Stone masonry walls ascend above the ground hinged amidst trees on a ridge with magnificent views of Johannesburg. It is pure architectural magic that greets you in this elegant residence designed by the architectural firm GASS.
In one of Johannesburg’s oldest suburbs known for majestic baronial mansions set within manicured estates, Westcliff Pavilion, sits sublimely within its lush verdant site, a picture of ease and simplicity.
Designed by architects Georg van Gass and Clare J. Eisenstein of Johannesburg based architectural firm GASS, the house is in coherence with the client’s brief that asked for ‘maximum views with minimal environmental impact’, through an architectural language that is contemporary and a polar opposite of the neighbourhood’s prevalent architecture, but yet one which allows nature to reign supreme.
Unlike its neighbours, Westcliff Pavilion is neither lofty nor traditional; instead it is a modern box crafted in the simplest of material and architectural palette composing of only steel, aluminum, stone and glass.
As you walk around the house, you see steel everywhere. Steel became the project’s main architectural motif due to three prominent reasons. Firstly the client’s brief asked for glass surfaces, which was much easily fulfilled through aluminum and steel frames as against other bulkier options of concrete or masonry.
Secondly, the architects wanted a light, low impact look from an environmental perspective and steel seemed to be the perfect choice. The third reason was purely a visual one – the team sought an elegant, timeless aesthetic appeal. Using steel as a primary motif allowed them to use glass in abundance and incorporate timber floors that seamlessly merged with the exterior decking, while still retaining the steel edge detail.
But as you approach the house, it is not the steel or the green boughs that mesmerises you; what grabs your complete attention is the suspended aspect of the house, especially the ‘floating wall’ – solid quartzite stone masonry hovering above the ground, a magical feat that comes to life at Westcliff Pavilion.
A Westcliff tradition that Georg van Gass was keen to continue was the native stonework detailing seen in many houses of the area. The team decided to use stone masonry in a twisted way; instead of the conventional concept of a wall depicting solidity and sturdiness, architects Georg van Gass and Clare Eisenstein chose to do the opposite – they created a floating wall instead which epitomised aspects of lightness and nimbleness.
Steel frames have been designed to hold the stone wall well above the ground, with only the columns touching the earth. This idea was taken a step further and the columns held not just a wall but a steel, aluminum, stone and glass house way above the ground – a veritable floating house.
The house takes full advantage of the resplendent views of the surrounding landscape and tree tops beyond the ridge through a linear floor plan where the bedrooms are zoned at the ends while the living spaces and kitchen are placed at the centre.
The interiors are designed in a minimal fashion complemented by the rich colours of the wooden elements. The rocky terrain of the ridge is referenced in the stone masonry that enters the interiors in bits adding textural contrast to the clean lines of steel, glass and wood. The floor of the house is clad in wood, and in the central lounge area, it continues as a deck on either side, well establishing the so desired commune with the outdoors.
In the words of Georg van Gass, ‘When you’re sitting out on the front deck, you think things can’t get any better than this, but then you turn around and you’re instantly proved wrong. That’s the beauty of this house; no one side is more impressive than the other’.
Levitated surfaces sitting on the ridge is not just about aesthetic excellence but also about environmental sensitivity.
Use of steel columns meant that the ridge and ground were disrupted only for the laying of footings of the main structural steel columns.
Within the house you do not know if you are inside or outside, there is very little distinction between the lines that demarcate their boundaries.
A classic example of contemporary steel architecture, Westcliff Pavilion blends into its setting with remarkable ease, defying its conservative neighbours and at the same time demonstrating the same elegant and timeless aesthetics that leave all in silent admiration.
Text By K Parvathy Menon
Photographs Bernard Viljoen Courtesy GASS