“Even though you might leave Africa, Africa never leaves you,” declares South African-born Julian Koski, who left South Africa for the U.S. as a young man in the 1980s. Now living with his wife, Aida, in New York City, working on Wall Street and raising a family of his own – twins Leo and Tess – his vivid childhood memories of safari vacations have stayed with him.
“I wanted to give them a piece of what I had as a child growing up,” Koski notes, especially the South African wilderness. He saw that the potential of a vacation home in a nature reserve could open another realm for them, a counterpoint to the privileges of New York City. “We wanted to give them a different perspective on the world – something environmental, ecological, human,” he adds.
He found a spectacular site overlooking a dam in Thornybush Private Game Reserve, a pristine savannah adjacent to the Kruger National Park, and began a process that would realize his dream of a family base in Africa.
If there’s one thing that Koski loves as much as a safari vacation, it’s architecture. “My whole life I wanted to become an architect,” quips Koski. “It was always my passion, and this was an opportunity for me to exercise my architectural ambitions.”
So, he set about designing his family’s vacation home himself. Although Koski says he didn’t have a preconceived notion of a “dream house,” he wanted to make some sort of reference to his family in the architecture. The whole idea was inspired by the idea of a family legacy. “Me being South African, and my wife being part Arabic, part Brazilian, we wanted to merge the north and south of Africa,” he shares. “I bring a sub-Saharan feel; she brings that North African feel – the more Moorish side of it. So, really, it’s the marriage of the two to make a whole.”
In addition to these personal references, the very heart of Koski’s design was the mesmerizing power of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval city in the heart of Africa and, according to some legends, the capital of the land of the Queen of Sheba. The rough-hewn granite stones of the disintegrating ancient city inspired Koski. “I’ve always been intrigued by rock work,” admits Koski. “I love rock.”
He wanted to capture something of the sense of timelessness, and of belonging in the landscape, the aura of legend and of ancient African civilizations. To build a house from scratch in the pristine wilderness demands a complex response. It demands something more than the usual reinterpretations of old colonial lodge architecture. Koski’s vision seems at once like a geological construction echoing the landscape, and a reference not just to its natural context, but the cultural context of the continent, too.
When it was complete, he and Aida christened the house Kubili House, which means “two” in Tsonga, the local language, in reference to their twins Leo and Tess. But the house was in many ways about dualities.
Koski conceived of the house in two parts, drawing on ancient and modern influences: earthy, organic materiality expressed in abstract modernist-inspired forms. One part is an open pergola with a floating roof, and the other is its weighty, rocky, monolithic counterpart with “the more Moorish, Moroccan, Zimbabwean ruins-type look.” They mirror each other across a rim-flow pool and koi ponds; you cross from one realm to the other via stepping stones over the pond. “That was the perfect marriage,” notes Koski, “taking a modernist architectural idea and marrying it with something that’s very Moorish.”
In the pergola, it’s as if the rocks are giving way to the smooth finishes of the floors and suspended ceilings. This space is all about openness and looking out. The furniture here – dominated by Donna Karan’s Urban Zen range in solid teak – is low to the ground. The fireplace, too, is on the ground, beneath a massive chimney dome that is custom-made and inspired by the brass bells in Kyoto temples. It’s almost as if the furniture immerses you in the landscape, with everyone sitting nearly at floor-level. “The idea is that you don’t want to be up, above the animals. You want to be at the eye level of the animals passing by,” explains Koski.
The pergola’s solid, rocky foil – including a main house and two smaller additional villas – is cool and enveloping. These buildings are not, however, entirely closed-off from their surroundings, although their character is more introspective and contemplative. Apart from the bedrooms and bathrooms, they don’t have doors. “Everyone says to me, ‘Julian, where are all your doors?’ But I don’t want doors,” explains Koski. “I want this to be open.”
Rather, the house has a system of transitional spaces and entranceways blending and blurring the distinction between inside and out. “And we’ve had lions walk through here,” adds Koski. “We’ve had leopards walk through here. We’ve even had wild dogs running through here, chasing impalas!”
The sheer scale of these buildings is a response to the vastness of the landscape, skies and horizons. Koski explains that the setting itself seemed to demand something on a grand scale, an architectural acknowledgment of the space around it.
All these contrasts – the monolithic and the weightless, the open and enclosed, the ancient and modern, the north and the south, water and drought – create an aura of mystery, much like the landscape itself and the ruins that inspired the house.
The landscaping surrounding the house and on the roof garden further embeds the architecture in the landscape. “We had seen what the land looked like before we built,” remarks Koski. “We saw the stones and we saw the colors and we realized that this is simply about grasses and shrubbery.” The russet grass and naturalistic plantings riff on the dialogue between the house, culture and nature.
The dam reaches right up to a snaking retaining wall in front of the house. Koski recalls that while they were building, during a terrible drought, the dam had dried up and receded by hundreds of meters. “You see the trees with the nests in them?” he asks. “We could walk up to those trees.” Then, on the night that the house was completed and the builders handed over the keys, there was a storm of almost Biblical proportions. “Within hours the thunderstorm had filled that dam,” Koski remembers. The house was flooded and repairs had to be done. “It was unbelievable,” he adds. “We were basically sleeping on the roof” – but the epic baptism seemed finally to welcome the house by absorbing it into the land and letting the water come up to meet it.
That sense of belonging was something Koski carried into the interiors, too. Antique wooden beams from France brought with them a sense of human time, and the use of reclaimed wood for some of the villa floors further layered a sense of age – and the passage of time – onto the architecture.
Koski sought out interior designer, Jacques Erasmus, to carry his vision through and inside the rooms. Erasmus is quick to note that the interior design was about more than decorating: “It was really about putting the house into context.” He saw it as a process of “bringing to life Julian and Aida’s vision” and complementing the ideas that informed the architecture on a more detailed level. It was a two-and-a-half-year project that evolved as it went along and required constant editing. Erasmus remarks that they ended up removing as much as they brought into the spaces until they were a kind of “distillation,” as he puts it, of all earlier iterations.
Because of the scale of the rooms, much of the furniture had to be custom-made, but there was no simple thematic approach. What Erasmus calls the “almost disparate materials and furniture pieces” helped create a sense of the passage of time and change – of being lived in rather than “decorated.”
In the bathrooms are gently mysterious artworks by Cape Town-based artist Andrew Putter from his “African Hospitality” series. They’re meticulously styled photographic portraits – fictional representations of real seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European survivors of shipwrecks along the South African coast who were saved by local Xhosa-speaking communities. One even became a Xhosa queen.
In a way, these images at the heart of Kubili House are keys to its own vision: a salvaged piece of the past that allows us to imagine the present and the future differently. Ancient African ruins here find expression in a modern form – an intervention in the landscape that is at once boldly ambitious and nearly invisible.
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