Home Tour: Inside The Holiday Home Near South Africa's Famous Kruger National Park
"Even though you might leave Africa, Africa never leaves you,” says South African-born Julian Koski. He left South Africa for the US as a young man in the 1980s, but his vivid memories of his childhood safari holidays stayed with him. Now living with his wife, Aida, in New York City, working on Wall Street and raising a family of his own—twins Leo and Tess—his thoughts turned once again to his childhood memories of the South African wilderness. “I wanted to give them a piece of what I had as a child growing up,” he says. He saw the potential of a holiday home in a nature reserve to open up another realm for them, a counterpoint to the privilege of New York City. “We wanted to give them a different perspective of the world—something environmental, ecological, human,” he says.
He found a spectacular site overlooking a dam in Thornybush Private Game Reserve, pristine savannah adjacent to the Kruger National Park, and began a process that would realise his dream of a family base in Africa. If here’s one thing that Julian loves as much as a safari holiday, it’s architecture. “My whole life I wanted to become an architect,” says Julian.
“It was always my passion, and this was an opportunity for me to exercise my architectural ambitions.”
So, he set about designing his family’s holiday home himself. Although Julian says he didn’t have a preconceived notion of a “dream house,” he wanted to make some sort of reference to his family in the architecture. The whole idea was inspired by the idea of a family legacy. “Me being South African, and my wife being part Arabic, part Brazilian, we wanted to merge the north and south of Africa,” he says. “I bring a sub-Saharan feel; she brings that north African feel—the more Moorish side of it. So, really, it’s the marriage of the two to make a whole.”
In addition to these personal references, the very heart of Julian’s design was the mesmerising power of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval city in the heart of Africa and, according to some legends, the capital of the land of the Queen of Sheba. The rough-hewn granite stones of the disintegrating ancient city inspired Julian. “I’ve always been intrigued by rock work,” he shares. “I love rock.”
He wanted to capture something of the sense of timelessness, and of belonging in the landscape, the aura of legend and of ancient African civilisations. Building a house from scratch in the pristine wilderness demands a complex response— something more than the usual reinterpretations of old colonial lodge architecture. Julian’s vision seems at once like a geological construction echoing the landscape, and a reference not just to its natural context, but the cultural context of the continent, too.
When it was complete, he and Aida christened the house Kubili House, which means “two” in Setsonga, the local language, in reference to the twins Leo and Tess. But the house was in many ways about dualities.
Julian conceived of the house in two parts, drawing on ancient and modern influences: earthy, organic materiality expressed in abstracted modernistinspired forms. One part is an open pergola with a floating roof, and the other is its weighty, rocky, monolithic counterpart which he describes as “more Moorish, Moroccan, Zimbabwean ruins-type look.” They mirror each other across a rim-flow pool and koi ponds; you cross from one realm to the other via stepping stones over the pond. “That was the perfect marriage,” says Julian, “taking a modernist architectural idea and marrying it with something that’s very Moorish.”
In the pergola, it’s as if the rocks are giving way to the smooth finishes of the floors and suspended ceilings. This space is all about openness and looking out. The furniture here—dominated by Donna Karan’s Urban Zen range in solid teak—is low to the ground. The fireplace, too, is on the ground, beneath a massive chimney dome custom made and inspired by the brass bells in the temples of Kyoto. It’s almost as if the furniture immerses you in the landscape. “Everyone sits low, almost at floor-level, says Julian. “The idea is that you don’t want to be up, above the animals. You want to be at the eye level of the animals passing by.”
The pergola’s solid, rocky foil—including a main house and two smaller additional villas—is cool and enveloping. These buildings are not, however, entirely closed-off from their surroundings, although their character is more introspective and contemplative. Apart from the bedrooms and bathrooms, they don’t have doors, as such. “Everyone says to me, ‘Julian, where are all your doors?’ But I don’t want doors... “I [wanted this house] to be open.”
The house has a system of transitional spaces and entranceways blending and blurring the distinction between inside and out. “And we’ve had lion walk through here,” says Julian. “We’ve had leopards walk through here. We’ve even had wild dog running through here, chasing impalas.”
The sheer scale of these buildings is a response to the vastness of the landscape, skies and horizons. Julian says the setting itself seemed to demand something on a grand scale, an architectural acknowledgement of the space around it.
All these contrasts—the monolithic and the weightless, the open and enclosed, the ancient and modern, the north and the south, water and drought—create an aura of mystery, much like the landscape itself and ruins that inspired the house.
The landscaping surrounding the house and on the roof garden further embeds the architecture in the setting. “We had seen what the land looked like before we built,” says Julian. “We saw the stones and we saw the colours and we realised that this is simply about grasses and shrubbery.” The russet grass and naturalistic planting riff on the dialogue between the house, culture, and nature.
The dam reaches right up to a snaking retaining wall in front of the house. Julian recounts that while they were building, during a terrible drought, the dam had dried up and receded by hundreds of metres. “You see the trees with the nests in them?” He asks. “We could walk up to those trees.” Then, on the night that the house was completed and the builders handed over the keys —Julian recalls—there was a storm of almost Biblical proportions. “Within hours the thunderstorm had filled that dam.”
The house was flooded and repairs had to be done—“It was unbelievable,” he says. “We were basically sleeping on the roof ”—but the epic baptism seemed finally to welcome the house by absorbing it into the land and letting the water come up to meet it.
That moment had symbolic significance for Julian. Throughout the process of designing and building the house, he had been very wary of planting a “brand new gleaming construction” in this untouched landscape. “It was very important to me that that this house would look as if it had been there as long as the land has been there,” he says.
That sense of belonging was something Julian carried into the interiors, too. Antique wooden beams from France brought with them a sense of human time. He also introduced reclaimed wood to some of the villa floors, further layering a sense of age and the passage of time onto the architecture.
Julian sought out the interior designer Jacques Erasmus to carry his vision through inside the rooms. Jacques says that the interior design was about more than decorating. “It was really about putting the house into context,” he says. He saw it as a process of “bringing to life Julian and Aida’s vision” and complementing the ideas that informed the architecture on a more detailed level. It was a two-and-a-half-year project that evolved as it went along and required constant editing. Jacques says that they ended up removing as much as they brought into the spaces until they were a kind of “distillation” of all earlier iterations.
“We really kept the interiors simple and understated,” he says. “We’ve got so much going on texture-wise and layer-wise that very little had to be done to enhance what was already there,” says Jacques. “It was about bringing out the natural beauty of the materials in the very first place. It was about honouring the materials.”
Because of the scale of the rooms, much of the furniture had to be custommade, but there was no simple thematic approach. What Jacques calls the “almost disparate materials and furniture pieces” helped create a sense of the passage of time and change—of being lived in rather than “decorated.”
In the bathrooms, a bathing ritual also helps to immerse visitors in a different sense of the setting’s time. Brown glass-stoppered medicine bottles filled with scented bath salts line shelves, all of which are inspired by different South African flora, from wild gardenia to baobab.
Also in the bathrooms are gently mysterious artworks by Cape Town-based artist Andrew Putter from his African Hospitality series. They’re meticulously styled photographic portraits—fictional representations of real 17th and 18th-century European survivors of shipwrecks along the South African coast who were saved by local Xhosa-speaking communities. One even became a Xhosa queen.
In a way, these images at the heart of Kubili House are a key to its own vision: a salvaged piece of the past that allows us to imagine the present and the future differently. Ancient African ruins here find expression in a modern form—an intervention in the landscape that is at once boldly ambitious and almost invisible.
- Styling Sven Alberding / Bureaux
- Photography Warren Heath / Bureaux