HOUSE VAN DER MERWE
The client, a maize farmer, wanted a weekend house for his family on their farm near Wesselsbron in the Free State. The brief called for a compact three bedroom house with a spacious living room to accommodate various kinds of family gatherings. In addition, the house had to have a simple structure with natural finishes, as the client was going to build the house himself.
The site is characterised by a marked horizontality of grass and red earth, punctuated by the occasional Camelthorn tree. By far the most dominant feature of the site is the view towards the Vaal river, which makes a 90 degree bend at this point to present the whole width of the river to the spectator. Combine this with the sheer drop of the cliffs on the Free State side of the river, and it was clear from the outset that a special solution was called for.
A clear spatial diagram was decided upon, with the living room on the northern side to maximise the sun and view, bedrooms on the south side, and a central passage for access. The living room is an open plan volume with a high ceiling and stack-away glass doors leading to a wrap around Balau timber deck. In contrast, the bedrooms are treated as individual cells with low ceilings and small windows. The bathrooms feature glass shower cubicles with doors, giving the feeling that one is showering in the field.
The structural system further articulates the contrast between the idea of a “shed” and a “cave”. A robust steel structure that refers to typical farm sheds was used for the living area, whilst the bedrooms are built from conventional brickwork. A steel contractor from Bothaville erected the structure which was then filled in by the client himself.
The positioning of the house on site was a critical part of the process and the architect assisted with the setting out. Firstly the house had to be within easy reach and therefore it was positioned at a crossing of two dirt roads. Secondly it had to maximise the view and northern sunlight. Lastly the house was carefully positioned between existing trees – some used as focal points seen from the interior and others as sunscreens and privacy screens. All these strategies lead to a house that is in perfect harmony with the landscape. The farm animals have also made the structure their own and one isn’t always sure who the real inhabitants are!
The Vaal River weekend house could be seen as a framework, not a solid object claiming space, but a porous structure that can be invaded and crossed. From the large roof overhang that mediates the sunlight, the raised timber deck where grass grows under, to the box gutter that collects water for the animals, each element is designed to interact with the environment. This way the border between the natural and man-made blurs in the best tradition of Free State vernacular architecture.