Driven by their inquisitive nature and a design philosophy that connects function and form, the internationally sought-after SAOTA architects are certainly no strangers to delivering exceptional projects to diverse markets. This October, SCAPE had the privilege of interviewing Principal Professional Architects Stefan Antoni and Greg Truen from SAOTA to discover more about this well-known brand.
Q: Give us a run-down of what sparked the inception of SAOTA and what drove you to spearhead such a signature style of sophisticated, futuristic architectural design?
Stefan: I worked for different architectural practices during my student years, often for free or very little money. I was just keen to be involved and to be able to learn. After one year of working after my graduation, the economy slumped. I decided to complete a few private projects and then reassess what to do with my life… But then work started flowing in again and soon I found that I needed to employ people to meet deadlines. The company was started in 1986. It was known as Stefan Antoni Architects at the time, and in 2008 we officially rebranded to SAOTA.
In the beginning, people came to us with their ideas and we needed to gently persuade them to go in a different direction. Over time, clients brought us images of our own work and would say that is what they love, so now, clients often leave it up to us to interpret what is appropriate for the site and their requirements and lifestyle. Today, work is more considered and thorough. New ideas are constantly being introduced and existing ideas challenged.
Greg: I completed my Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Natal and joined Stefan Antoni Architects as a project architect in 1995. In 1998, I was made a partner and worked on an extensive range of residential, retail, commercial, and educational projects.
We try to create buildings that integrate space – internally and externally – in a way that maximises the connection with the landscape, creating spaces that are easy and empowering to live in. Our buildings draw on a rich tradition of regional modernism; the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil and Gawie Fagan in South Africa are good examples of where architects draw on the clues from their sites, the culture of building, and the people of the places of their buildings to inform their designs.
Q: SAOTA’s been working on projects in 86 countries spanning six continents! How have you managed to scale the firm’s international project scope and specialisation from commercial mixed-use, to hospitality and jaw-dropping luxury residential projects in various parts of the world?
Stefan: Over the years we have become a meaningful player in the world. We were ranked #80 in the World Architecture Top 100 companies in 2022. SAOTA competes against some of the most well-known names out there, but we wouldn’t be able to do this without our team structure. We have seven principals, five of which are each responsible for a different region. The studio is usually involved on 30-40 active projects at any given time, and hundreds of projects that are at various stages of delivery, whether it’s planning or finance.
Greg: SAOTA is well known for residential work, but we will take on almost any project. We’re doing more high-rise commercial and residential work, and a lot of hospitality work with many of the world’s top hotel brands at the moment. We’ve also completed several schools and university projects and are currently busy with a really exciting school project in the Caribbean.
With staff working remotely, the practices and technology around remote working have completely transformed the way we work internationally. We’re proud of our resilience as an organisation – we emerged from the pandemic 30%-40% larger than when it all started.
Q: What is your personal design philosophy, and how does it align with SAOTA’s ethos? Do you have a specific approach or process when interpreting your client’s brief?
Stefan: The philosophy of our practice is embodied in the spirit of enquiry and the desire to seek solutions within the challenges of new projects that are not only unique, but sustainable and timeless. The quality of lifestyle in a home is crucial. Whether it’s Cape Town or Geneva, an architect needs to understand how a client and their family can live in their home in the best possible way. That’s why we explore options that would bring delight and make it a memorable living experience. Of course, one also needs to take into account the weather, climate, sun, neighbouring buildings, as well as the traditions and customs informing how different generations of the family interact – the sense of togetherness and privacy.
Greg: We always try to design buildings that have a powerful connection to the landscape they sit in. We also try not to use cellular space whenever possible, but rather to use level changes (in floors or ceilings) to articulate space. This allows for individual spaces to feel larger than they otherwise would. Of course, we always want to maximise the amount of natural light that enters an area; this is very important for human life.
Q: How do you navigate South Africa’s architectural context while still pushing the boundaries of experimentation and innovation?
Stefan: South Africa enjoys climate and surroundings that are conducive to an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Our homes, therefore, facilitate interaction and flow between the two. Integration of outside space is always important. Every SAOTA design responds at a visceral level to its context, whether that setting is a South African cliff edge, Swiss lake shore, Russian steppe, Middle Eastern oasis, or an iconic urban location.
Greg: South Africans love to live in houses that allow you to connect with the outside, so this is something we always try to incorporate into our designs. People often compliment our work as being very South African. By that they mean the designs are confident and strong without being alienating; that they connect indoor and outdoor spaces seamlessly; and capture light to make the interior spaces glow. We continually strive to create work that is fuss-free with a certain magic and mystery to it.
Q: Are there any aspects of South Africa’s urban design sector that excites you, or that you think hold promise?
Stefan: Unfortunately, people have moved out of the cities, creating urban sprawl and an endless suburbia. There has been a bit of a return to city living recently, which should be encouraged. However, for this to materialise fully, improved facilities and security need to be provided.
Greg: I wish that urban design was more integrated in the way we build human settlements in South Africa. Lots of room for improvement there. Cape Town is quite interesting in this regard, with the city centre still integral to the city.
Q: Name two buildings, anywhere in the world, that have inspired or evoked an emotional response within you. Why do you appreciate this specific body of work?
Stefan: For me, Ronchamp Cathedral (Notre-Dame du Haut) in France by Le Corbusier remains the most powerful building I have experienced. It is such a remarkable piece of architectural poetry and stands totally timeless in architectural history. Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Germany is another powerful work of incredible simplicity and magic. It captures how space can be designed to have a spiritual quality.
Greg: I must agree with Stefan about Ronchamp – it truly is extraordinary. Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasilia in Brazil is another masterpiece.
Q: Which of your projects is your favourite to date? Why does it hold a special spot in your heart?
Stefan and Greg: It’s difficult to say because, as an architect, your next project should always be your best project. One does not set out to create a more special building than a previous one. Various circumstances often lead to a project being more successful. So, it is unfair to choose one child over another. However, we do enjoy the ones that break new ground, but as this is a constant process of evolution, we are just appreciative of the support and new projects we are commissioned to carry out.
Currently, there are some exciting projects, such as an amazing Hollywood Hills-inspired residential development in China and an incredible house in Arizona. We’ve worked on many phenomenal projects locally and internationally ranging from residential to commercial and hospitality. Internationally, we’re working in Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, Australia, Switzerland, France and Greece, to name a few.
Q: After the LIGHT, SPACE, LIFE monograph exhibition at the Miami Center for Architecture & Design, we wait with bated breath to see what’s next for SAOTA… Can you share what’s up your sleeve in terms of upcoming projects, and perhaps another exhibition?
Stefan: We are planning our next exhibition in New York later this year at the Porcelanosa Showroom on Fifth Avenue. It will continue the LIGHT SPACE LIFE series and will be our fourth exhibition. Our first exhibition was hosted at the Cape Town Institute for Architecture (CIfA) in Cape Town at the end of 2017. We also launched our first monograph book this year, titled ‘LIGHT SPACE LIFE Houses by SAOTA’, and all our exhibitions go hand in hand with the projects featured in the book.