In conversation: Mark van Hoogstraten

In conversation: Mark van Hoogstraten

We chat about enhancing what you already have using architectural insight.

Plantagenta, the garden design business owned by Mark van Hoogstraten and his wife, Melissa van Hoogstraten, has recently expanded to include an architectural consultancy as part of its offering. In an era of upcycling, recycling and general austerity, this is certainly a relevant addition – and can only be welcomed by those wanting to renovate or build a new home.

Mark is blunt in his assessment of a certain kind of architectural ambition: “Too many houses, once renovated or newly built, simply don’t ‘work’.” Despite the best intentions, many turn out to be over-sized, over-specced and overdone – or are simply impractical, lacking flow and liveability. Charm, soul and heart are dispensed with – at vast expense. Function is often sacrificed to form, or form to function. Architectural “features” can prove to have very little longevity in the changing lives and living patterns of the owners.

As he wryly remarks: “I see many houses that tick all the boxes except the right ones!”

In Mark’s opinion, many of the “architectural masterpieces” that look fabulous and grace the pages of the interior magazines aren’t that pleasant to actually live in. It’s a dream environment for architects and estate agents, though. Huge fees are paid to build these houses and then huge commissions are charged when they sell. And sell. And sell.

Mark is nonplussed when architectural gems and “old dogs” – that may have worked in a previous era – are razed, to be replaced by very expensive eyesores. All that may have been called for was some relatively inexpensive rearrangement and restoration. A house that sits comfortably in its landscape, with a healthy ratio of garden to house, maintains a healthy carbon footprint. Why overspend on the built environment at the expense of the natural environment? Trees are felled. Birds are banished. Science and simple logic tell us we should be going in the opposite direction.

There is a certain scale that best fits human size and activity. Yet this is sacrificed in the desire to maximise – both house and associated fees. Functional characteristics such as the flow of energy, quantity of sunlight, and practical placement are too often not considered. We ask Mark how he came around to this view of thinking. Years ago, he bought a dilapidated property in Ida’s Valley outside Stellenbosch with two rundown buildings on it. He had planned to demolish them both and build a brand new house. Fortuitously, a friend visited for tea one afternoon and suggested that Mark consider remodelling the existing structures.

Before the day was over, Mark had worked the existing buildings into a mental plan. A year later, he moved into a beautiful home, built at a fraction of the cost of a brand new house and with far more character. It “lived” well in both summer and winter, for few people or many, and was much admired and celebrated. He sold the property twenty years later and the new owners have made very few changes. They love the place just as much as Mark and Melissa did, because it works for them too. This is the true hallmark of a well-planned and thought-out house.

Once aware of the benefits of thinking more and spending less, Mark started noticing an increasing amount of what he calls “architectural lunacy” happening around him. A gorgeous and much-loved beach house demolished to make way for a cavernous monstrosity that is freezing in winter. A solid old house in Constantia set in an ancient garden all totally erased and replaced by a faux Tuscan villa. A hilltop mansion so exposed as to offer virtually no outdoor living at any time of the year. The examples run on.

Mark’s aim is to help the client to get the best outcome and avoid disappointment, by talking through their lifestyle, changing needs, tastes and options. Fee structure norms usually disincentivise architects from encouraging clients to work with what they have. Hence the need for someone like Mark as an architectural consultant.

The emphasis is on guiding and advising the client to end up with a building that is pleasing to look at, suits the family’s lifestyle through its various phases, and also sits comfortably and harmoniously in the surrounding environment – and within the historical backdrop. As Mies van der Rohe may have said more than once: “less is more”.

Words: Mark van Hoogstraten (as told to J-P de la Chaumette)