When architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens first considered the site of this pavilion, they were struck by the paradoxical character of its setting. Located in Westcliff, Johannesburg, where the grand old houses of the Randlords make up most of the area, they had managed to find a piece of land where nature still ruled. The site, a rocky ridge sloping steeply down to a ravine, had been cleared by landscape architect Patrick Watson. He created a stretch of grassy mounds and rockeries, partly excavating the red-orange rocks embedded in the koppie.
Silvio and Lesley’s brief was to design a garden pavilion that would serve as a place for entertaining, and include guest accommodation and a pool. They took their cue from the uncovered rocks, inspired by the idea of a buried landscape and a lost connection with nature. The notion of an archaeolgical uncovering prompted them to consider a rammed-earth wall, its stratified pattern suggesting the passage of time. The rest of the design developed from a sense of blurring the lines between nature and structure itself.
A giant eucalyptus tree intersects with the pavilion, imparting the landscape’s presence of the house. ‘The garden falls away to tall eucalyptus trees on the other side, too, so you get a feeling of exaggerated volume between them,’ says Lesley. ‘The front end of the pavilion is designed to put you into the volume of the garden,’ Sylvio adds. In this pavilion, however, they pushed their design in a new direction to develop ‘a modern African architectural language’. The Highveld farmhouse, possibly the closest thing there is to a vernacular architecture in Johannesburg, was fused with modernist influences, particularly the mid-century steel-and-glass pavilions by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
The pavilion’s carefully proportioned framework is contructed from salvaged ironwood railway sleepers. ‘We engineered steel brackets to hold those together to create the substructure of the building,’ says Sylvio. The pavilion’s clean, refined geometry is expressed in raw, recycled materials with historical associations. The ecualyptus on top of the mound now intersects with the building, at once incorporated into its structure and offsetting the crisp glass box with its organic, asymmetrical shape. Rather than have the pool at the edge of the deck, they decided to have it indoors, with a skylight above that effectively turns the space into an architectural prism.
Despite its earthy materiality, this pavilion is not at all rustic. Its interior detailing is sophisticated and seamlessly executed. The sleek white kitchen almost disappears in its minimalistic perfection. Downstairs, an oragami-inspired desk and a retractable television cabinet continue the dialogue between urban and elemental. The dining room table, a key piece, is made from a gigantic leadwood tree salvaged during a bush-clearing exercise in the Lowveld. ‘The coffee table is the root of the same tree,’ says Sylvio.
The spirit of the building culminates in a whalebone sculpture that is suspended above the pool, its undulating spine perfectly capturing the motion of the giant creature swimming. Its presence seems to animate the movement of a swimmer in the pool, as Sylvio points out, in a ‘different frequency’. The sculpture is a paragon of how art, and architecture, can be at once utterly transporting and profoundly grounding – and nothing short of spiritual.
Photographs Greg Cox