All sharp edges, dramatic details and expansive proportions, architect Stefan Antoni’s breathtaking new abode combines rawness and sophistication in equal measures to orchestrate a powerful experience worthy of its spectacularly beautiful setting, all while making a comfortable home for close-knit family life.
Photography by Greg Cox
“I’ve always wanted to be in Clifton,” says Cape Town architect Stefan Antoni. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” He should know. Over the course of his career, Antoni has designed more than a few sea-facing houses along the city’s Atlantic seaboard, and has earned himself something of a reputation as a master of design when it comes to the sought-after houses clinging to the mountainside overlooking the ocean.
In fact, it was while he was visiting a site in Clifton where he had designed a house for a client that he spotted the stand where he recently built his own house on Nettleton Road. “I looked up and saw a for-sale board that had fallen down on its side,” recalls Antoni. Not knowing whether the stand was still available or not, he called the number and, when he found that it was, nabbed it as fast as he could.
When it came to designing his own home, where he now lives with his wife Carla and their two children, Gia and Luke, however, he didn’t necessarily stick to his tried-and-tested methodologies. “I thought, it’s my own house, I can experiment here!” says Antoni. But first he had to deal with the practicalities of the site.
It had breathtaking ocean views and backed right onto Lion’s Head, the mountain behind it, but it was a tricky piece of land to build on. “It’s very steep,” explains Antoni. The ground rakes up sharply from the street, which meant that he had to come up with something smart if it wasn’t going to be another bland white box on the mountainside. “The crucial starting point of the design was to get the house to relate to the mountain,” he says.
His solution, at the risk of oversimplifying things, was to build an upside-down house: flipping the usual arrangements and having the living space on the top level and the bedrooms below. By raising the living space and letting the building step back as it rose, Antoni could create a garden on the top level behind the living room with a lawn, which does indeed connect the house with the mountain.
This solution also sidesteps the dreaded alternative of “an enormous dark retaining wall at the back of the house”. “For me, it was very important to have a garden with a lawn and some trees because I have a 10-year-old son and we’re always playing soccer or cricket or rugby,” says Antoni.
Once he’d created a platform for this top level, he designed a zig-zag arrangement for the living areas, one portion cantilevering over a rim-flow pool, which seems to extend seamlessly into the blue of the ocean, and another portion extending to the back of the site. “This arrangement provides for a north-facing garden, which is quite rare in Clifton,” he says. “The way that I’ve modulated it, it creates a wind-free zone, so that worked out very nicely.”
The resulting height of the building meant that he could create a wonderful interplay of vertical levels, volumes and light. “The house is broken into four portions,” he explains. At street level, the garage and entrance. Next, a couple of guest bedrooms. Then, in the middle, a games room and, just above it, the bedrooms, linked vertically by a huge 12-metre double volume space. On the top and set back is the living space: lounge; kitchen; dining room.
The vertical connections help to integrate the house and hold it together, so even if they’re on different levels, the family seldom feel cut off from each other. “You want to be part of the greater experience,” says Antoni. “When the kids and their friends are in the games room, you can lean over the balustrade and call to them. We never want to feel isolated from them.”
The façade, too, needed something to unify it. “Because every level is made up of two levels,” says Antoni, the balconies and windows opened only at every second level, which he points out would have looked “really weird” from the outside. He felt the façade needed something to “pull the whole structure together”.
He didn’t want the house to appear large or looming, however, or ostentatious. His solution was to clad it with a laser-cut aluminium screen, which, “consolidates it”. “It’s peeled open to allow the bedroom level to have a view,” he points out. “Then, on the level below that, which is the games level, there’s a glass box that slides out. The fins create a sense of mystery, projecting forward and peeling backward. The ‘eyebrow’ of the pool lounge, which slides over the pool, peeps over the top of the façade and gives you a sense of floating space on the top level.”
The pattern on the façade is an abstracted graphic interpretation of the “landscape around and up on the mountain”. It’s designed to soften the appearance of the building and help it recede into the surrounding landscape without being literal or over-determined.
Partly because of the strong presence of the mountain and the ocean, and partly because of his personal taste, Antoni wanted a building with primal qualities. “I love ancient monuments and raw, simple spaces,” he says. “I chose quite specifically to go with quite raw, robust materials and textures. “It’s really about sculpting space: to make the rawest, most beautiful space that allows the indoors and outdoors to coexist,” he says. “For me, and for my family, the house is just a vessel in which to experience the mountain and the view and the incredible trees outside.”
Of course, the best way to articulate raw textures and capitalise on their expressiveness is to include contrasts: think sleek, sophisticated balustrades and handrails playing off the raw concrete and simple masses and volumes with a gallery-like quality. Antoni explains that the wooden planks used for the shuttering for the board-pressed ceiling in the living room were “brushed down a little bit” and used for the ceiling on the level below. “We stacked them up and down slightly with the grain very evident,” he says. “It definitely had a certain lightness and delicacy about it.”
The living space upstairs can be opened up almost completely. The glass walls are sliding doors that disappear into cavity walls. When they’re open, the living space is transformed into a pavilion. It’s as if the presence of the mountain behind pours into the house. “It feels like this plane that just slides in from the mountain into the back garden, through into the house and then out to the terrace and the pool, where it joins the ocean,” says Antoni.
But the house is not just about open spaces. “I always like the mystery of one space leading to another without completely revealing itself,” he says. “It’s all about volumes sliding though each other. It adds a little bit of fun to the whole experience, because architecture has to be about delight, otherwise it’s purely utilitarian. Here, I wanted to play with the person experiencing it, always unravelling a couple of surprises.”
Antoni has been very clever about the natural light. Some of what he’s done is pragmatic: the ocean views in Clifton face west, which means exposure to the afternoon sun. “It’s very important that when the late afternoon sun comes around, you can retreat to other places in the house,” says Antoni. “On our living level we have very few blinds, but we don’t need them because we always have spaces where we can go to that are beautifully shaded.”
He’s also created skylights and glass slot windows that allow natural light to pour in from unexpected sources – orchestrating what Antoni calls “the mystery of light”. The skylight against the wall of African masks in the living area is a perfect example. “As the light gets more and more vertical, it strikes those masks, and they become very animated because they’ve got these deep, strong shadows.”
As a collector of art and design objects, Antoni hasn’t designed the interiors with any finite end in mind. Rather, the whole idea was to design a space that could keep evolving. “I didn’t want it matched to perfection,” he says. “It had to have a certain arbitrary, collected quality.” “It is almost like a gallery. It’s a house where you can keep on collecting and changing over time. And that’s what I enjoy about it. Very little is ever collected consciously for a space. It moves around and moves around until we think we’ve found the right place, and even then, it moves around thereafter as well.”
Antoni has a fondness for mid-century modernist design and art. “The house is unashamedly modernist,” he says. The artworks, too, trace his interest in modernist aesthetics, as do some mid-century furniture pieces. There are artworks by the likes of Cecil Skotnes, the most noteworthy being a large tapestry that once hung in the President Hotel in Johannesburg.
It represents a particular history of African modernism, which, in turn, Antoni says, traces his own “personal little journey of discovery” – that is, an exploration of modernist African aesthetics. “The art and architecture enhance each other,” he elaborates.
“The two play off each other beautifully.” The house has become a journey of discovery as well: an opportunity for Antoni to pursue his own aesthetics. The result is not just a comfortable family home, but also an exciting architectural exploration.