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Feb / Mar 2015
Capturing our Imagination

WRITER: Warren Singh-Bartlett

The award-winning South African design firm, SAOTA, has done their fair share of residential projects that will blow your mind. Just check how many shots of their houses end up on Instagram and you’ll see what we mean. Indeed, their innovative, contemporary approach is based on an understanding of an ever-evolving industry.


Is it possible, in 2015, to remember what the world was like before we all went online? Sometimes I struggle, so reflexive has my reliance on the internet become. I use it for work and play, to book holidays and download films, it’s become my principal source of information, a way of staying in touch with far-flung friends, researching articles, even a resource for winning dinner table discussions. Pervasive doesn’t even come close to describing its impact.

Philip Olmesdahl would probably agree. While I can’t claim to know anything about his personal relationship with the internet but as we chatted the other day – online, of course – about SAOTA, the South African architectural practice he helped found, we ended up talking, to a certain extent, about the power of the web.

“This conversation is happening in part because we at Bespoke see that all over the place, SAOTA’s projects are popping up on almost every architectural blog and aggregator that we read,” I said at one point.

It wasn’t a question per se, but Olmesdahl nevertheless took the opportunity to explain that this is probably due to the fact that his practice takes their online presence seriously.

“We have a whole department here now that is just responsible for making sure the news of our projects gets sent to the right places,” he explained from his office in Cape Town. “Traffic on design sites has definitely helped us reach markets farther afield.”
While this comment got me thinking about the way we all use this common connection to grow, his reply also struck me as disarmingly modest. Without wishing to cast aspersions on either the dedication or the diligence of said department, which is no doubt busily promoting the practice to blogs and online magazines all over the world even as I type, SAOTA is featured on these sites in the first place, because it produces beautiful buildings.



Airy, sprawling, open-plan and open onto their surroundings, glass-glad, set in lush gardens and fringed by infinity pools, theirs are the kinds of homes that grace modern architectural magazines precisely because they are the kinds of homes most modern architectural writers would like to inhabit.
Palatial without the pretence – SAOTA sits solidly on the right side of McMansionism – their homes may be large, for their clientele tend to require big residences, but more horizontal than vertical, bold but never thrusting, contemporary but not challengingly so, they are subtle, sophisticated homes for people who prefer to let the way they use their living spaces, rather than the way they decorate them, define who they are.

Their current ubiquity has been twenty years in the making and if business has been good enough to warrant taking on a fourth partner - Phillippe Fouché signed on just over a year ago – the firm’s three founding partners, Stefan Antoni, Philip Olmesdahl and Greg Truen (hence SAOTA – Stefan Antoni Olmesdahl Truen Architects) have grown slowly, making a name for themselves in their native South Africa before expanding first across the rest of Africa, where it has a roster of commercial and mixed-use developments as well as single and multiple residential projects under its belt, and, in more recent years, the wider world. That of course, includes the Middle East as well and today, several SAOTA projects are underway in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat.

Again, most are residential and most are high-end – as the houses on The Palm, Emirates Hills and the multi-residential development overlooking the navy facilities in Abu Dhabi, attest but designs for a restaurant complex for Downtown Dubai and an office block in Muscat indicate that the practice is looking to sink its roots more deeply into this regional landscape.

“Residential projects alone can’t sustain a medium-sized practice,” Olmesdahl continues, “so in addition to commercial and mixed-use developments, we have also become more involved in the hospitality sector. In a sense, it is the next logical step from residential. We’re a versatile practice and we’d like to think our variety of directions illustrate that we also respond to regional differences.”

Refreshingly, responding to those ‘regional differences’ doesn’t mean that when working in the Middle East, SAOTA feels compelled to subscribe to the Mousharabieh Method, whereby the introduction of a couple of screens and a pointed arch suddenly makes a building ‘Middle Eastern’. Rather than respond on a purely aesthetic level by pandering to the perceived vernacular, they take a more nuanced approach that responds to the physical environment.

In many ways, it’s a less patronising approach to capturing the genius loci, especially in a part of the Middle East where much of what is usually presented as vernacular – striped marble walls, mandaloun arches, elaborate blown glass chandeliers - is really borrowed from other parts of the region.

Instead, SAOTA responds by designing houses that are surprisingly open when compared to other contemporary developments and much more in keeping, in spirit, if not in form, with the indoor/outdoor living that was characteristic of the Gulf before air-conditioning and curtain walls took over.



“We’re more interested in the narrative of living in a place; the small courtyards, the tight streets, the shaded walkways, so our references to regional difference tend to be more understated,” Olmesdahl explains. “What we try to bring to our designs in Dubai, for example, is not just stylistic. The climate there is definitely more habitable than all those insulated air-conditioned glass boxes would suggest. They’re simply not true to the region.”

So gardens, courtyards and water features, as pleasure-giving as they may be, are integrated as practical additions to the project and together with attention to orientation and the use of screens and shading, are designed to extend the feasibility of open-air living.

“Through clever design, it’s possible to extend the use of such spaces beyond winter months,” he continues. “That way, the house doesn’t have to be completely inward-looking but can be extroverted. Our clients are sophisticated. They don’t necessarily want to live in air-conditioned boxes.”

SAOTA are part of what might be called a New Internationalism, a movement that is not defined by adherence to a single architectural style but rather by the global reach of its practitioners. At its most rarefied, that means starchitects like Hadid, Foster, Ando and Viñoly. But more interestingly – for a certain calibre of architects have always built internationally, vis. Corbusier, van der Rohe and Saarinen – it also includes multitudes of talented mid and even small–sized practices, Lebanon’s Youssef Tohme and Nabil Gholam, for example, who might never have managed to build beyond their natural boundaries, were it not for the platform that the internet provides.

For SAOTA, who have ongoing projects on five of the six inhabitable continents (only South America is missing, for now), being global is a natural part of who they are and plays an important role in who they are becoming.

“Before, people wouldn’t consider talking to an architect in another time zone. Today, that doesn’t matter any more, especially to the people we deal with,” Olmesdahl says, as our chat draws to an end. “We’re all massively enthusiastic architects. We’re attracted to working in other countries precisely so that we can do what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do here, in Cape Town.”

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