Heritage Forum

House Johannesdal, Pniel


Johannesdal, Pniel

Date Built





Henri Comrie
The Cape Institute for Architecture: 2013 CIA Award for Architecture – Citation

The farm Johannesdal 1206 is a part of an active agricultural landscape in the valley adjacent to the Helshoogte road just south of Pniel, and is situated between Simonsberg and Hutchinson’s Peak. The estate is a south-east sloping, narrow strip of land, the house located one-third into the property, on the western border. The mastery of the design starts with its sitting and broader context. On travelling along Helshoogte road, one looks down on the house, a geometric composition of white, stereotomic forms, a thick wall (entrance), cube (house) and a cylinder (dam) grounded in the landscape on their western side, and projecting a level terrace and canal into the sloping valley to the east. The design is orchestrated to work on all levels of scale: the cosmic landscape, the regional landscape, the farm, the house and its elements.

The arrival is carefully planned – the entrance allows for the house to be experienced as a 3- dimesnional dorm in the wider landscape, as one would a Greek temple. A winding road allows for changing views of the house and its backdrop of a valley and mountain. Upon arrival the scale changes dramatically and confronts with a domestic and finely tuned human scale, with attention to the elemental composition of the larger form. At this point the form of the house is hidden from view by a wall, revealing only the light, vertical element that is the spatial datum of the organization of the house.
Through a sliding barn door the main entrance leads to an ante-space between wall and house and defines the organizational axis of the total design, visually connecting the landmarks of the larger landscape (Simonsberg and Hutchinson’s Peak) via the circular space of the house and around which the internal spaces and activities are ordered. The axis ultimately governs the arrangement of all the exterior spaces of the estate. The route leads towards the living spaces ahead, and then up towards the more private spaces of the house. This point of convergence is a triple volume tower that draws the gaze upwards to the sky –the vertical element seen when viewing the house from afar. The cosmic connection also evident on the upper-level, where the changing light is experienced through a rhythmically spaced timber lattice, and on the stairs with views to the Simonsberg.

The ground floor ancillary spaces are divided on either side of the organizational axis. The flow from the entrance takes a circular journey through of exploration around the central spine, with interesting glimpses to the other spaces.
The main living space frames an interesting view of the terrace jutting into the valley and the mountain beyond. From here tall sash doors open onto a verandah from which the valley is experienced as from a stoa –a part of, but also discrete. The deep recesses of the eastern façade provide softness to that side, and allow an exhilarating connection with the farmlands, valley and mountain. The steps to the first floor are open to the living space, and the experience of that space carries through to the upper movement space, while the connection with the sky takes the gaze upwards. At the landing, a tunnel with white, almost Japanese, lightweight walls directs view upwards towards the mountain. The bedrooms and bathrooms on either side of the movement space are very private, but connect back to it and the vertical triple volume space via a direct view from the dressing room, through a brise-soleil in the stairwell, completing a spatial sojourn that returns to its origin at the front door.
The cylindrical dam adjacent to the house-a pivot point in the composition negotiating two terrace levels –is sliced off at an angle, its highest point under the concrete water spout from the roofs, with a steel furrow entering from the top terrace, and another outlet onto the lower terrace and farmlands. The large window of the ground floor studio slides away, allowing a grand view onto the drama ofcollecting and dispersing water, the life-blood of the farm.

The architect quite clearly understood the complex needs of the owners, for a house that expresses the essential qualities of a home, without restricting the expression of being part of a larger world. The house is a vessel for artifacts that have intense personal meaning, but is not a museum. It is a refuge for the outer world, but at a moment’s notice it can be at one with that world. While it is a design that answers the needs of very unique clients, the design is open to accommodate other occupants in centuries to come. The house is a simple, humble, and cost effective construction of load bearing brick walls, timber upper floors, and concrete balconies and roofs, the whole in a purposefully rough and sometimes brutalist manner –the brickwork is bagged and painted with lime wash, the off-shutter concrete water spout and ceilings show the timber framework, the steel door frames and veranda columns are painted in matt grey enamel, the main timber joists for the beams and planking of the upper storey floor, are visibly bolted onto galvanized brackets, timber beams are only lightly planned and all timber elements have a clear matt varnish. Henri Comrie shows that he is engaged with design in all its dimensions and scales, in searching for the essential.


Download an article by Julian Cooke from Architecture South Africa