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The house and garden of architect Jan-Heyn Vorster and his partner reflects their dedication to detail and commitment to craftsmanship

Situated in Clifton, with pinch-yourself views over the Atlantic, the story of this house is six years in the making

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By Piet Smedy | May 18, 2022 | Architecture

There are few things more interesting – perhaps, even, character revealing – than visiting an architect’s house. Popular psychology (no doubt encouraged by an innumerable list of Buzzfeed quizzes) would have us believe that the way we decorate our homes reveals a lot about who we are but, in this case, it’s not just what’s inside – it’s the whole building. Situated in Clifton, with pinch-yourself views over the Atlantic, the story of this house is six years in the making.

Photograph by Greg Cox

‘We’d been living in a house on the plot for about two years before we started work on this house,’ explains homeowner Jan-Heyn Vorster of Cape Town-based architectural firm Malan Vorster Architecture, Interior Design, which he co-founded with his business partner Pieter Malan (who also worked closely with Jay-Heyn on the design of the home). ‘That gave us insight into how weather and light on the site worked as well as a bit of time to figure out how we wanted the house positioned.’

The first thing they noted was that, while the original building had a garage situated on street level and a steep staircase leading to up to the house, in the rebuild an elevator would be installed, offering direct access from the garage to the multiple levels of the new home. This came with the added challenge of excavating deep into the mountainside (anyone familiar with Clifton’s topography knows that the majority of sites are on steep inclines, one of the contributors to their stunning views) to feasibly install the lift shaft.

Photograph by Greg Cox

The other thing that Jan-Heyn and his partner decided was that their home would not follow conventional Atlantic Seaboard orientation. Perhaps more than anything else, the two years spent living on the site taught them one thing: their home was not going to be a “glorified viewing platform”. ‘Most of the houses here face due west but we designed the house around a north-facing courtyard and pool,’ Jan-Heyn explains. ‘In the afternoon you can drop the blinds on the western side but still have views, and light, through the north-facing glazed façades. It’s just much more pleasant to live like that.’

That may, in fact, be the home’s clearest objective: maximising quality of life through an acute attention to the details. Nowhere does that become more apparent than when the sun is out and the house seems to open up entirely. ‘It sounds cliché, but we really had to consider the boundaries between inside and outside and how to make these as fluid as possible,’ says Jan-Heyn. ‘As such, the design became more of a pavilion than an enclosed structure.’

Photograph by Greg Cox

This theme of cohesion continues inside. Jan-Heyn describes the house’s blueprint as three blocks – the living room with the master bedroom above, the kitchen with the lounge and study above, dining room with guest bedroom above – connected by the central double-volume lobby. ‘It’s so much more social,’ says Jan-Heyn. ‘If my partner is cooking downstairs and I’m upstairs in the study we still have that sense of connection.’ The volumes of space are given a similar intimate treatment. From the entrance, guests are led into living areas with lower volumes. ‘We didn’t want vast, oversized rooms. It was important that the spaces retain a domestic scale.’

There is an undeniable sense of materiality within the home, humble timber and concrete are elevated to an art, carefully crafted and transformed. ‘We used French oak for the cabinetry and western red cedar for external cladding,’ says Jan-Heyn. ‘We wanted to keep the palette neutral and controlled throughout.’ Once again there is a feeling of cohesion and connection – between materials, as well as between exterior and interior elements. ‘You can’t separate the architecture from the interiors, in fact, sometimes the interiors are even more important because that’s what you engage with every day,’ he continues.

‘As such, they received a lot of attention, especially in terms of creating something timeless. To do that, you can’t be seduced by trends. ‘My partner was quite adamant about the decor, I think he was scared I was going to decorate the home in a minimalist manner,’ laughs Jan-Heyn. ‘He wanted to soften things up and make the rooms feel comfortable. We sought out the help of a good friend, interior designer Ian Hannay-Robertson to assist with the selection of key furniture pieces,’ but Jan-Heyn confesses that the process of layering these spaces and achieving this goal took months of refining. ‘We didn’t just go out and buy a bunch of pieces,’ he says, ‘the interiors dictate what they need and, in a way, they are the final link in the architecture-interiors chain.’

When it comes to their art collection, the homeowners are no less particular. Guests stepping into the entrance hall are greeted by a larger-than-life work by William Kentridge, immediately signalling: when it comes to art, this house is serious. ‘Art, for me, needs to have a graphic element but, more importantly, it needs to have meaning – it’s not just for the sake of decor,’ says Jan-Heyn. And that is, perhaps, the most character revealing aspect of this house and its owners – here craftsmanship, individuality and attention to detail aren’t just themes, but a lifestyle.

A lifestyle that certainly extends to the landscaping, where Jan-Heyn tasked architect-turned-garden designer Mary Maurel with finding synergy between the architecture with the greenery. ‘It’s all about interconnecting things,’ he says. ‘That’s the exciting part of design – that’s where you create character and depth.’

Malan-Vorster Architecture

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