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South African Syntheses

A basic historical primer outlining South Africa’s architectural evolution from earliest times to the present day reveals a peculiarly fertile synthesis of indigenous and foreign influences

Originally published in March 1995, this piece was republished online in April 2017 in connection with AR May 2017 on Africa

Until relatively recently, architecture in South Africa has evolved under the parallel influences of its colonial past and international movements in the wider world. South Africa was originally thought to have no pre-colonial architecture of note, apart from the complex and colourful settlements of the Ndebele tribe in Northern Transvaal. However, the work of Revel Mason and others on the Highveld of the Transvaal and of Peter Garlake in Zimbabwe has shown that there were well established iron-age settlements with quite distinctive protoarchitecture; the Great Zimbabwe ruins being the most intact remaining example.

From the time of European settlement and in typical colonial fashion, indigenous traditions were largely neglected and models from the countries of origin of the settlers were copied. These were mainly from Germany, Holland and Britain, with some influences from France and Portugal. Although South Africa is no longer a colony, foreign influences have continued to prevail. 

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Early nineteenth-century English vernacular in the Eastern Cape

The first of these influences, following the occupation of the Cape by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, was Dutch-Flemish resulting in a regional style of mainly domestic architecture known as Cape Dutch. This style was based on short span, often symmetrical, rectangular plan-forms, usually with H, T, U or E configurations.

The country houses were single-storied, with thick lime-washed walls and relatively narrow, economically disposed door and window openings, thatched with reeds and adorned with local versions of the Baroque and then Rococo gables -for example Groat Constantia in Constantia and Stellenberg House, 1790, in Kenilworth. Urban houses were often double-storied with flat roofs.

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Graceful indigenous grass domes, sitting lightly on the ground

More sophisticated influences were brought to the Cape by particular individuals, notably Anton Anreith, a skilled sculptor and woodcarver from Germany who arrived in 1776, and Louis Michel Thibault who had studied under Gabriel and came as a military engineer with the French occupying forces in 1783. In their work they maintained the continuity of the Cape Dutch tradition, but added new ideas, elements and refinement. A sculptured tympanum at Groat Constantia is one of their finest pediments.

After the Napoleonic wars, the British found themselves the reluctant masters of a strategically important but otherwise unprofitable colony. Expenditure on development was small, but a style based on English Regency and Georgian architecture established itself in Cape Town, while a modified English vernacular tradition was implanted in the Eastern Cape where about 4000 British immigrants were settled in 1820 in an effort to stabilise the troubled frontier.

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High rise in Hill brow- V on Brand is Heights, 1952, by H. H. Le Roith & Partners. Major post-war influences were a synthesis of Festival of Britain, Brazil and the iconic Martienssen House

British imperialism with its concomitant colonial technology developed rapidly in the nineteenth century and when, in the 1870’s, first diamonds and then gold were discovered in South Africa, there was an existing political and administrative apparatus, accompanied by a (literally) ready-made architecture. Victorian patterns, executed in Victorian corrugated and cast iron, proliferated throughout the country. The new prosperity attracted original talents and Herbert Baker (a contemporary of Edwin Lutyens) was the central figure in a new wave of external influence on South African architecture.

Baker was appreciative of the Cape Dutch tradition and sought, in his early work in Cape Town (for example, Groot Schuur, 1890), to incorporate its elements into his already eclectic but sensitive and skilful architecture. His major works, after the Second Anglo-Boer War, included the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town (1908), the Pretoria Railway Station (1908), the Supreme Court Building, Johannesburg (1911), and the Union Building, Pretoria (1913), representing the supreme flowering of Baker’s Edwardian Baroque for public buildings. His former associates and other architects influenced by him, notably J. M. Solomon, who designed the University of Cape Town campus, and Gordon Leith, who practised in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, exerted a powerful influence on all South African architecture until the beginnings of the Modern Movement in the 1920s.

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The aching, mundane inhumanity of Soweto

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Rex Martienssen’s seminal Corbusian cube house in Johannesburg, 1940

From about 1925 the influence of contemporary movements abroad became evident, mainly through the architectural schools and the journal of the Institute of South African Architects, the South African Architectural Record. Stanley Furner, editor of the SAAR from 1926 to 1929, introduced most contemporary movements to the profession. His students, under the leadership of Rex Martienssen and recent immigrants from Europe, responded to these influences, mainly from the heroic period of the International Style. House Munro, Pretoria (1932 by Gordon Mclntosh) was followed by others of which House Harris, Johannesburg (1933 by Hanson, Tomkin & Finkelstein) is a good example-a two-storey white cube showing formal and spatial characteristics derived from Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. A rapid development of domestic architecture followed, culminating in Casa Bedo, Johannesburg (1936 by Cowin & Ellis), a free plan form and Miesian spatial organisation adapted to local conditions by wide eaves and a hipped roof reminiscent of Herbert Baker. Easily replicated by developers and speculative builders, it was also a model for many houses of the next two decades.

Early International Style buildings in Johannesburg were residential: Hotpoint House (1934), Reading Court (1936) and Denstone Court (1937 by Hanson, Tomkin & Finkelstein), Aiton Court (1938 by W. R. Stewart, A. Stewart & Bernard Cooke), Peterhouse (1936 by Martienssen, Fassler, & Cooke) and in Cape Town the Cavalla Factory (1938 by Max Policansky). 

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Dental Hopsital, Wits University, Johannesburg, 1952 by Fassler & Howie, showing the influence of Perret

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Corbusian inspired House Harris, Johannesburg, 1933 by Hanson, Tomkin & Finkelstein. Also acknowledged are Mies, Gropius and Neutra

Local conditions, technology, and inventiveness led to the adaptation of a contemporary vernacular: examples in Johannesburg include Chrysler House (1938 by Nurcombe & Summerley), Washington House (1938 by Le Roith), the 20th Century Cinema and offices (1940 by Cowin & Elljs and Hanson, Tomkin & Finkelstein) and the innovative work of W. B. Pabst-Patidar Mansions (1947) and Chinese Club Building (1948). In Cape Town, there was Pius Pahl, Max Policansky, L. W. Thornton-White and others who pursued this line; in Durban it was epitomisd by buildings such as the Technical College Clubhouse (1943 by Jackson and Park Ross). 

By the ’50s a fairly widespread contemporary vernacular had emerged albeit with regional differences.Writing in the AR in 1953, Nikolaus Pevsner saw clear evidence of a Johannesburg Vernacular: ’a little Brazil within the Commonwealth’.Alternatively, Fassler, Hanson and others worked towards a Neo-Classical style based on the work of Perret; examples are the Dental Hospital (1952 by Fassler & Howie) and the Mining and Geology Building, Witwatersrand (1962 by Hanson & Tomkin). There were buildings in Pretoria designed under the influence of contemporary Brazilian architecture, for example the Meat Board building by Stauch & Partners (1952). In the Cape, there was the work of Thornton White, Price Lewis & Sturrock, and Kantorowich, Hanson & Tomkin. Norman Eaton developed finely tuned regional responses in his series of buildings for the Netherlands Bank, Pretoria (1960) and Durban (1965).

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The infamous 51/9- one of the basic modules for ‘native’ housing in the townships

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The spatial and geometric potency of a Ndebele enclosure

As the country was growing rapidly, commercialism was the order of the day, with the result that the character both of South African architecture and cities was redefined by pragmatic immediacy. Many buildings were designed and built at a time when South Africa was undergoing changes in response to powerful political directives. Ethnic awareness has always been part of South African life - racial segregation was practised from the time of the first European settlers, and the horrors of racial and ethnic genocide well before that. With the wider exploitation of the country by the British from the late nineteenth century, these patterns were systematically built into the policies and institutions of modernising South Africa. Economic opportunism found common ground with the ethnic prejudices of Afrikaners and others.

From 1948 onwards, these tendencies were openly developed and systematically applied as the policy of apartheid. From that time, the principal cities were increasingly closed as places of residence to Africans, Indians and other ‘people of colour’. Numerous formless housing settlements were developed away from the cities, devoid of all but the most rudimentary architectural considerations. 

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Careers centre, Soweto by Jo Noero, 1994. Noero’s poetic functionalism, devoid of cultural references, suggests a possible way ahead for South African architecture

There is little to learn about architecture from apartheid’s ‘townships’ (except possibly about the conditions for the absence of architecture), but there is much that can be learnt about politics, professionalism and associated roles of the architect as participant.Architects were involved in the issues of apartheid and consequent policies regarding settlement and housing. The position taken by architects (other than opportunistic exploitation of state building programmes) included direct political or professional resistance, avoiding involvement by refusing to accept state work, leaving the profession, emigrating, and finally, attempting to ameliorate conditions by technical intervention.7

The next discernible wave of architectural influence occurred in the early ’60s, with the return of young architects who had done graduate study under Louis Kahn, Romaldo Giurgola, Paul Rudolph, Robert Venturi and others in the US. Examples of this influence can be seen in work by Roelof Uytenbogaardt and by Douglas Roberts, mostly in the Cape, work by Glen Gallagher and Wilhelm Meyer in the Transvaal, and in Durban, the work of Hallen & Theron. Associated with those architects returning from the US, the Urban Action Group (UAG) was formed in Johannesburg which raised and contested issues about buildings and politics.

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Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s contribution to the Johannesburg skyline- the overwhelming Carlton Centre, 1966-72

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The Duckpond Pavilion, Port Elizabeth, by Erasmus, Rush mere, Reid- an enticing addition to South Africa’s oldest cricket oval

The different, but complementary influence of Alison and Peter Smithson, and Denise and Robert Venturi, who all visited at the invitation of the UAG, had a strong impact on views held about the city and building.With continued prosperity, foreign architects were commissioned to design major buildings, mainly in Johannesburg, for example, Carlton Centre (1966-72 by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill), Standard Bank (1971 by Hentrich & Pettsnich) and the IBM Building (1975 by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates). 

These years also saw the emergence of diverse local talents attempting a revalidation of architectural languageoutstanding among these was Portuguese-born Amancio d’Alpoim Miranda (Pancho) Guedes, whose exhilarating combination of Gaud.i and Kahn with the local vernacular acted as a stimulus and irritant to the comparatively dry South African profession.

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Die Es at Camps Bay, by Gabriel Fagan, embodying the sensual qualities of Cape Dutch in a modern idiom

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House Rich, Johannesburg, 1986, by Peter Rich, strongly influenced by his studies of the art and architecture of the southern Ndebele

From the 1970s onwards, South Africa’s increasing international isolation was experienced more tangibly, and architectural work became increasingly dissociated from any synthesising, life-supporting vision 9f collective life. Extravagant building complexes were built in independent ‘homelands’ established under the apartheid policy of decentralisation and resettlement- for example the Mmabatho Government Buildings, Bophuthatswana (1984 by Bannie Britz et al) The ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s witnessed a wide range of architectural approaches that largely replicated international concerns.

The trend to megastructures is exemplified by RAU University Buildings (Wilhelm Meyer et al􀀇.), the excesses of PostModernism by the HSRC Building, Pretoria (1988, Pauw et al􀀇.) and the replication of the past and Neo-Classicism, by Revel Fox’s Bank City, 1994.

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House by Helmut Stauch, Pretoria, late 1950s

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Layout for the centre of Mmabatho in Bophuthatswana, 1979, by Bannie Britz

Because of the attrition of public life and public buildings, exacerbated in South African cities by apartheid policy, domestic architecture acquired a particular unportance and provides an expression of contemporary argument, ideologies and aesthetics. This can be seen from the canonical House at Greenside in Johannesburg (1940 by Rex Martienssen) which became a paradigm for much work and exemplified the Modern Movement in Africa. Such an interpretation built on the local vernacular but Was imbued with a spirit of Scandinavian Modernism embodied for example in the extensive and influential Work of Helmut Stauch.

The Transvaal houses of Mike Sutton, Donald Turgell, Andre Hendrikz and others responded directly to local materials, climate and conditions, and Norman Eaton achieved a very distinctive African quality in the houses such as Greenwood House and Village, Pretoria (1951). There are the houses of the Thornton-White school in the Cape, where Modernism is restrained by a harsh climate and a commitment to proper functionality. The use of found materials, and the play of the typical against the contingent, is referred to by architects such as Peter Rich and Stanley Saitowitz, with the latter’s House Brebnor in ldrand (1979). There are further examples: House Biermann ( 1962) an intensely autobiographical work; House Fagan (Die Es), which embodies the sensual qualities of the Cape in a modern idiom, and House Rich in Johannesburg, by Peter Rich, which exploits lessons learnt from intense study of African settlements. 

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Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) by Wilhelm Meyer: a concrete megastructure in the suburban Johannesburg landscape, embodying the scale and selfconfidence of the late ’60s

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Elevation of Bank City by Revel Fox & Partners, 1994. This NeoClassical colossus is headquarters of the First National Bank, and the largest commercial development in South Africa, occupying four entire city blocks in central Johannesburg

If domestic architecture supplies one means of deciphering South African preoccupations, another is provided by the awards programmes run by the Institute of South African Architects. The 1994 annual Awards of Merit represent almost every critical position imaginablefrom the taut sophistication of Gabriel Fagan’s Hermanus house, to the dubious fantasy of the Palace of the Lost City. The recently instituted Award of Excellence has honoured the Library at the University of the Western Cape (1989 by Munnik, Elliott et al􀀇.), the Duckpond Pavilion 1994 by (Erasmus, Rushmere, Reid) and the Soweto Careers Centre by Jo Noero (AR July 1994).

The conclusion seems to be that anything is possible. This could be seen as a serious indictment of architecture in South Africa, or it might be seen as the optimum position from which to start a recovery towards relevant, inclusive, life-enhancing and timeless architecture, serving the new South Africa; at once popular and profound.

References

1. Parts of this article were first published in The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, John Fleming, Hugh Honour & Nikolaus Pevsner, Harmondsworth, 1991, Penguin pp 302-304, ‘South African Architecture’, Ivor Prinsloo and J. Moyle.

2. Exhibition Gugu lamaNdebele: Pride qf the Ndebele, curated by Peter Rich, South African National Gallery, Cape Town, 1994-95. See also videotape: The Rainbow People; the Story qf the Ndebele, 1994, produced and directed by Peter Rich & Charles Moore.

3. Great Zimbabwe, Peter S. Garlake, London: Thames & Hudson, 1973.

4. John Fassler. ‘Contemporary Architecture in South Africa’, Architectural Design,June 1956, pp 176-202, provides a comprehensive and good overview of the period. See also J ulian Cooke, ‘Shifts after the Thirties’, Architecture SA, July/ August 1993, pp 23-30.

5. Nikolaus Pevsner, Johannesburg- The Development of a Contemporary Vernacular in the Transvaal’ The ArchitecturalReview,June 1953, pp 361-362.

6. Clive M. Chipkin]ohannesburg Style: Architecture & Society 1880s-1960s, David Philip, Cape Town, 1993, pp 95-220. See also DerekJapha, The Social Programme qfthe South African Modern Movemmt in Architecture, paper, School of Architecture and Planning, University ofC ape Town.

7. D. R. Calderwood,NativeHousinginSouth Africa,Johannesburg, 1953.

8. See Ivor Prinsloo, ‘Sixties Revisited’, Architecture SA, July/August 1993, pp 31-42.