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This old Clifton apartment is reimagined as a design-forward pied-à-terre with breathtaking seaside views

Bryce Henderson, founder of Cape Town-based Studio BHD, headed up the complete overhaul

By Piet Smedy  | March 29, 2022 | Architecture

This is, essentially, a beach house – but nothing about it says ‘beach house’, not the architecture or the interiors. Why this clear distinction from the expected beach house composition?

The typical beach house aesthetic is, as you say, ‘expected’ and so I started to investigate other ways to tie the apartment to its context. I think the original ‘beach house' aesthetic derived from a more international scene, such as Greece with its white walls and blue hues. South Africa has, in my eyes, a way more complex and rich coastal landscape; our beaches contain various plant species, undulating shapes and raw textures moulded by the waves, beige sands. I incorporated these contextual elements – physical and emotive – into the design and layering of the apartment.

Photography by Greg Cox

This was quite a dream project for any architect in terms of a brief in that it was you were afforded considerable free-rein.

This certainly was a dream project; the clients were open to exploring my thoughts and ideas and I took the risk to propose something a little outside of their brief.

Which was?

They’re international clients, so they wanted a space in which they could enjoy their summer holidays. However, even though it is a temporary home, it should still have all the luxuries of a permanent home.

So what were your top-level objectives for the home?

Overall, I set out to create a calm, homely environment that still encapsulated a sense of articulated design and sophistication. I feel that this was achieved in the way we used natural materials, muted tones and a variation of layered textures.

Photography by Greg Cox

This was a large-scale renovation but you were limited to the home’s 87 square metres. How drastically did you alter it to create more space? Given the site, you were sure to face challenges.

The original apartment had the bedroom mezzanine located in the front of the apartment, with an overly stated staircase running down the middle. The kitchen remained at the back of the apartment, and bathroom above it on the upper floor.

A few things struck me on my initial visit to the property. Firstly, the disconnect between the bedroom and bathroom, these spaces are typically joined in what is essentially a studio loft apartment. More importantly, though, you entered the apartment facing a bed, which obstructed the views out towards the beachfront, and the double volume feel of the apartment was stolen by the chunky staircase and large circulation paths. In essence, the apartment had very under-utilized space and light.

Photography by Greg Cox
Photography by Greg Cox

Working closely with an engineer we derived a plan to core drill the existing bedroom floor slab out in small chunks. Being almost on the beach, with the road many flights of steps above, the chunks were manually carried up the side of the building onto a waiting removal truck. The mezzanine was moved to the back of the apartment and replaced with a lightweight steel structure, which now opened up the view and created the volume at the front, allowing the apartment to be flooded in natural light, and increase the head height.

Take me through the new floor plan.

The new floor plan incorporated circulation into the design of the spaces, making the apartment feel larger and less disjointed. You enter an area of the apartment with the lowest point of the ceiling. We enhanced this ‘pinch point’ feel by cladding the walls and ceiling in mirror and recessed LED lights to create an illusion of more space. This ‘cosy’ arrival space encourages your eyes to focus ahead onto the panoramic view of the beach, which is framed by double volume windows. Here again we placed mirrors on either side of the windows to widen the expanse of the front of the apartment and reflect parts of the beach inwards. Descending the newly located steps to the lower living area reveals more of the beach below.

Photography by Greg Cox

Materiality is clearly a big aspect for the home – particularly timber and stone expressed very honestly. It reminds me of the topography of the area, the boulders and rocky mountainside and the green belt that runs along the ever present mountains. Practically, how did you deploy these materials in terms of function and aesthetics?

Materiality played a major role in creating a natural and emotive feeling around the space and how it connected the apartment to the outside surroundings. All the natural finished oak timber is located on the wall of the flat that does not get direct sun, while the opposite side is kept free of design elements so that the angles of the sun dancing around the flat creates a pattern on the façade.

Downstairs, closest to the sand of Clifton’s First Beach, we sourced a tile that mimicked the feeling and colour of being on the beach. The light sandy tones in an imperfect pattern connects and grounds the space to its surroundings.

As an overall concept, we used the natural gradient of light and location to play on the apartment’s chosen finishes. In the front, at its highest lux level, the space is light, airy, and free of architectural clutter. At the back and upstairs, we used darked materials to tie the apartment into the landscape and create the feeling of cosiness.

Photography by Greg Cox

How did you go about selecting the furniture for the home in relation to the architecture as well as the overall decorating objectives?

The best part of a turnkey project is being able to incorporate every element into the overall design concept. As such, each piece was chosen during the design process and so the spaces and pieces all function together. The process of designing and furnishing the apartment is not linear, it is a to-and-fro approach to unify the feel of the space.

There are some great pieces by local designers here.

So far in my career as an architect and designer I have met incredible local designers and suppliers and so I generally default to buying local where possible. There are so many talented local designers out there, but I have had the pleasure of dealing with and being supported by Bofred, Lemon, Wunders, Meuble Fine Furniture, Vorster & Brae, James Mudge and Guideline. Their personal touches and in-depth design thinking and craftsmanship has cemented my commitment to sourcing locally.

Photography by Greg Cox
Materiality played a major role in creating a natural and emotive feeling around the space and how it connected the apartment to the outside surroundings. Photography by Greg Cox