Nowhere in England, and indeed nowhere in Europe or North America, can such a consistently up-to-date neighbourhood be seen
Originally published in June 1953, this piece was republished in May 2017 in connection with AR May 2017 on Africa
In the struggle to consolidate and exploit the new architecture as a manner of everyday construction - often a more heroic battle than the original invention of the style - the Dominions are playing a vital, though sometimes unappreciated, part. In the article which follows Professor Pevsner draws attention to a hitherto unremarked phenomenon: the sudden appearance of ‘a little Brazil within the Commonwealth.’
For in Johannesburg a group of architects have evolved a contemporary vernacular for the many large buildings, mostly blocks of flats, which have been erected there since the War. The greater part of this development lies in the suburb of Hillbrow, seen opposite in two high-level views-one from, the other towards, the gleaming sand-tips which form a suitably exotic and dramatic complement to an area extraordinarily consistent in its use of a modern idiom.
The train climbs nearly 6,000 feet from Cape Town to Johannesburg. You travel through the vineyards and fruit plantations of the Cape Province, then up the Hex River, in serpentines as daring as those of the Gotthard route across the Alps, rising by two and a half thousand feet over a distance of 36 miles, and then you reach the Great Karroo, miles upon miles of flat, bare and barren table-land both sides of the railway track, untouched perhaps within eye-sight by any human hand, scruffy low growth, never tended; red soil, red rocks, no water. The towns and villages, where there are any, are of low houses along wide, dusty, tree-lined streets. The hotel may be the only house rising to three storeys, the Lord Milner Hotel for instance, at Matjesfontein, 3,000 feet up; European population 150. But from Matjesfontein it is still 650 miles to Johannesburg, 650 miles through the Central Karroo and then the Northern Karroo or the High Veld.
You stop at Kimberley, where they found the first diamonds in 1871 and still show you ‘the largest man-made hole in the world,’ a crater 1,200 feet deep, and finally you reach the Rand, the reef that runs in a west-east direction, and on which Johannesburg stretches out its suburbs, its locations, its subsidiary towns, for something like 40 or 50 miles in one direction; for 7 or 8 in the other. Gold-mining has left its mark in handsome sand-tips and slime-dams of all sizes. The sand-tips are often conical, the slimedams of a stepped tabular shape something like models of Table Mountain. They say a number of them have already settled so firmly that one could build on them.
They also point at one of them or near one of them and tell you that there the first gold of the Rand was dug in 1885. The conical tips look very much like the white china-clay dumps of Cornwall, but vary in colour from a pale yellow to gold and auroral pink. They stand on your right and don’t leave you, until the train pulls in at the station.
It is an untidy station, because it is obsolete in its size, and rebuilding has begun. The old station still proudly displays its Imperial Roman booking halls, by Gordon Leith-old indeed; for the building dates back to about 1934. Now the designs for a new station have been approved. It will be modern and extensive and have all the most up-to-date facilities, separation of the rare long-distance traffic from the suburban traffic along the Rand, concentrated to maximum capacity in the rush hours, and of course another kind of separation, providing for the black their own entrances, booking-offices, cloak-rooms, luggage-counters and waiting-rooms. It will make a fine-looking group, though placed against the screen of a sixteen-storey block which in the present designs is rather schematically symmetrical.
‘There is no shortage of work for the architect at Johannesburg.’
But gone are the giant columns of Rome, America and Sir Herbert Baker, gone to make way for a straightforward idiom of today, handled apparently with complete ease and without any of the self consciousness which in Europe might lead to a more sensitive, more personal design, or on the other hand to over designing. If you have not much work on a scale larger than that of a cottage or terrace of cottages, you tend to overdesign what you have to design. There is no shortage of work for the architect at Johannesburg.
The town has about 800,000 population, 3501000 white, 450,000 black. The first houses on .the stretch of bare Veld were built in 1886. Chicago is of venerable age compared with Johannesburg. The earliest dated house I have seen is Palace Buildings, of 1889, that is the year of the completion of Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, of Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building at Chicago, the one creating a new style in interior decoration, Art Nouveau years before any European Art Nouveau, the other using steel framing for a 13-storey office block. Palace Buildings is sweetly provincial. With its 2 1/2 storeys and its confectionery turret at the corner, it was no doubt an ambitious piece of display in a town three years old, but its patterns are at Walsall or, if you like, Peckham Rye, rather than in the City of London or at Paris or New York. However, at Johannesburg also it was out of date five years later, and heights of six and seven storeys and the giant columns and bulging friezes of Mountford and Aston Webb, or alternately the pilasters and tourelles of the Franco-Flemish varieties favoured by Sir Ernest George, appeared along the straight and wide streets. The population in 1910 had reached over 200,000 (112,000 European).
The original mining camp was divided into square blocks 206 foot each way and had a plain grid pattern of streets. On this American pattern the town grew, and the centre is laid out entirely like that. An occasional grouping of two blocks together to allow space for the City Hall or the Law Courts or the station, and an occasional leaving of one block to the municipal gardens department is all that punctuates the plan. Moreover, the centre is on flat land. There is nothing attractive there, neither English variety and surprise, nor French scale and grandeur. And when vertical development began in the centre, no control was established over the placing of skyscrapers, so that the pattern has no more composition in the third dimension than in length and width.
But immediately north of the centre, just across the railway, the ground rises steeply, the face of the red rocks is exposed in mariy places, and then, all through the wealthy white suburbs ridge appears after ridge, the main roads follow the lines of old tracks or lanes, and to the left and right innumerable spacious gardens stretch out, with lush vegetation, jacarandas, plane-trees, syringas, pine-trees, poplars, all planted in the last-fifty years and mostly less, and all tended with great care during the winter months of unbroken dryness. The surprising extent of this garden landscape is due to the almost universal preference for the bungalow. The richest magnates in the early years of this century built two-storeyed villas; otherwise houses keep close to the ground and spread loosely, often as the result of gradual growth. Here and there, pavements have never been made in the streets. Those who live in these suburbs all have cars; pedestrians are black. Their graceful, resilient gait, their sleek swinging arms are in contrast to the bulging curves of the ubiquitous fat American cars. Now that flats have broken into this artificial Eden the car is beginning to become a problem.
‘A grid is never a satisfactory setting for monumental architecture’
The University of Johannesburg or the University of the Witwatersrand, as it is called, is as good a vantage point as any to take iii the prospectus of the city. The university was founded only in 1921, but being official or representational architecture, it sports a giant portico and a symmetrical layout looking dominant enough on its ridge. Behind the main building, to the south the eye wanders over the lusty ragged outline of the centre and then comes to a stop at the chain of mine-dumps. They add a much needed element of improbability, and if the City Engineer’s Department and the City Council had imagination they would follow suggestions made to them, especially by M. Rotival, a French planner who used to be at Yale University, and build on suitable dumps. The centre lacks space for civic buildings, a grid is never a satisfactory setting for monumental architecture. Individual buildings on individual barrows, especially if surrounded by well-laid-out planting, would give the town just what it lacks.
Behind the dumps-which are no more than a quarter of an hour’s walk from the City Hall-the town goes on, with poorer suburbs, small industry and much waste land. The main roads out are tidier to look at than in the States, but no more gratifying architecturally. M. Rotival’s plan deals, apart from the separate case of the dumps, with large issues. It is an outline plan for the development of the whole area between the centre of Johannesburg and the town of Vereeniging, 36 miles by road to the south, which has become, in recent years, the centre of a new area of industrial expansion. The plan is very much in outline its anatomical diagrams look fascinating. Whether it will be followed depends on many things. The commissioning agency was a group of property-owners; the City Council has nothing to do with it, and one has reason to believe-housing policy in particular-that it would not possess either enough imagination or enough enthusiasm to vote and raise money for such a plan. It would be the first planning venture of Johannesburg.
Housing policy has just been mentioned. The position is this. Land in the better-class suburbs is in private hands, and development is with certain qualifications uncontrolled. Native housing is partly-much too small a part-municipally built, but mostly squatting. We must take these various sections of Johannesburg one by one, and examine their architectural aspects.
The well-to-date private house received its architectural cachet at the skilful hands of Sir Herbert Baker. Until he came and revived Cape-Dutch gables and stoops with white columns, the unpretentious villa with iron or timber verandah had been the rule. The two types made up the pattern, until a band of young architects between 1932 and 1934 grafted Le Corbusier on to the Transvaal. They were Rex Martienssen with his partners John Fassler and Bernard Cooke on the one hand, Norman Hanson with his partners Tomkin and Finkelstein on the other. And in Pretoria there was Gordon Mclntosh. Rex Martienssen, the most brilliant of them, died young in the early years of the war. The best of these Early Modern houses were illustrated in The Architectural Review nine years ago [Vol. 96, 1944]. They now look curiously and often pleasingly dated. What was good in them is still fresh, what was stunt seems as distant as Art Nouveau.
The style of the wealthy private house in the Transvaal now, as far as it is not Cape-Dutch or garnished with other semi-period motifs (Spanish Colonial-Mission is having quite a run), can best be compared with the United States. Distance is no longer an object; the Forum and Progressive Architecture bridge it with ease. American are the lowpitched spreading roofs and the contrasts of materials. Random rubble has become a menace to domestic relaxation in the Transvaal. It tends to accentuate too boldly the exterior and to make its voice heard too ostentatiously by the fireside. Should Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin I of 1911 and Taliesin Ill of 1925 be made responsible for the fashion outside houses or rather Le Corbusier’s Pavilion Suisse of 1930-32? For the wealthy American private house Mr. Breuer surely is the principal culprit who caught the infection already before he left England. And as for the exposed boulders inside, the source may again be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Ill, or else such Corbusier designs as that for the flats at the Porte Molitor (1933). Anyway, modern domestic architecture in the Transvaal seems almost wholly committed to it. Exceptions such as the elegantly precise and entirely unmannered house which Bernard Cooke built for himself are rare, and equally rare is so original, ingenious and excessive a handling of the accepted motifs as that of Mr. Norman Eaton’s houses near Pretoria (see p. 380).
Pretoria is only 35 miles from Johannesburg, and although the atmosphere of the seat of government is utterly different from that of commercial Johannesburg, the two can in their examples of recent architecture be taken together. Cape Town, 900 miles away, keeps an architectural milieu of its own. Mr. Eaton enjoys the use of the straight and slender trunks of gum trees for mullions and for open roofs the gum poles supporting a beamed flat roof also carried on gum poles.
As for the plan of the private house, the special problem in South Africa is raised by the colour bar: African servants have their quarters separate from the main living and sleeping rooms of the house, even if usually very close to them. The solutions vary, and Mr. Eaton’s fantastic kraal of rondavels is emphatically an exception. Separation of ‘white’ living rooms and bedrooms in different wings is also done often, and with an intermediate arrangement of porch, lobby and entrance hall has been used for successful grouping, especially by Messrs. Cowin & Ellis.
‘Flats are therefore even more hopelessly out of the question’
Less ambitious houses differ first of all by the size of the plot, or stand, as its local name is, and then by number of rooms. When it comes down to stands of an eighth of an acre one longs for planning in the English sense, for terraces and groups of four, in all the various patterns they can be given. But the lower middle class in South Africa won’t have them. As far as they are immigrants from the countryside into the town, they still, in their hearts, hanker after a farmstead, and as far as they are immigrants from Europe the bungalow is their very idea of the new, larger and opener life. Flats are therefore even more hopelessly out of the question. With no vertical punctuation by alternating one-storeyed, two-storeyed and bigger houses and no horizontal punctuation by detached houses, semi-detached houses and terraces, no visual interest can be given to those parts of towns, where in England most of the promising work is to be found. No Lansbury, no Harlow must be expected. To make working-class estates at Johannesburg gratifying to the eye much inducement would be needed.
That is where in their townships for Africans the city engineer and the manager of native affairs have so far failed. If only authorities could make up their minds to look at African housing purely as poorer working-class housing, much could be achieved. A hundred years ago in England also industrialisation had brought to the towns an illiterate country population, earning wages too low to pay for any but the most disgraceful housing. Read The Builder in the 1840’s, and you will find conditions as sordid as those you see at Alexandra and Sophiatown. The same fear also prevailed amongst the ‘whites ’ of London and Liverpool then of violence, and- of the disastrous consequences of allowing any rights to the workers. Again, what was done for them in ‘family dwellings for the labouring classes,’ in Peabody Trust and Guinness Trust, was charitable at first. When towns and boroughs began to build, they knew they could not expect returns.
All this is repeating in Johannesburg, with two differences, however. One is outside the framework of this article. The London workman who grew up in the slums might rise to be a mill-owner. The African worker cannot even be a foreman. If you keep nearly half the population of a city as permanent unskilled labour, you cannot expect that housing them will ever be other than sub economic. That does not make it less of a municipal duty to provide sufficient housing. It makes it more so. And, secondly, standards of housing and standards of estate planning are not now what they were before 1900. There is no excuse for repeating the mistakes of drab and uniform layouts as we know then from Peabody estates and from Brixton and Clapham. Yet the City of Johannesburg, when it does· provide for black workers, houses them in rows upon rows of rectangular boxes arranged in straight lines, neither according to their home traditions nor to ours. No one has been able to explain to me why municipally laid-out and built native townships should not be visually as attractive as council housing estates can be here, by means of variety of layout, planting and so on.
Otherwise, the situation is like this. There are municipally-built native townships chiefly at Orlando, Western Township and White City. They house a total of about 150,000. Buildings are plain and primitive, but sufficient, and considering those who move in, compare probably with prefab housing in England. There are snags, such as the larger size of the African family and also that for instance at Orlando there is only one water-tap to each five houses. Sanitation by the bucket system is in every house. That is not much -not as much I understand as in some locations in other parts of the Transvaal-but more than in most parts of the southern half of Africa. But at least another 200,000 people are in need of such houses, and the town says they have not got the money to provide them.
The result is the disgusting shanty towns around Johannesburg. Some of them are municipal land thrown open without any care as to what would happen on it, except that no one was allowed to occupy more than a minimum space. Shacks and huts are built of any material, sanitation is provided, but inadequate, rubbish collecting not frequent enough, tuberculosis rampant. Such is the situation at M01·oko, at Sophiatown and Newclare. The worst township, however-and this is food for thought-is on Africanowned land. It is the anomaly of Alexandra that here, closer to the town than Orlando and White City, an area was thrown open to native ownership. Houses went up that were at first as good and spacious as white houses on similar land; for only the rare well-to-do Africans could buy the ground. Each house had a spacious backyard, and it was there that soon crowds of miserable huts appeared and were let to fellow-Africans at extortionate rents. A one-room corrugated hut in Alexandra costs more than a house at Orlando.
Rents in the municipal locations are 17s. 4d. a month for a two-room house, from 21s. 8d. to 35s. for a three-room house and from 26s. to 50s. for a four-room house. At Moroko the rent for a building plot of 20 by 20 foot is 10s. a month. At Alexandra a one-room shack may cost 20s. Planned estates for African workers designed by the best architects in the Transvaal are the most urgent necessity, and they could become one of Johannesburg’s visually most attractive features. The cleanliness of the kraal is guarantee for the way in which they would be kept. The building of blocks of flats has recently been recommended to house African workers. I doubt the wisdom of this. The contrast to conditions at home, that is in the kraal, would be too great. Once an urbanized population has finally settled down to decent living that may change. For the moment it is small houses not flats that must solve the problem of native housing.
It is different with white housing. No country could be more addicted to the villa and the cottage than England. Yet, while the working class housed first by the charitable trust and then in flats by the council still regards to this day the flat as a poor second, expensive housing in flats has become a matter of course, and seems welcome to many. The same is happening at Johannesburg. Blocks of flats looking like English 1910 (Georgian-Palladian rather than Tudor) began to appear about 1925-35, and they have multiplied in the last ten years and changed their costume. In their new shape they are the outstanding contribution made by Johannesburg not only to South African architecture but to the whole of modern architecture in the Commonwealth. I doubt if there is any other city in any other part of the Commonwealth which can offer the eye so consistent and convincing a vision of the style of to-day. Now a centre in the Commonwealth where the twentieth century is the twentieth century is a phenomenon worth knowing about. Johannesburg has up to now been too modest about its recent buildings, perhaps because the architects responsible for the new style, remarkably thoughtful and eminently reasonable men, felt that there was no special merit in being of the twentieth century, where there is no nineteenth century at all, with its respect for, and imitation of, the past. But that modesty, while it is becoming, ought not to sway us. We can be critical of individual solutions or attitudes; and that is indeed what those working out there expect of us. But the undeniable fact remains: the unknown existence of a Little Brazil in the Transvaal.
It is the new blocks of flats more than anything that rouse such feelings. They deserve to be examined in some detail. There are two types, three- to four storeyed, and nine- to sixteen-storeyed. The first type may be found anywhere, though specially frequently near main crossings, circuses, etc., the second in only one neighbourhood, Hillbrow. This small township is the only one in which skyscraper flats have been authorized by the city councilor reasons best known to its members. The area until then was chiefly one of bungalows, and it is hardly necessary to say that the value of each plot of ground has since risen tenfold and more. So someone is making a lot of money out of this change in land utilization.
The three- to four-storey flats can be built in any of the numerous areas zoned for the purpose and there are a few areas-Rosebank for instance-where they begin to make sense visually. Hillbrow makes no sense. The street pattern is the usual grid. Street widths are therefore far too narrow to justify ten storeys and more. It is almost impossible to arrange for sufficient space for cars, as most of the flats are small, and with each flat goes at least one car.Moreover, most servants are natives, both those servicing the blocks and those employed by the tenants. For them rooms are-in an old Continental tradition-in an attic storey. But there are no other facilities for them, and so they have to spend their odd moments or hours of leisure in the streets, sitting on the kerb and playing the guitar, or sitting and playing a game of merils together, or just sitting and enjoying the sunshine and the silky blue sky. It is a pleasure to watch, but not what government, city council and indeed tenants would favour, who have to pay exceedingly high rents. The result of all this in a few years is obvious. Up to now there are still enough gaps between the new blocks to give many people fine views. They can be superb since Hillbrow lies indeed on the brow of a hill. When all is built over, most flats will be gloomy, rents will go down and the class occupying the flats will change. Hence the high rents now. Blocks are intended to pay back the money invested in four or five years. From the point of view of planning-social as well as visual-Hillbrow is a dismal failure. From the architectural point of view things are different.
‘The projecting frame is the hallmark of Johannesburg at this time.’
All these new blocks of flats at Johannesburg are modern, in the sense that no one would be tempted to give them doorways with pilasters and pediments or sash-windows or pitched roofs. Moreover, they are all of the same sub-species of modern: with reinforced concrete frames and brick panels; plastered partly in pale colours, pink, rust, nile-green and so on-colours which keep fresh in the Johannesburg climate. They have horizontal windows, recessed or rectangularly projecting balconies, and somewhere or other projecting frames.
The projecting frame is the hallmark of Johannesburg at this time. It reached the town with Rex Martienssen’s own house, an extremely carefully designed study in the abstract art of the facade, balanced as nicely as a Mondriaan painting and incidentally expressing the internal plan. The whole little block is outlined by such a projecting frame. The motif had been used by architects in England before the war more frequently than in other countries. Maxwell Fry, Lubetkin, F. R. S. Yorke and Goldfinger all have occasionally made use of it between 1935 and 1939. Le Corbusier has nothing similar; nor apparently had Italy, except for the Colonia Principi di Piemonte at the Lido of Venice in 1938. The popularity of the motif may well be due to its wide acceptance by Brazil and the sudden fame won by Brazilian buildings, thanks to Mr. Kidder Smith’s gloriously illustrated Brazil Builds of 1943. There examples abound, by Niemeyer, the Robertos and so on. Whether Johannesburg swallowed it whole, thanks to Martienssen’s house or Brazil Builds, I cannot say. Anyway, it is ubiquitous now. The projecting frame might be applied to the odd lavatory window or a row of them up the wall of a tall block, or to each loggia, or to whole parts of facades.
The result is most impressive. Nowhere in England, and indeed nowhere known to me in Europe or North America, can such a consistently up-to-date neighbourhood be seen. The speed of construction-people move in while the top floors are not yet built-ensures stylistic unity. There are no stages of modern at Hillbrow. And that stylistic unity, while not giving much chance to individual geniuses yet an achievement. The style as here described and amply illustrated is taught by the flourishing School of Architecture in the university, and it is unhesitatingly used by the architect of the largest number of successful blocks of flats in the town: Harold Le Roith. He builds much, but even young men a year or two after graduation may find themselves designing blocks of flats on their own account. There is, to be sure, no difficulty in the designing. Motifs are frankly motifs and come in useful whenever the opportunity arises.
Greenwood house 2
But should one not weigh against that the blessings of the universally accepted idiom? What makes Bloomsbury Bloomsbury and Bath Bath is the acceptance of the pattern-book. What makes Oxford Street and Princes Street the muddle they are is individualism running riot. Georgian doorways were designed by small builders straight from engravings in volumes to which you subscribed. Hillbrow is the outcome of this same attitude and benefits from its advantages.
Nor is the projecting frame confined to the flats. Office buildings in the centre share it. There is little difference all round, except that in the last few years another pattern has become the fashion, one with narrow upright windows separated by boldly projecting mullions rising sheer to the top. Norman Hanson’s Medical Centre, ingeniously constructed so as to give all consulting rooms the necessary services, electricity, etc., is the best example to date.
Only public architecture lags behind. Looking at the new General Post Office one is sadly reminded of conditions at home (or in the States). The Public . Works Department of South Africa would not shrink from the new Government Offices in Whitehall. In fact, Nationalist and Afrikaans as the Department may be, its style is more British than Dutch or South African. The rules were of course laid down by Sir Herbert Baker. His Union Buildings at Pretoria, superbly sited against a hill, with glorious gardens at their foot and the lilac jacaranda trees lower still along the avenues of the town, started giant columns and cupolas. Much can be said in favour of Sir Herbert Baker. It was he, I was told, who found quarries and trained men to use and carve stone intelligently, he who found local woods suitable for architectural decoration; and, in addition, he succeeded here and there in an original and adventurous handling of his material, in the inner court of the Union Buildings, for instance, and in parts of St. John’s College, Johannesburg. But his all the same remains the responsibility for an alien idiom grand enough to impress officialdom. If the men of the City of Johannesburg had been like those of the City of London, he would no doubt have lured commercial architecture into his Palatial-Palladian too. But the private capital of Johannesburg kept a pioneering bluntness and soon got over what might be called its Edwardian-Imperial phase.
As for the public buildings a similar change is perhaps imminent. There is at least one extremely encouraging case. To design the new building for the National Meat Board a private architect, H. W. E. Stauch, was commissioned (telegraphic address: Bauhaus, Pretoria), and the result is excellent-not a mere re-hash of the Johannesburg flats, yet clearly a member of the same family. The railway station of Johannesburg from which this conducted tour started will also be modern and without any official phraseology. The subtlety and brilliance of the Rome station one must not expect, a sturdy direct contemporary idiom is enough, and there can be no question that the new station, when completed, will be liked by more than a clique. I have not once heard any of the English cliches against modern building. What goes up is welcomed.
Optimism is the pervading mood of Johannesburg. The city stands on gold, and as long as mankind does not grow up to see through the fallacy of gold, Johannesburg will prosper. Money is earned more easily than in England. There is more leisure. Basic food is cheap, wine is cheap, service is cheap, income tax is low. The sun shines for months on end, rains on the whole come at their established time of the year and the day. What else can you ask for? That a total collapse may be caused by racial rather than commercial policy is only beginning to dawn on people. Remarks on future DP camps for South Africans in England are no more yet than jokes. Yet there are few who would venture to say that they know a practicable and equitable solution.