Between Heaven and Earth
October / November 2019
Words Garreth van Niekerk Photography Elsa Young
FROM LEFT Towering earth walls spiral upward to a sky window that creates a cocoon for rest and sanctuary at Witklipfontein, a new home built in the historic Vredefort Dome; the architecture of the home has been designed to seem like the building is, ‘…lifting the carpet of nature,’ according to the architects; Damien and Xavier Hubrechts.
From the archives
It is a rare thing in architecture to feel the craft of architecture’s roots come alive in a space – that thing that architectural theorist Juhanni Pallasmaa calls ‘an art form of the eye, the hand, the head and the heart’. But it is everywhere about you at Witklipfontein, the recently-completed earth ‘sandcastle’ in the UNESCO-protected Vredefort Dome, built and designed (largely with their own hands) by Flemish brother-architects Damien and Xavier Huybrechts.
Little by way of architecture separates Witklipfontein from the breathtaking nature reserve surroundings, where wild animals roam freely encouraged to grow together with the building; stones excavated on site rise to form an entrance courtyard, with one part of the curving wall inset with a deep window box that doubles as a foyer seat.
The monumental structure, composed almost entirely of materials found on the site, disappears into the landscape from one side, then rises again in epic sculptural volumes from the other. ‘We describe it as lifting the carpet of nature, and gently tucking the house underneath the carpet,’ says Xavier. As a result, wildlife roams freely. At one point during our visit, birds flew right through the house from the cool courtyard on one side of it, landing on the backs of the herd of sable antelope on the other, who were drinking from the waters of the home’s green swimming pool.
‘We are really trying to blur the boundaries between inside and outside, to create something that is really living in nature,’ says Xavier. ‘Even though it is large, we put it behind the trees, so the animals are not too scared. And things like the windows and doors that disappear into the walls, and the veld roof over the whole building, makes it so that there is nothing that separates you from nature, or nature from the house.’
A mudroom in the foyer holds a collection of hats, and reflects the home’s impressive stone masonry; herbs and fresh vegetables fill a collection of glassware; in the open-plan kitchen Damien Huybrechts, his wife Dorothee, daughter Charlie (and dog Maurice) create vegetable dishes from their impressive vegetable garden.
‘Architecture, especially from the background where I come from in Europe, doesn’t teach you things like this,’ Damien says.
Technically the house’s buried roof and mud walls took years of research to realise, with Damien having to teach himself, often via platforms like YouTube, the ancient craft of adobe building. ‘Architecture, especially from the background where I came from in Europe, doesn’t teach you things like this,’ Damien says.
‘I was building houses for rich people, that can be in the most beautiful books and magazines you can find. But it’s just beautiful at the end of the day. It doesn’t serve a good way of living, and spending your energy. Building with soil offers you an opportunity to give work to a lot of people because it’s labour intensive, but it also serves the environment. Personally this house just makes me proud that you can still make something that looks like this with human hands.’
In the master bedroom custom-made doors slide into walls that lead onto a view of the plains where animals roam freely; a biologically rich natural pool connects the home’s entertainment area to the grasslands, doubling as a watering hole for the animals. Waste granite salvaged by the architects has been used to clad the pool, and for walkways throughout the home.
Ultimately the brothers say their dream is for the home to return to the place it came from. ‘Since coming to the farm I see concrete almost everywhere in the surroundings, bits of rubble from ruins, old water reservoirs… but you don’t have that problem with a soil house,’ Damien says. ‘It will go back to the ground in 100 years, but you can still recycle the bits you want to keep. I want people to change their minds about soil, and forget about concrete.’
‘That’s why we wanted materials that are from this place,’ says Xavier, ‘and use no elements that prevent it from going back into nature, like a sandcastle that nature will one day eventually take back.’
Since first moving into the house the family have decided to open it up to the public for a few months of the year so that more people can experience life in an earthen home. Take it from us: this unique ‘sandcastle’ is well worth a visit.