There is something deeply elemental at play in this home, the way it feels more like an extension of the natural surroundings – the water, rocks and vegetation – than a man-made structure that has been inserted into it. But perhaps the most thrilling thing about it is how deftly its design has mastered the element of surprise.
From street level, the home is entirely imperceptible, thanks in part to the dense foliage that surrounds it but mostly as a result of its unique site, a former quarry from which was mined the Table Mountain granite used to build Rhodes Memorial not far off. ‘I knew the character of the street and, very generally, the topography of that part of Cape Town, but I did not appreciate how dramatically the differences in elevation would influence the approach to the design until I climbed to the top of the site,’ says architect Malcolm Kent of US-based studio Rough Sketch, who worked with local firm KMH Architects on realising the project, the home of his brother, theatre director Jonathan Kent. ‘Once the potential of occupying the airspace was apparent, the emphasis for the design became the projection of the living spaces outwards to float above the site among the trees.’
To achieve this would require a stone base from which the house could emerge, which was built on piled-up rocks and vegetation that were used to fill the vestiges of the abandoned quarry. ‘In counterpoint to the upward gesture of the rock pile, we made a series of linked water courses that run down the slope, from pool through cistern, through runnel and pond, so an idealised version of the old quarry – part structured, part organic – runs through the house,’ says Malcolm and, sure enough, as you find footing on the large boulders that seem to have fallen into just the right place to offer secure passage on the ascent, rivulets of water can be seen trickling down or flowing through narrow, elegant troughs. It is a brilliantly soothing masterstroke of biophilic architecture at its most subtle yet sublime.
Today, the home sits on three levels, comprising three bedrooms along the bottom levels and, up top, the kitchen, living and dining rooms – which open out onto the pool deck. ‘This is not a big house, and the intention was to allow an extended family to occupy it simultaneously with some degree of personal privacy while providing shared space for communal activities,’ says Malcolm. To this end, the enclosed spaces were separated and dispersed to the edges of the site, which brought with it the added benefits of allowing expanses of outdoor space between the different private living zones. Where these bedroom pavilions, arranged to sit atop the landscape as if floating, have a more solid, closed-up timber appearance, in contrast, the public areas, which rest atop these pavilions, are completely opened up to the surrounding nature through the use of glass walls and windows.
Though there is no predetermined or overriding style to the house – ‘it grew out of the landscape and developed in response to the unique characteristics of the site’ – there is seemingly something of a Japanese sensibility to the way the home unfolds. This was not a conscious decision but rather the result of, as Malcolm says, ‘the asymmetric positioning of the pavilions, the contrast between light and heavy elements, and the layering of the enclosure with shutters and sliding doors and windows.’ Regardless of the intent, the final, Zen-like effect is undeniable – and perhaps felt most intently crossing the threshold of the living room or kitchen and moving over onto the pool deck and alfresco entertaining areas. ‘It is wonderful to be able to work in a climate where it is possible to make the barriers between indoor and outdoor so permeable,’ says Malcolm. ‘As this is primarily a holiday house, it is safe to assume that the outdoor space would be a major element.’
Given Cape Town’s enviable summers, as well as the house’s orientation – ‘The site faces south to south-east and the house was turned slightly further to the east so the bedrooms would see the morning sun, which by midday would be overhead on the pool decks and upstairs living areas until dropping behind the mountain in the evening’ – it is safe to say that Malcolm’s assumption was not only correct, his design play to capitalise on this proved an outright success.
Central to the outdoor area is the jade-tiled pool – a narrow strip of water that runs across the site, with the living pavilions placed around it. In fact, the pool became a central force in bringing an airy quality into the uppermost living area, reflecting light up onto the high-gloss ceilings, which in turn bounces it around the open-plan spaces. The pool also dips low up against the second level, separated from the master bathroom by a glass wall that, in turn, becomes one of the home’s most unforgettable features – a shimmering wall of water that effectively submerges the main suite into a near otherworldly atmosphere animated by soft, filtered light. ‘The complex reflections from below the surface of the water are much more wonderful than could be imagined,’ he says.
For Malcolm, though, the project was so much more than the house itself, as it was a deeply personal moment. ‘To design and build a house for my brother in a beautiful area of Cape Town, where I grew up, working with KMH, my father’s firm, where as a very young man I first realised that this was what I loved to do,’ he says. ‘There has been a wonderful symmetry to the endeavour.’
This story originally appeared in our H&G October 2022 issue. To purchase the latest digital copy, click here.