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12 Incredible Buildings in South Africa

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Portuguese ships sailed past the Cape of Good Hope and what would become South Africa for the first time in 1488, but European settlements were not established until the 17th century. The British and Dutch, who were responsible for these settlements, arrived in a place that had been inhabited since the beginning of human existence and that was the site of urban centers that dated to the 11th century. South Africa’s long history, and its legacy of apartheid, is reflected in these 12 buildings. Earlier versions of the descriptions of these buildings first appeared in 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Mark Irving (2016). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.

  • Groot Constantia

    Perhaps the most majestic of all Cape Dutch homesteads, Groot Constantia’s sober form and elegant gables sum up the charm of a farming tradition that has become known throughout the world alongside the growing popularity of South African wine. Although considered “New World” by connoisseurs, local vineyards and the viticulture on which they depend boast a history almost 500 old. Simon van der Stel, who arrived from Holland as Commander of the Cape in 1679, was Groot Constantia’s first occupant. He acquired the farm in 1685, naming it Constantia after his wife, Constance, and erected a two-story building. Vegetables and wine were produced, not only to feed the household but also to supply passing ships on the spice route between Europe and India. Today’s building dates to the 18th century and to the industrious efforts of Hendrik Cloete, who rebuilt the house. In 1791 Cloete added sash windows to the old house and a wine cellar on the same axis as the farm entrance; structural changes included raising the roof. New gables were designed by French architect Louis Michel Thibault, incorporating a sculpture depicting fertility by artist Anton Anreith. At Groot Constantia today, winemaking and tourism coexist bringing local history to life by preserving the raison d’être of the homestead as a working vineyard. (Matthew Barac)

  • Werdmuller Centre

    Sculptural and bold despite the constraints of its tight, urban site, the Werdmuller Centre in Cape Town is an architectural paradox. Despite its heavy concrete construction, its form is light and playful. Although revered by architects, this shopping mall—built at the height of apartheid, in 1973—has been notoriously unpopular with the public, and there have been campaigns for its demolition. Its existence is, at best, a tenuous one. The design by Roelof Uytenbogaardt provides something of a mirror to his own character. Many took his reserve for aloofness, but he strongly believed in the humanistic duty of architecture. The Brutalism of many of his facades protects a warm sensitivity at the heart of his design approach. Slender pillars and concrete fins raise the center’s offices above the noise and flurry of street life. A ramp corkscrews up the middle of the building representing an urban design effort to extend the pavement into a spiral labyrinth of shop window displays. The idea was to make a new kind of shopping center, one that engaged customers in a spatial experience. But here the architect did not succeed; for years the center was plagued by poor commercial performance. Despite its practical failings, the Werdmuller Centre marks an engagement with International Style trends that established Uytenbogaardt’s place at the table of architectural greats. (Matthew Barac)

  • Tree House

    Nestling on the forested slopes of Table Mountain, this small but influential house leapfrogged its way to iconic status at the close of the 20th century, when it won a series of awards and was published all over the world. Critics were captivated by its jaunty humor, structural invention, and eclectic fusion of forms. Overlooking Cape Town, the house (completed in 1998) manages to do what nearby houses—most of them stodgily anchored to the steep terrain by sprawling plans and flabby terraces—fail to do: it teeters. Aping the gawkily elegant umbrella pines all around, its trunklike columns soar upward before spreading out in an asymmetrical parasol of strut-branches, supporting a roof deck. The impression is of a lightweight pavilion built of trees, its head swaying in the wind while its base is rooted to the bedrock far below. Despite playful features inside and out, the house—designed for art-and furniture-collecting clients—is restrained in its material palette and refined elevations. An almost stripped vertical order—heavy, opaque stone at the bottom and light, transparent glass at the top—is modulated by the shifting patterns of sliding doors and blinds. As well as changing from bottom to top, the elevation appears to transform through its depth. Internal walls peel away in a play of solid and void, surface and depth. Most dramatic is the curvilinear, maple-ply screen behind which a three-story drop offers views from street-level to the garden room below. The design mimics the exposed but enclosed childhood experience of a treehouse, drawing out the spirit of the site in a way that brings the architecture into dialogue with nature. (Matthew Barac)

  • Church of St. Savior

    All but hidden beneath years of additions and alterations, St. Savior’s is a gem of South African architectural history. This small Anglican church, where “Sophy” (as she was known) Gray was buried in 1871, was the best-loved of her large legacy of ecclesiastical works, which included churches and clergy buildings in parishes up and down the country, often in remote settings. Gray’s personal story is, arguably, more interesting than much of her design output. Originally from England, she is usually cited as South Africa’s first woman architect—true in a strictly professional sense, although it should be noted that women masterminded home-building in most traditional African cultures long before Gray made her mark on the 19th-century colony. Sailing for Cape Town in 1847 with her husband, Bishop Robert Gray, she brought their children, servants, clergymen—and plans culled from the best of British church architecture. Their new home became base camp for numerous “visitations” around the episcopal territory, often made in unforgiving conditions and usually on horseback. Always carrying her portfolio, Gray would leave plans at each small town they passed, and by 1861 she was managing 21 building projects, corresponding with far-flung parish councils. But her favorite project was closer to home. St. Savior’s was built on donated land in Claremont. Records show that Gray had workers on site only two weeks after the property transfer, with the first stone laid in September 1850. Doting on the scheme, she personally brought encaustic tiles from London, which she laid around the altar. The church was completed in 1853. An annual Sophia Gray Memorial Lecture series was established to honor her contributions to South African architecture. (Matthew Barac)

  • House Biermann

    Houses designed by architects for themselves are often referred to as “autobiographical.” But can a building really communicate character? Is there more to a home than the passing life of the occupier? Barrie Biermann’s House Biermann, in Durban, is proof that it can and there is; visitors describe it as a window onto his world—a world that formed an erudite bastion against the hostile realities of the day. Friends and colleagues describe Biermann as something of an alchemist. He had the intellectual gift of being able to bring opposites together: the scholarly and the practical, ancient Greek and modern Zulu culture, apartheid politics and grassroots humanism. At a personal level, he lived parallel lives: privately gay, at a time when it was illegal, and publicly part of the academic establishment. Despite these apparent conflicts, his life and work impart a commonsense belief in grounded experience. For Biermann, the human character of everyday life was more important than technologies of power; accordingly, his work demonstrates a faith in place. Rooted to its gently sloping site, its long roofline pitched parallel to the gradient, Biermann’s house, completed in 1962, is like a fantasy realm at the bottom of the garden—except the garden has somehow swallowed the house. The living room blurs the boundary between inside and outside; curved internal walls reinforce the idea of space as an internal landscape, and proceeding into the depth of the home there are steps down into a lush planted courtyard. Subtle surface treatments and a sense of weightless mass contribute to the dreamlike ambience, which speaks of refinement and distinction just as it emphasizes the particulars of its African setting: the ground, the sky, and nature. (Matthew Barac)

  • Nedbank Centre

    “Going to do business in a tree”: that is one description of Norman Eaton’s Netherlands Bank in Durban. It is no ordinary corporate edifice. His building, completed in 1962, furnishes the world of money with a human face. It boasts a broad, public terrace incorporating lush planting and four ceramic fountains, offering “an exchange between aesthetic and natural forms, and sense of generous abundance.” Architecture, for Eaton, was the “art of harmonious living.” Yet his building designs were not idealistic or utopian but grounded in the reality of his times. The machine-age aesthetics of the Modern movement were everywhere. Leading the field in South Africa was a smart young set known as the Transvaal Group, led by Rex Martienssen, an apostle of Modernism. He and Eaton sought an architecture both regional and universal, in which Africa made its mark on what was becoming known as the International Style. Rhythmic pattern, spatial extensity, and an attitude to natural light color Eaton’s efforts to localize the global money culture. A jacket of clay-block fretwork around the glazed banking hall shades its marble floor in dappled sunlight. Sensuous and enveloping, the creamy travertine interior seems at once like a forest glade and a fragment of ancient Rome. This rich material texture and powerful metaphoric presence—a synthesis of romanticism and restraint—signaled a mature phase in Eaton’s oeuvre. (Matthew Barac)

  • Martienssen House

    Modernism did much to shape South African architecture. The idea that towns could perform like machines was appropriated by the apartheid regime, resulting in dislocated and paradoxically inefficient cities. Racial divisions were mapped out according to Modernism’s principles of separate urban functions: “industry” zones became “township” slums for Black workers, while the “town” was reserved for whites. Modernism and apartheid seemed inseparable. However, the Modern movement’s utopian dimension was not entirely lost in South Africa. Its most significant exponent was Rex Martienssen. Dynamic and inspirational, his enthusiasm caught students, colleagues, and famous international Modernists in its wake: he corresponded with Le Corbusier, Giuseppe Terragni, andFernand Léger. Always at the center of debate, he edited the South African Architectural Record as well as teaching and designing. A belief in modern design’s capacity to drive social and spiritual change fueled his tireless networking. Societies such as the Alpha Club and the Transvaal Group were springboards for Martienssen’s activism, and his writing—especially the journal Zerohour (1933)—reads as a manifesto for what his biographer, Gilbert Herbert, calls a “living architecture in South Africa.” Martienssen’s own house in Greenside, built in 1940, is canonical, a regional interpretation of Modern movement principles. Most significant is the composition of the front elevation, which draws on Léger and Jean Hélion, and the aesthetic theories of Wassily Kandinsky. Le Corbusier’s influence can be seen in the character of the plan and in proportional relationships. After only two years in his new home, Martienssen died, aged 37; tribute was paid to his lasting achievement in a special issue of the Record. (Matthew Barac)

  • Constitutional Court

    With the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa in 1994, a new constitution was drafted from scratch. A constitutional court was established and 11 judges appointed, but there was nowhere for them to exercise their powers. Three years later an architectural competition took a step closer to giving the supreme law of the land concrete expression in a new Constitutional Court building. The winning design, by OMM Design Workshop and Urban Solutions, was completed in 2004. Many aspects of the project symbolize victory over the past, not least the choice of site—that of Johannesburg’s notorious “Old Fort” jail (1893), where Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela were former inmates. Today, justice dispensed here is cultural as well as legal, and design elements such as the “Great African Steps,” commemorating heroes of South Africa’s freedom struggle, signal a corrective realignment of history. Traditional African wisdom is associated with the gathering of elders under a tree. This motif is taken up as the court’s emblem and reinterpreted metaphorically in the main public space of the building: the foyer. Tilted, mosaic-adorned columns, irregular skylights, and garlandlike chandeliers create a dappled, internal landscape, lending informality to the court’s proceedings. In this project, also including a library, judges’ chambers, administrative offices, and a garden, decorative crafts and modern construction methods are fused. (Matthew Barac)

  • Union Buildings

    It is ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that the Union Buildings—rooted as they are in the colonial age—formed the backdrop to the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. The architect, Sir Herbert Baker, would have argued that permanent place-making is a more powerful force than passing political opinion. Although he belonged to an imperial culture, his fondness for the South African landscape was born out in his work, particularly in the use of local stone. Cape Town’s Rhodes Memorial and a series of homes in Johannesburg demonstrate his belief that an important building should be anchored to its site. Baker’s fascination with the interplay of stone, nature, and symbolism of place is exemplified by the Union Buildings in Pretoria, completed in 1913. From an elevated base, a semicircular colonnaded main building overlooks an amphitheater set in terraced gardens. The huge wings on either side are said to represent the English and Boer sides of the political union for which the buildings are named. At 902 feet (275 m) from end to end, this is, in effect, three buildings joined into one. In what is called English monumental style, the Union Buildings are Classical, with Renaissance details such as the two 180-foothigh (55 m) campanile-like towers and low-slung tiled roofs. Baker also designed South Africa House in London’s Trafalgar Square, and he is famous for his substantial remodeling of the Bank of England. (Matthew Barac)

  • Freedom Park

    Billed as “the biggest monument to democracy in the world,” Freedom Park’s cultural aim was to bring about a deeper understanding of South Africa’s heritage and, in so doing, celebrate freedom. A 128-acre (52 ha) site was developed to form a landscaped memorial, center of knowledge, interactive museum, commercial precinct, and library. Located in Pretoria, the heartland of the apartheid administration, the project was intended to realign the meaning of history and thereby change relations between nation and citizen. Its aim is to repair the injuries inflicted by apartheid and, at the same time, ensure that lessons learned from the past are never forgotten. Components of the park include a garden of remembrance and the Sikhumbuto memorial, on which has been inscribed a poignant Wall of Names. The memorial also encompasses an eternal flame, an amphitheater, a place known as the Sanctuary, and a Gallery of Leaders, all of which honor those who fell in the fight to rescue South Africa from apartheid. The garden of remembrance was conceived as a setting for healing in which the trauma of dealing with past injustices can be released. Symbolizing the final resting place (Isivivane) of heroes whose sacrifice shaped South Africa, the garden’s construction involved both spiritual and physical coordination. A series of ceremonies around the country acknowledged seven historical conflicts and the role each locality played in them. Indigenous plants and soil from each of the provinces have been combined to bring together the different places and times in which lives have been lost for the sake of freedom. The site aims to bind all humanity in a common narrative, encompassing 3.6 billion years of history. (Mary Beard)

  • Hector Pieterson Museum

    On June 16, 1976, 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was fatally wounded when the South African police opened fire on a Soweto crowd gathered to demonstrate against apartheid’s education policy. That moment sparked riots all over the country. A duty to mark and remember the wrongs of the past has underwritten national efforts to embrace a better future since the advent of democracy in 1994. Cultural projects, such as contemporary theater, express this objective, often in the form of testimony. Architecture also has a part to play in this reconfiguring of public culture, as witnessed by the Hector Pieterson Museum, opened in 2002 to commemorate the uprising. Architects Mashabane Rose consulted local residents as to how they thought the new building should look. Most agreed that red brick—in keeping with the small, square, township houses built under the apartheid regime—should be used. As a result, the two-story building appears to grow out of the urban texture of its surroundings. Inside, the space is cathedral-like, with a double-volume ceiling, concrete columns, and red-brick walls. The irregular shaped, but strategically placed, windows frame key views, making it clear to the visitor that the cultural history on display is rooted in real Soweto: these things happened and they happened here. A shale stone memorial to Hector and the other children who died in the uprising stands next to the museum. (Matthew Barac)

  • House Fox

    Traveling inland from the Cape offers a rich variety of landscapes. The beaches and lush lawns of the coastal belt give way to wine country. Passing through a range of majestic mountains takes one to an entirely different terrain, ascetic but not arid. There you can see for miles to the craggy boundaries of this serene flat land, or platteland as it is known. This sublime topography sets the scene for the early work of Revel Fox. Responding to the spirit of the place, as well as the zeitgeist of 1950s Modernism, his designs—like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style but in a different idiom—keep a low profile. They hug the ground and lazily blink in the dazzling sunlight. House Fox, completed in 1955, exemplifies this aesthetic: it is an archetypal “Fox Box”—the nickname that has become synonymous with the Fox oeuvre. Scandinavian “New Empiricism“ influenced Fox as much as the local vernacular. The overall form consciously mimics South African farm buildings just as elements of the design look to European precedent. Critics have seen echoes of Eliot Noyes and Raphael Soriano in the set-back glazing and the delicate veranda columns. It is in the balance between the restrained simplicity of the design and the sophistication of its detail—of attention to proportion, materials, and environmental performance—that this modest house stakes its claim to greatness. (Matthew Barac)