SAOTA: Design Without Borders
Acclaimed South African architectural studio SAOTA is a global powerhouse in innovative and beautiful design.
The ultimate compliment that can be paid to any musical performer is that they can “play any gig,” meaning whatever the concert, audience makeup, location or environment, they can own it. That same sentiment can be given to only a rare collection of global architectural firms, such as SAOTA, a South African design studio with a footprint around the world, having completed projects in 86 cities on six continents.
Founded in 1986 by Stefan Antoni and now with 200 employees and led by Antoni, Philip Olmesdahl, Greg Truen, Logen Gordon, Phillippe Fouché and Mark Bullivant, SAOTA is known to bring an innovative and dedicated approach to the design, documentation and execution of its modern-influenced projects globally, which has made it an internationally sought-after brand.
“We are always looking to create projects, environments and design experiences that are beautiful, memorable and exciting,” says Bullivant, one of SAOTA’s design principals, in a recent interview with Dolce. “There are many moving parts on any project, technical and people management among them, so it takes stamina to overcome them, but at the same time always remembering to put the design first. One of the most satisfying aspects is seeing what was at first a scribble or a drawing on a piece of paper spring to life.”
Though it designs boutique hotels, and commercial and mixed-use properties in Africa, North America, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, SAOTA is perhaps best known for designing some of the most stunning and innovative private residences in the world for its highly successful clientele, who expect, and can afford, only the best.
“One of the nicest and most interesting parts of our work at SAOTA is the calibre of our clients, as I’ve learned a lot from many of them,” says Bullivant. “Typically, they are very successful individuals, and that success is because they are detail-oriented people. Once they’ve got their first taste of design and realize how much fun and enjoyable the process is, it is a lot of fun. They have different thought processes and ways they communicate. It’s always interesting to see how these people organize their lives.”
Headquartered between the mountains and ocean in picturesque Cape Town, South Africa, SAOTA’s design philosophy is to marry its projects to their surrounding natural environment, both in positioning and layout, as well as the building materials selected and incorporated.
“Working internationally, that comes with many different environments and characteristics,” says Bullivant. “Working here in Cape Town, we have many diverse views and we try to use that, together with climate considerations, for any building, such as where is the sun, where do we need cover. That kind of approach to the design is consistent, no matter where we work.”
SAOTA is also focused on using the most current and sophisticated computer technology in its design process, both to understand the design and to communicate the design through 3D technology and virtual reality to its clients. Its focus on achieving maximum value has also led to global invitations to design, build and create highly prestigious projects, many of which are some of the most beautiful and captivating private residences in the world.
One of those is Dilido, a Miami house on a pie-shaped lot on the southern tip of Di Lido Island with superb views of the islands, downtown and Miami Beach. The house spills out onto the longer waterfront elevation to evoke the experience of being on the deck of a superyacht. The harmonious merging of internal and external living spaces is a theme carried throughout the home’s design.
Also in Miami is Terracina, completed in 2018 on Golden Beach with a spectacular view up the Intercoastal Waterway. Defined through a rhythm of outdoor landscaped rooms in true SAOTA style, the openness transcends to private spaces through perforated screens and large, covered outdoor spaces.
The Lake Huron house on the shores of the Great Lake in Ontario was a challenge in design, because the four distinct seasons of its location had to be addressed. “We try to design so all of our projects have distinct differences in materiality,” recalls Bullivant of the home completed in 2019. “Lake Huron is a completely different type of environment and can be quite brutal because the four seasons in Canada can be quite intense. This led us to using materials that could withstand those conditions, along with a cladding system with a series of stacked and overlapped rectangle forms.”
In the much warmer climate of Los Angeles is Stradella, a private residence completed in 2017 that ideally marries the indoor/outdoor environmental design philosophy of SAOTA. The design includes generous outdoor living areas with slender canopies accented by delicate screens to animate the living areas, tied together by an elegant palette.
But perhaps SAOTA’s most famous design is Hillside house, a private residence high in the Hollywood Hills. It has achieved worldwide attention for two reasons: it was featured on the Netflix realty TV series Selling Sunset, and in 2019 it sold for an astounding US$35.5 million.
At 20,000 square feet, Hillside is the largest home ever built in the Hollywood Hills. This glass-encrusted, three-level hillside jewel has become a stylish and sophisticated sanctuary looking down on all pretenders as a standard above for architectural innovation, luxury and design.
The home’s features are as impressive as its appearance. They include a 12-foot interior waterfall, a 10-car garage and a walk-in dressing room off the master bedroom that was imported from Lake Como in Italy. Because, if you can build a home and sell it for US$35.5 million, you can import dressing rooms from Italy, thank you very much.
The five-bedroom, nine-bathroom home features stunning 270-degree views of Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles from every room. Because this is Hollywood, of course there is an interesting backstory to the project, as Bullivant recalls.
“Hillside has been fascinating,” he says. “At the onset of the project it wasn’t meant to be sold. We were dealing with a very engaged and very committed client who was very involved in the design. It turned out as good as we expected, which is a fundamental aspect of our projects being a success. At some point along the way, Hollywood, being Hollywood, somebody approached the clients that they were doing a realty TV show and could they use the project, and it just all sort of blew up into this massive thing where the billboard promoting the realty show on Sunset Boulevard had a rendering of the house. It was a fun project and a feather in our cap that they got that price when it sold.”
Released in December 2021,Light Space Life: Houses by SAOTA is the first monograph book from the studio. The hardcover will be a beautiful collection of 23 recent residential projects undertaken by SAOTA from around the world, with a particular focus on projects it has completed in Africa. Illustrated with stunning colour photography, the book features a foreword by SAOTA’s client Reni Folawiyo, founder of West African fashion label Alara. The book celebrates 35 years of innovative residential design from Lagos to Los Angeles, including houses from the dramatic South African coast, where the SAOTA story began. The photos illustrate how SAOTA designs in wildly beautiful natural settings and how its design philosophy is based upon the relationship between its projects and its site. For fans of design, no doubt the book will be a beautiful addition to any coffee table.
As for the future of architecture, specifically residential architecture, Bullivant feels the lessons for tomorrow have been provided for us by today’s reality in the world.
“What we’ve all experienced over the last nearly two years is really the importance of one’s space and making it as kind of comfortable as possible,” observes Bullivant. “It has also shown us our space has to be a little bit more all-encompassing, as a lot of people have been working from home. I think in that respect, homes are becoming a little more multi-purpose, and those factors have become significantly more important than they were before. I also think sustainability has become more important, and hopefully we can begin to introduce these new technologies that are coming on board. A lot of these new technologies have had some resistance from some of the local building codes, but as you see these becoming a little more commonplace, you’ll be seeing more of that incorporated into our designs.”
Architecture on six continents and in 86 cities and counting is really global in nature, and it takes an innate ability to adjust and adapt to the market and the environment you are working in. SAOTA is one of those rare firms that travels well, can “play any gig,” and designs and delivers an astonishing array of outstanding products worldwide.
Interview by Estelle Zentil