Sawata: How Architects from “One End of the World” Became a Global Force in Elite Homes

    Stephen Anthony, founder of South African architecture firm SAOTA, likes to tell a story when the firm’s Cape Town office was under construction. The roof was moved into place when he realized that part of the view of Table Mountain would be cut off. the work is stopped. The roof has been completely redesigned so that the city’s famous flat mountain remains unobstructed. Portraying that view was crucial,” Anthony said. “If you don’t, you’ve gone terribly wrong.”

    The tale captures the spirit of Anthony, who welcomes the grandeur of nature into equally grand homes. These are buildings that can make you feel like you own an entire mountain, an ocean extension, or an entire city through clever use of space and framing. No wonder they set real estate records.

    Its clients appear in clusters in South Africa and the United States, but also in the likes of Russia, Indonesia and Nigeria, to test SAOTA’s expertise in a variety of contexts. McMansions, this certainly isn’t: a SAOTA-designed house on Ocean View Drive in Bantry Bay in Cape Town sold for 290 million rand in 2016 ($20.2 million at the time) and is said to have become the most expensive private home sold in Africa. “We try to tell our customers that good design is great value,” Anthony said.

    Now, after more than 30 years in business, the company has produced its first book, Light, Space, Life, which showcases some of his most memorable designs. Anthony, who also described it as a “stepping stone for new ideas” (the purpose of the book) is to gain a mindset; An idea reaches a certain point. So where could the South African company go from here?

    Structural gymnastics at the bottom of Africa

    Anthony began his trade in the mid-1980s, when apartheid and cultural boycotts meant that South Africa was largely cut off from the world. He says his firm rode the “mini-renaissance” wave in a post-apartheid creative boom, but that Cape Town remained in many ways on the fringes of architecture, “at one end of the world, at the bottom of Africa.”

    Anthony said, “You are very aware that you are not at the center of the universe, and if you want to make any kind of impact, you have to do something exceptionally well.”

    Cape Town, with its own terrain, sandwiched between mountain and sea, and faced with different monsoons, has served as an incubator for SAOTA aesthetics.

    Photo of Stefan Anthony's SAOTA designed home in Cape Town.

    Photo of Stefan Anthony’s SAOTA designed home in Cape Town. attributed to him: Adam Leech

    Dr Philippa Tomoboweni, an academic in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town, says SAOTA has brought an innovative approach to architecture in the country. She explained, “It’s structural gymnastics. It’s very tall, concrete and clean space – which isn’t necessarily a new aesthetic, but in the South African context, it was relatively new.”

    Cape Town’s sloping Atlantic coast, where many of SAOTA’s projects originated, served as a shop window. “It’s totally visible,” Anthony said. “People can see (a) a home, which works for us. Because if you design something interesting or beautiful, people will notice.”

    When global markets collapsed in 2008, business in South Africa slowed, only for SAOTA to start collecting commissions from around the world. By 2012, she had designed her first commission in Miami, Florida, a home on the Venice Bridge that was designed to feel like the deck of a luxury yacht, recalls Marc Polivant, SAOTA’s principal architect.

    View from

    The view overlooking “Dilido,” a home designed by SAOTA in Miami was the company’s breakthrough in North America. attributed to him: Adam Leech

    “It was this project that really put everything on its way for us,” he added. SAOTA has picked up more action in Florida, along with New York, California, Colorado and Texas.

    Places with a Mediterranean climate – Los Angeles, for example – are naturally suited to exporting what he calls the “Cape Town building,” Polivant said, while other places, such as the Middle East, require a different approach.

    “We always say our goal is to design a building that feels like it always belongs there,” he explained. For example, in Bali, SAOTA used local black andesite stone instead of concrete, and an upcoming project in Phoenix, Arizona, on the slopes of Camelback Mountain, will use earthen walls to “establish a connection to the site.”

    “There is a fundamental cultural aspect to the different places, in the way that people live,” Polivant said. “But also, from a sustainable point of view, we like to use as much local materials as possible (as possible).”

    SAOTA used a local black andesite stone when building in Indonesia. attributed to him: Adam Leech

    one percent design

    Today SAOTA has 300 employees, working in collaboration with architects around the world to realize its projects.

    Tumubweinee believes that SAOTA’s focus on the early stages of concept development and design development, rather than the construction process, has been key to its success. “On the surface (it seems) to be a strange thing, because as an architect, you want to control the end product. But that means they can do a lot of projects at the same time without having an incredibly large number of employees,” she explained.

    “They disrupted professional practice in the country,” she added.

    Among SAOTA's upcoming projects is this home in Phoenix, Arizona, which was inspired by American architects Rick Joy and Wendell Burnett, said architect Mark Polivant.

    Among SAOTA’s upcoming projects is this home in Phoenix, Arizona, which was inspired by American architects Rick Joy and Wendell Burnett, said architect Mark Polivant. attributed to him: SAUTA courtesy

    The US real estate market boosted the SAOTA portfolio further. Miami-based SAOTA-designed “Pine Tree” sold for $22.5 million in 2017, according to the company, and “Hillside,” a prime location in the Netflix Los Angeles realtor series, sold Sunset, for $35.5 million in 2019. In Miami earlier this year, a Star Island property containing two homes, the largest designed by SAOTA, was listed for $90 million.

    Returning to Cape Town, a city with stark economic contrasts and disparate living conditions, Tomoboweni said Sawata’s high-quality projects were not without criticism. She said, “But, although the criticism is valid – and I agree with that criticism – at some point, especially with architectural practice, there has to be a space where people push the practice even further.” “It’s the ‘one percent,’ who can afford to innovate, who can afford[architects]to experiment,” she added.

    Anthony insisted that he was more interested in the property owners put on their SAOTA homes than their financial value.

    ‘Customers say, ‘You ruined our lives,’ said Anthony, smiling, ‘we go on vacations now and don’t enjoy them much anymore – we want to go home.’

    “In a way, that kind of summaries,” he added. “A home or home is not just a functional living space, it must have an emotional quality… It must be a place where you can realize all your dreams and all your aspirations.”