A New Branch

Graham Paarman’s cabin-like tree house in the famously beautiful wine region of Constantia in Cape Town, South Africa, was inspired by a spot
on his family estate – a clearing among the trees overlooking four square reflection ponds. The ponds seemed to bring a certain magic to the clearing and galvanised Paarman’s decision to build a cabin there. “I always wanted something in the tree canopy,” he says. “I never wanted a building that was going to impose itself. I didn’t want something symmetrical. I hoped it would blend in and enhance its surroundings, and would invite the outside in.”

He also wanted something small. The “pure geometry of the square” became a “subliminal link”, says Jan-Heyn Vorster, one of a trio of architects who helped Paarman realise his tree house. “We investigated a rigorous geometric framework that also allows a sense of freedom,” says co-architect Pieter Malan. “Curved forms flowing from straight lines, rectangular shapes that become drums and the celebration of the connections between different elements.” The tree house began as a sketch of a square, the same size  as one of the reflection ponds. Along each edge, four circles represented four trees, creating a pinwheel-like floor plan. Groups of four steel pillars serve as tree trunks and rings overhead suggest branches. Branch-like beams in turn support the floors above. Each “tree” is a slightly different height.

“The tree that terminates at roof level became the circular drum for the staircase,” says Malan. It leads to a rooftop deck, an entertainment space and viewing platform looking over the estate’s beautifully landscaped gardens and, of course, the reflection ponds. Ascending the stairs feels a little like climbing a tree.

Vertical arrangement

The rooms are arranged vertically: one living space per floor. The living area is on the first level, the bedroom on the next and the open-air deck at the top. At the same time, a double volume space makes a vertical connection between the levels, and some of the rings extend beyond the edge of the square floorplate, creating cantilevered balconies. The structure is glassed in and covered with a veil of vertical cedar wood slats. “They create privacy at certain points and articulate the building in others,” says Malan. Their lines echo the “verticality of the surrounding trees”, so the building blends in beautifully. The staircase “drum” is the only really solid mass. “We wanted the contrast between something completely open and one really solid volume,” says Malan.

Paarman adds that, despite its compact size, the house doesn’t feel small. “There are tall sliding doors at the front that open up over both levels,” says Malan. The large vertical space opens up the living area, blurring the inside and outside. “It also plays with the idea of scale,” says Vorster. “You are in this vastness of the landscape, but you are also in the building.” “It’s the encapsulation of cocoon living,” says Paarman. “But at the same time, I think we all have a connection to nature, and this house captures that in a very special way. You can see the fantastic night skies, and the squirrels in the trees. You can hear the birds from inside, too.”

The building is small, making minute attention to detail possible, and the fact that the structure is expressed in every aspect of the design meant nothing could be hidden. “All of the mechanics of the building are aesthetic, design elements,” says Vorster. The choice of materials prompted many final design decisions as the building went up. Malan explains, “Generally, the vertical elements are steel. They support the horizontal elements, which are timber beams and floor plates. Those connections are expressed in little turned brass, hand-machined connections. The idea of crafting the structural components gave us an opportunity to design those things beautifully. We turned them into beautiful, elegant sculptural elements.” Organic change over time The architects used Corten steel in flat sheets, rather than standard, round mild steel sections. Folding the steel appealed to them, as did the fact that it gains a patina over time, rusting and turning a coppery or ferrous orange colour. The cedar wood they used will also weather. “Materials are allowed to change,” says Vorster. “It works in a natural, organic direction.” The colour of the Corten’s patination, and its high copper content, lead to warm metals such as brass and copper being chosen for the junctions. These materials are echoed in many of the other finishings, such as the taps, showerhead and lamps. The architects designed the interiors, too. “It’s lovely to have the opportunity to take the concept right through to the furnishings,” says Vorster. “The same care goes into choosing a piece of furniture as making the space.”

Focus on the outside

“I’m a fan of warm materials and textures – wood, stone and leather,” says Paarman. “We tried to keep the colours subdued and almost neutral so that you’re really more aware of what is going on outside the house rather than being colourful and flashy on the inside,” adds Malan. Linens, wool and leather in ochre, deep blue, taupe and brown dominate the interior spaces.

“The architecture makes a strong statement,” says Paarman. “But at the same time, it has become a sanctuary. It has almost become transformative as far as lifestyle is concerned.” Just as the floating tree house is immersed in nature, it also offers a meditation on our relationship with nature, like those four ponds that inspired it. Or, as Paarman says, “It’s just a very special space.”

Click on the images below to take a tour through this incredible treehouse.

Bold Bolthole

The Milan-born designer Fabrizio Casiraghi likes to incorporate ethnic items into his projects. “For me, they bring a modernity,” he says. 
“I like to mix design with objects from 
far-flung countries. Today’s interiors should be all about putting things together from different cultures.” So in many ways, Sébastien Brocandel was the perfect client, given his love of bringing things back from travels. “They’re more souvenirs,” says the executive director of the Paris-based marketing and publicity agency Pschhh. “But I also love the spirit of curiosity cabinets.” In his one-bedroom flat are a Tanzanian water jar, a Persian prayer mat and a 19th-century Chinese travel chest.

Casiraghi’s early aesthetic memories are also linked to journeys. His childhood holidays took in everywhere from Egypt and Kenya to Cuba, and he still clearly remembers when he was about six being struck at how the Cinque Terre fishing villages remained unspoilt. “I was sitting with my father and said: ‘It’s incredible how they have managed to conserve the heritage,’” he recalls. “To which my father replied: ‘It’s incredible for you to notice! You should become an architect!’”

Casiraghi did study architecture and town planning at Milan’s Scuola Politecnica di Design, but ended up segueing into interiors instead. He trained for two years with Dimore Studio before setting up his own practice in 2015 and moving to Paris.

To date, he has completed a boutique for French candlemaker Cire Trudon in New York’s Nolita district and is currently at work on a Spanish restaurant in Hong Kong; a house in Venice; and a hotel, a restaurant and a 500m2 apartment in the French capital.

Small, sophisticated and cosy

Brocandel’s flat is rather smaller. Just 50m2, it is in the trendy Haut Marais district, home 
to hip restaurants and art galleries. He was attracted to the area’s central location and cultural spirit. He also fell in love with the building, which dates from 1811 and is listed, with period details still intact. “The fireplaces, for instance, are both cosy but also sober in style,” he notes. “There was a certain sophistication, but in a very undemonstrative way.”

The previous owners had painted the flat completely white and laid a floating parquet floor in the sitting room. “My first thought when I walked in was that there needed to be some colour,” recalls Casiraghi. “Otherwise, it would have looked like a doctor’s surgery.” In his mind, using darker hues was also appropriate because the flat gets little natural light. “When a space is dark, you should always exaggerate the effect and use sombre tones to create an almost cave-like effect,” he says. He painted most of the walls a midnight blue and put a cardinal red carpet in the sitting room.

The only space Casiraghi reconfigured is the entry. A corridor, a tiny bathroom and an enclosed kitchen were opened up and now a small breakfast table looks on to the tree-filled courtyard. Brocandel also requested a large bathroom. “I unwind better after a long day at work 
by taking a bath rather than cooking,” 
he declares. “Each to their own!”

Casiraghi’s design for the bathroom took its inspiration from one at the 
Villa Necchi in Milan, the modernist masterpiece conceived by his favourite architect, Piero Portaluppi. “I think of that house when I start each new project,” he says. “I always find a detail I can use.”

Patchwork of styles

The highlight in the kitchen is a sleek cabinet set on top of a brass plaque on the floor. “I love the contrast of this minimal, ultra-contemporary monolith in a setting that’s full of history,” enthuses Brocandel.

He was keen that the furnishings should reflect his love of the decorative arts of different periods. “It’s like in music, where I’m a fan of both electronic music and opera,” he explains. “I wanted Fabrizio to help me create a kind of patchwork.”

Casiraghi did so by juxtaposing the ethnic objects Brocandel already had with pieces of 20th-century design sourced from all over Europe. The Curtis Jeré wall sculpture was acquired in Copenhagen, the Marcel Breuer chairs and Fontana Arte sconce in Lugano, and the Hans Agne Jakobsson pendant lights at an auction in Stockholm. Perhaps Brocandel’s favourite find, however, is the 1920s lacquer screen that hangs on the wall behind his bed. It was unearthed at the Paris flea market and features a motif of birds in trees. “I came across it by chance, but it turned out to be exactly the same width as the bed,” he says. “It’s as if it were made for here and I know it’s something I’ll keep for a very long time.”