In the heart of the South African bush, Cécile and Boyd's design for Singita Lebombo places humans in their natural habitat
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 6/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Visiting the Singita Lebombo Lodge, in South Africa's Kruger National Park, means traveling by air and land rover to a cliff overlooking the remote Nwanetsi River. "It's a true wilderness," says Boyd Ferguson, principal of design firm Cécile and Boyd's. "From your window, you see antelope, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses down at the river and giraffes, lions, leopards, and rhinoceroses out on the savanna. And there may be baboons climbing the cliff behind your room."
If that isn't enough to look at, there's the design, which is as at once as sleek as a gazelle and as textured as the bark of an African eucalyptus. Singita Lebombo's owners encouraged Cécile and Boyd to avoid safari clichés such as thatched roofs and canvas flaps. Complicating the task for Ferguson—who collaborated with Andrew Makin of Design Workshop on the project—was the fact that materials had to be trucked hundreds of miles to the site. And may someday have to be trucked out. The owners have a 20-year concession on the land, and they're obliged to return it to its natural state when they depart.
Knowing that his buildings were temporary, Ferguson decided to mimic the nests, aeries, and lodges that African wildlife build from twigs and other ephemera. His steel-framed glass buildings—15 cottages and a main pavilion—are surmounted by strips of saligna gum, a sustainable farmed timber. From the outside, these twiggy canopies provide camouflage, like the blinds that hunters and photographers use to close in on their prey. "You can see them, but they can't see you," says Ferguson, whose South African childhood included many safaris with his father. The ruse must work. At Lebombo, animals come so near that guests have to be escorted to and from their cottages by game wardens.
Inside the cottages, the saligna-gum canopies create the effect of "camping underneath large trees, with light filtering through the branches," Ferguson says. Of course, nests that go for $1,700 per night have to be air-conditioned, but the AC is powered by a remarkably quiet generator, and it's possible to turn it off and sleep under a tent of mosquito netting.
Never hiding the contrast between tech and craft, Ferguson says he chose the tents' nylon gauze, Velcro closures, and oversize zippers for their "industrial, contemporary feel." At the same time, he emphasized natural elements. Ostrich eggs containing tea lights take the place of lamps, and nubby woolen rugs are reminiscent of dry bush grass. A big stone table, he explains, makes a direct reference to the "chunky boulders" on the banks of the Nwanetsi. Euphorbia candelabrum, a succulent found at the site, inspired a series of glass chandeliers.
Besides sleeping quarters, each of the 750-square-foot cottages contains a sitting room and bathroom—divided not by walls but by curtains, which is why Ferguson has taken to the term "bush lofts." A gauzy white curtain surrounds the bathroom, and a heavier drape of straw-colored suede separates the bedroom from the sitting room. "By moving the curtains, you can accommodate different functions at different times of day," says Ferguson. "You can play house."
The 3,200-square-foot main pavilion, up the hill from the "bush lofts," explores the same themes with even more theatricality, juxtaposing native handicrafts with contemporary furniture. In the dining area, baskets woven from African palms perch on a ledge, not far from maple-topped tables with chrome bases inspired by Charles and Ray Eames. A Murano glass "floor chandelier" of Ferguson's own design suggests fire when illuminated at night, ice when unlit during the day. He painted the lounge's African carved stools white, he says, in order to "see their organic shapes in a fresh way." If he takes one shaky step, it's in turning heavy copper tribal anklets—with their suggestion of bondage—into pendant fixtures. Appropriating artifacts of one culture for the pleasure of another is tricky business.
Outside, near the pool, Ferguson returns to surer ground. His changing rooms' curling walls recall both high-tech architecture (notably Frank Gehry's) and familiar flora (leaves curling in the wind). It's a compelling effect—so much so that Lebombo guests, gazing in wonder at the animals in their habitat, may just discover the animals looking back.
Euphorbia candelabrum flourishes in South Africa's Kruger National Park, where Cécile and Boyd's designed the Singita Lebombo Lodge.
A canopy of saligna gum surmounts the main pavilion, a steel-framed glass building like the 15 guest cottages. For keeping cool, the lodge offers a 250-foot-long swimming pool.
In the lounge, Boyd Ferguson painted African carved stools white and reinvented native copper anklets as pendant fixtures. Green cotton upholstery brings the freshness of outdoors in.
All cottages overlook the Nwanetsi River. Saligna-gum posts support cottage terraces and roofs.
Indonesian woven-wicker chairs surround maple-topped tables with chrome bases inspired by Charles and Ray Eames. Ferguson designed the Murano glass "floor chandelier."
Curved walls of plaster-clad brick enclose pool changing rooms.
In the bathrooms, clear glass sinks and expanses of mirror ensure that nature dominates.
Outside the main pavilion, Ferguson chose loose-packed stone for paving.
Mosquito netting lowers over the king-size beds. Ferguson designed the table and chairs.