ferrous orange colour. The cedar wood they used will also weather. “Materials are allowed to change,” says Jan-Heyn. “It works in a natural, organic direction.”
The high copper content of Corten and the colour of its lead to the decision to use warm metals such as brass and copper for the junctions. This was picked up again in many of the other finishings, such as the taps, showerhead and lamps.
The architects designed the interiors and chose the furnishings, too. As Jan-Heyn points out, “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.”
“I’m a fan of warm materials and textures... wood, stone and leather,” says Graham. This perfectly suited the architects’ idea to work with natural materials and metals. “We tried to keep the colours subdued and almost neutral so that you’re really more aware of what is going on outside the house rather than being colourful and flashy on the inside,” says Pieter. They stuck predominantly to linens, wool and leather in ochre, deep blue, taupe and brown.
“The architecture makes quite a strong, singular statement,” says Graham. “But at the same time, it has become a sanctuary. It has almost become transformative as far as lifestyle is concerned.” Just as the floating tree house immerses itself in nature, and subtly mediates between its inhabitants and the nature surrounding them, it also provides a mediation on man’s relationship with nature, another way in which it is like those four ponds that proved to be the seeds of its inspiration. “It’s just a very special space,” says Graham.
Words: Graham Wood / Bureaux.co.za | Photography: Greg Cox / Bureaux.co.za | Styling: Sven Alberding/ Bureaux.co.za
Originally published in Philippine Tatler Homes Volume 17 with the title "Cocoon Living"