Where the heart is

Architect Anthony Orelowitz has designed a home for his family that reinvents what it means to make a haven in the city.

By Graham Wood

For his first residential project in more than a decade, Orelowitz reinvented a piece of land at the end of a panhandle that was an old tennis court.

Anthony is primarily known as a commercial architect. His firm, Paragon, is responsible for some significant architectural landmarks, but he says, “I hadn’t done a house for a family in nearly 15 years.” Nevertheless, working closely with architect Elliot Marsden and interior designer Julia Day, he conjured a vision of what “coming home” in Joburg is all about—at once perfectly suited to the city and utterly unlike its neighbours. 

The plot of land he and his wife chose to build their home on had previously been a tennis court. It could be accessed via a long driveway at the end of a panhandle that was surrounded by neighbours on all sides. Far from the street, it was in its own space and felt like, “a self-contained island with huge jungly trees growing in a sea of suburbia.”

As the project’s interior designer, Julia was involved from the earliest stages, so the ideas that drove the project could be sustained throughout. Claiming that her team’s work on Anthony’s house was unlike any other she’d ever worked on, she describes the absolute meticulousness that was required. “Everywhere the finest of details were customized as we went along,” she says recalling the need to redesign entire bathrooms so that the tiling layout would be perfectly even and line up exactly with the doors. Designing, engineering, building and decorating were one endlessly changing, unfolding experiment that evolved even as it took shape.

To create his ideal habitat, Anthony turned to the archetype of the atrium house: an internal courtyard surrounded on all sides by the house. The objective was to create a peaceful sanctuary at the heart of the home that was open to the sky. He calls it a “self-contained oasis in the city.”

Essentially, the house itself appears to be a series of pavilions, with vast sliding doors and screens that can be opened and closed to reconfigure a mosaic of spaces in countless different ways. They even had to design a new rail system to manage the massive glass panels which make up the sliding doors.

Rather than simply surround the central courtyard, however, Anthony describes the way in which he tried to “push” the landscape through the pavilions and out to the very edges of the site. To his delight, he was “able to get the ground plane to wash through the house completely from one end to the other.” This, he explains, created “secondary courtyards” all around the house, where the pavilions open onto private, peaceful nooks—they’re simply under the trees—and their boundary walls, in effect, become the walls of the house. 

Despite its long, low-slung appearance, the house also rises to create an upper level in the treetops that’s been carefully designed around branches that lean into and over the house. “It’s like a big, adult treehouse,” says Anthony. The effect is a sense of space knitted together vertically as well as horizontally. It draws you up to the terraces.

Anthony’s design is “upside down,” with the bedrooms on the ground level, nestled under the trees, and the living and outdoor entertainment areas above. Even the pool, with portholes underneath, is looking down into the central courtyard from the level above. He says that when he wakes in the morning, he wants to “touch the ground and still be in the forest.” 

The clarity and seeming simplicity of the design is, inevitably, a wonder of engineering, ranging from massive, brutishly strong “post tension beams” that wrap around the house (so well hidden by cascading plants that you’d
never even know they were there), to a floating lounge floor suspended by a 90mm steel hanger that comes from the ceiling above that seems to defy gravity.

Julia says the carefully controlled palette of interior finishes was selected for its natural, highly tactile, raw attributes. Anthony speaks of wanting “sensory feedback” when someone touch surfaces throughout the house in everything from the walls to the floors. These touch points are qualities he finds rejuvenating. 

The rough sensuality of the stone, the lushness of the plants and the elemental presence of the air and water leans away from the minimalism of European modernism and heads rapidly in the direction of lush, sensual tropical modernism with its early origins in Brazil. The tactile dimension and natural qualities bring a certain earthiness inside, but that feeling is enhanced by the way light comes into the house, the way air flows over a pond and up though a skylight along with the movement and variations in temperature.

The care taken with the interior and exterior detailing means that the transitions between inside and out become seamless in a way that houses often claim to be, but aren’t. The slatted timber cladding that wraps the walls and ceilings have door and window frames so precisely integrated into them as to make the thresholds imperceptible. The lighting, (also bespoke), is concealed and designed so that in the evening and at night the quality of light inside and out is consistent. The effect is slightly magical.  

Despite the sleek beauty of the design, Anthony compares the house to Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter series of books, referring to the secret passages and trick stairs in the fictional school. He describes it more as a system than a set structure. “You’ve got hidden passages and concealed spaces behind spaces,” he reports.  

The ways in which the walls and screens can be opened or closed means that it can also be instantaneously reconfigured. “Our home is forever shifting and changing shape. It’s quite theatrical in a way,” says Anthony. 

Some totally over-the top features are worth a mention. There’s an app-controlled automated skylight (about 20m long and 3m wide) that runs the length of the front of the house, which adds to the wonderful transformation of interiors into exteriors. This happens because “the walls are made of plants,” points out Anthony, referring to a vertical garden the length of the first floor. 

Julia has continued this sense of surprise and discovery throughout the interiors, particularly in the ways she had detailed cabinets and wall panelling conceal storage and even hide entire rooms. (Dressing rooms and a back-of-house kitchen open up behind what appear to be seamless paneled walls.) The finished effect is that it brings the grand size of house down to a comfortably human scale. 

Even in plain sight, Julia has used her talents to ensure that all the openness and connectedness is actually habitable and ready for the family to fill the spaces with life. She says that large volumes and open flowing spaces also need “pods” and “cocooned pockets” to create a number of cozier more intimate spaces. Open-plan designs need to create spaces where people can “be alone together,” says Julia.

So, as much as she has respected Anthony’s architecture in her choice of furnishings, Julia has made sure that the house feels as comforting, welcoming and calming as it is surprising and delightful. Drawing heavily on works from De Padova and the likes of Ligne Roset, Wiener GTV Design and local designers such as Haldane Martin she’s picked individual pieces that are beautiful and complement without “competing.” Favouring low-slung designs that are often light and fairly transparent, she tells us she focused on pieces that don’t interrupt lines of sight or “break” the views and create a comfortable sense of flowing, continuous space. “There’s nothing that interrupts the eye.” 

At the same time, furnishings and accessories had to be strong enough to hold their own and not become lost in the space. “The house really allows for sculptural elements,” she says. The architectural shapes of Haldane Martin’s outdoor furniture, for example, carry the language of the “hard shell” of the house into another dimension. But perhaps more importantly, she points out, she had to think very carefully about the quality of the space taken up by individual furniture pieces, claiming that the furniture needed to work in concert with the carefully choreographed architectural movement and connections.

Because the home was powerfully interconnected, Julia had to constantly consider the ways in which the furniture would “translate” from different vantage points throughout the house. By the same token, she steered clear of designs that looked “overly functional.” The kitchen was conceived more as a social area where you could cook and entertain rather than a traditional kitchen. The interiors, she points out, were an exercise in layering, articulating and complementing the architecture rather than decoration. Natural textures were picked up in the fabrics, maintaining the sense of grounded, authentic materiality. The colours are drawn from the water, the foliage, the sky and the stone to “marry inside and out as one space.” 

To maintain the sense of simplicity, subtle variations in colour texture and material—the same granite hammered here, but sandblasted there—keep things from appearing monotonous or sterile. The interiors embraced the overtly handcrafted to create a sense of the human touch and the imperfection of warmth and humanity.

At times, Julia tells us, she even went so far as to embrace what she calls the “anti-perfect” and do something deliberately “wrong.” The patterned tiling on the built-in outdoor sofa in the central courtyard, for example, breaks the rules, but introduces something whimsical and refreshing that rings true to the spirit of the place. Julia quotes Vico Magistretti, who designed a number of her favourite furniture pieces, some of which are included in the house: “Simplicity is the hardest thing to obtain.” It’s an effect more than a set of rules.

The secret, however, remains in the detailing, in being able to sustain a clear vision from the “big idea” right through to the tiniest detail. Of course, such painstaking attention only pays off if the idea is convincing in the first place. If it is, you have the making of an elevated, architectural landmark.  

In this case, the idea was not so much to create a building or a house in the traditional sense, but a place. Rather it’s a question of, “Can you make your home your favourite space in the city?” asks Orelowitz. The open courtyard at the hea-rt of his family home is definitely an invitation to do so. 

juliaday.co.za   –   generationdesign.co.za  –   paragon.co.za


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