A family weekend retreat in the Cradle of Humankind, home of mankind’s earliest origins, reprises the glass box motif to reinvent the country cabin.
Less than an hour west of Johannesburg, towards the Magaliesberg mountain range, lies The Cradle of Humankind. About 47 000 hectares of the rolling landscape here, where humanity’s most ancient origins have been uncovered, has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Cliff de Wit’s parents have retired to live in the heart of The Cradle on what was once a farm, and is now incorporated within the Khatlhampi Private Reserve, an expanse of wild grassland, natural woodland, dolomite outcrops and bush.
“We are able to hear the jackals from the reserve at night,” says Cliff. “It feels like you’re out in the middle of nowhere.” It’s a short drive from a city but a world away, an ideal escape, with country roads geared for cyclists, a sculpture park and artists residency nearby and wildlife from the reserve roaming freely. “We found ourselves visiting every other weekend, and wanted a place of our own here,” says Cliff. One blissful New Year’s Eve, he and his wife, Elsje, decided to take the plunge. “A week later we started looking at sites and Cliff’s brother Lee started drawing up plans,” says Elsje.
Some years ago, Lee designed and built a pavilion on the farm for Wesley, the youngest of the de Wit sons, using architectural language inspired by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s famous midcentury glass houses. It was a stripped-down, transparent, minimalist jewel in the landscape.
Cliff asked Lee to design his family’s weekend getaway, too, taking his cue from the pavilion. The central idea remained the same: to mediate a relationship with the setting and its natural beauty and to pay homage to the complexity of the site through architecture. And, of course, to make a comfortable lock-up-and-go home away from home that would be an antidote to the hustle and bustle of city life.
A glass box still seemed to Lee, Cliff and Elsje to be the most subtle and complex response to the landscape. Building to appreciate the surroundings here is not as simple as finding a pretty spot and creating a platform from which to admire it. Tens of thousands of years of human habitation, not least the recent decades of farming, have altered the landscape. A modernist-inspired building would not only acknowledge itself as one among many of layers of human intervention, but also frame the views with that awareness in mind. The famous glass houses that originally inspired Lee were, after all, created primarily in response to a natural setting, and through their minimalism, aimed to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, building and landscape.
A large part of the genius of the design began before a single aspect of the construction took place: its placement. The De Wits searched for a site that would capture views to the Magaliesberg and wouldn’t have its outlook marred by other buildings. They wanted it to be private and secluded, yet close enough to Cliff’s parents’ house for Cliff and Elsje’s kids, Cayden and Layla, to be able to run across and visit them.
After much driving around and standing on the roof of their SUV seeking potential views, they found a spot against a koppie. “There was actually a substantial scar here from the previous owner’s farming activities,” explains Lee. “It had been used as a loading ramp for cattle.” But the koppie was also right next to a rare untouched area of vegetation. “The adjacent wooded area was one of the most pristine areas on the farm,” says Lee. “The rocks made it inaccessible for grazing and for tractors. Here you are closest to nature.”
Lee figured that if he built on the scar, raising a storey-high platform to create a view to the mountains, not only would they be able to rehabilitate the land around the new house, but they would also be able to nestle a separate bedroom into the untouched woodland and link it to the main building with a boardwalk. The building was to impose as little as possible on its site. “We didn’t want to make a vast formal space around the building,” says Cliff, preferring to bring the landscape up to the building.
After the site selection, Lee makes the rest sound simple. “We just excavated into the koppie and lifted up the slab,” he says. On top is the living and entertainment area, which has a deck in front, a kitchen island and lounge area. Below nestle two bedrooms and a bathroom, almost subterranean.
Partly to extend the living areas, and partly to set the building into dialogue with its setting, almost every indoor area is twinned with an outside area. The downstairs bedroom folds out onto a self-sustaining pool, the main bedroom is mirrored by a deck and the lawn outside the living and entertainment area created an outdoor counterpart, too. “The use of space in this manner doubles the living area,” says Lee.
The De Wits wanted to be efficient and economical in their use of materials as well as space, and Lee came up with some simple but ingenious solutions. Instead of floating the concrete roof on pillars at the corners of the slab and glazing a “box” inside the perimeter of the roof, Lee placed four pillars inside, cantilevered the slab and glazed the length of the building at its perimeter. Sliding glass doors at each end allow cooling cross-ventilation.
“All of the functions take place within the columns,” explains Lee. “The adjacent area between the column and the glass allows for circulation.” He was pleased that the structural support provided by the columns could double as a way of defining the space, lending integrity to the design.
The natural shading and temperature regulation provided by the trees outside – mostly deciduous stinkwoods – keeps the interiors from getting too hot. “In winter the leaves drop, and sun shines through providing warmth, in contrast to summer where the trees create a natural curtain keeping the house cool,” says Elsje. “We have continued planting new indigenous trees to enhance the organic layer of shade the bush provides.”
The columns plunge through the floor and continue downstairs to the bedrooms and bathroom below. The spatial arrangement there once again takes its cue from their position. The bedrooms and bathrooms are pod-like areas inside the columns. “A solid four walled room confines the potential for living space,” says Lee. There are blinds that can be drawn to screen off the bathroom or bedroom when privacy is required, but the minute they’re retracted, the rooms extend by over a metre again.
The bathrooms, too, can enjoy a view, and the shower is semi-open, almost cave-like under the concrete roof. It is sheltered on one side by a dolomite retaining wall against the koppie, and a gap between roof and wall peeps up through the vegetation. “With a weekend house you can afford to have it a little more playful and less formal than a house you’d live in every single day,” says Cliff.
“That’s why we separated the bedrooms, too,” he adds. A natural clearing in the forest provided the space for a separate main bedroom. “Cliff installed lighting in a number of the trees to afford texture,” says Elsje. “When we’re inside at night, we hardly ever close the blinds.” And it certainly does its job of connecting its inhabitants to nature. “You are so aware of the sunrise and sunset and you get a feeling of the phases of the moon,” says Cliff. “You get drawn closer to the seasons. You really are in touch with the elements.”