Buildings less than sixty years old do not enjoy immediate heritage status in South Africa, leaving the door open for the destruction of landmark buildings from post-war period. Looking at the fate of three iconic modernist buildings in Cape Town, Heinrich Wolff argues the case for their appreciation and protection

Key examples of modern architecture produced in the years after 1950 are currently under threat of destruction in South Africa. I personally feel growing concern when I hear that more and more great buildings from this era may soon be defaced or demolished. As an important part of our cultural heritage, the continued loss or threat of destruction of these buildings points to a growing void in our collective consciousness. At a primary level these buildings are a record of the artistic endeavours of an era, at another level larger social, political and cultural attitudes can be read from the structures because of the public nature of architecture.

Is this destruction acceptable, understandable or justifiable? Can the intentions to alter or destroy be attributed to considered positions, or are we looking at a case of neglect or greed? This article aims to investigate the causes underlying this phenomenon, offering case studies in support of the argument that in most instances the problems leading to defacement and demolition are largely a function of intellectual or physical neglect, and have very little to do with insurmountable problems in the buildings themselves.

The threat of demolition or alteration to key examples of post 1950s structures originates, in my view, from four main sources. The first is a general insight and relates to the perception of uselessness: when an old building falls into disuse its owner can claim that the building does not support contemporary demands and therefore needs to be adjusted or replaced. Change in ownership is also a contributing factor, a new owner may claim that the building is incompatible with an intended new use or may want to exploit planning rights attributed to the land and therefore want to alter or demolish the building. However, uselessness is no measure of heritage value.

A second factor relates to the perceived value of era-specific architecture. Generally speaking, new buildings enjoy a popularity that fades over time, only to be rediscovered several decades later. This point is illustrated by the general destruction of Victorian architecture across South Africa in the two decades following 1950, followed more recently by its contemporary acceptance as historically valuable. The inability of society in general and the heritage authorities in particular to appreciate the cultural value of recent heritage constitutes a great threat, since an initial misjudgement of value can, at worst, totally destroy and, at best, reduce to insignificance an entire layer of the nation’s heritage.

The third threat is born out of commercial speculation. During our recent economic boom many property owners considered the benefits of developing residual bulk, which the original building did not use. Often this bulk lies above the building; in the process of adding more floors, the facades invariably get altered too. Sometimes complete demolition would facilitate the most profitable redevelopment.

Finally, the fact that owners may want to change their buildings is a natural and necessary process of adaptation over time and does not present any threat to society if the necessary safeguards are in place. But perhaps most importantly, the current exercise of heritage legislation is itself, paradoxically, a threat to post 1950s buildings. The National Heritage Resources Act (1999) provides automatic protection of structures older than 60 years. If a building is less than 60 years old it enjoys no consideration for protection except unless it is listed or exceeds certain size parameters prescribed by the Heritage Act.This is where the real trouble lies: there are no listed buildings younger than 60 years. In other words, all buildings less than 60 years old are vulnerable to the subjective or (worse still) uninformed judgement of a heritage authority charged with the responsibility to decide whether issues of heritage value are at stake. With heritage authorities are under-resourced and therefore unable to perform their listing duties,coupled with inaction by non-governmental organisations in contributing to the listing process, the situation is unlikely to improve soon.

Since the size parameters of the Heritage Act do not activate compulsory heritage impact assessments it is a matter of individual judgement as to whether further investigation into the value of a building is warranted. In my view the Heritage Act was written with the assumption that general protection of post 1950s buildings would occur through listing processes. Since this is not happening, and it will be some time before comprehensive and thorough lists emerge, the heritage authorities have an increased duty of care to consider whether heritage assessments are required.

Three examples from Cape Town will illustrate my point, but the issues raised are indicative of a national trend.

Broadway House, Heerengracht Street, Cape Town
Architect: Roy Kantorowich in association with Norman Hanson

Broadway House was an important collaboration between two of the most prominent architects of their time. As an architect and town planner, Roy Kantorowich was responsible for the planning of the Cape Town foreshore and the central redevelopment scheme for Pretoria (in collaboration with Lord Holford). His architectural work includes the Welkom Civic Centre (with Jack Barnett, who also designed the Baxter Theatre), the University of Cape Town’s Baxter residence and the Seapoint telephone exchange. Norman Hanson, a central figure in the Modern Movement in South Africa, was responsible for landmark residential projects such as the Suzman House and Hotpoint House in Johannesburg. Broadway House like the other buildings mentioned here was a project of distinction.

Kantorowich was part of a group of architects (including Norman Hanson, Gordon MacIntoch and John Fassler) who, having once been fervent exponents of the 1930s Modern Movement, began to question the basic assumptions on which the style was based. However, by the 1950s it became clear to the group that the technology employed in early Modern Movement buildings did not always stand up to the local climate. Their reaction hinged on the realisation that “functional architecture was found to be not very functional at all”. This gave rise to a different architectural expression, made possible using more durable, tried and tested local materials. Expressing the anonymity of mass production was seen as causal and inevitable. This attitude was matched internationally by the work of Mies van der Rohe, Auguste Perret and the New Empiricists. The work of that era is also typified by a concern for efficiency of the plan, a move away from the absolute abstraction of the early modernists and the influence of European classical architecture.

In short, Broadway House, with its durable face-brick work, repetitive facades (with well-proportioned modular windows) and efficient plan, was an important representative expression of a national and international architectural debate about translating the ideas of the Modern Movement locally. Its significance is therefore not just of an aesthetic nature, but also a historical one.

Unfortunately, during 2006 Broadway had its windows gouged out and its façades clad in aluminium sheet. The replacement of the brass-framed bay windows with aluminium windows of the same shape – but much cruder in detailing – demonstrates the larger lack of judgement about the value of this building and a general inability to engage with heritage issues. In my view the architect should have persuaded the client to retain the façades and culturally significant internal spaces and details. Failing this, the local or provincial heritage authority should have forced them to do so. Instead, the architects were unaware of who designed the building and the values that informed its design. The facades were taken to be worthless and through an ordinary city council submission the destruction of the façade was approved without any heritage investigation.

Customs House, Heerengracht Street, Cape Town
Architect: National Department of Public Works

The decision by Western Cape Heritage that there are no heritage issues preventing the demolition of Customs House is proving to be a hugely unpopular decision. Because of its perceived lack of value, no heritage impact assessment was required to gauge public opinion on the matter or gain facts about the building’s origins or relative value. Designed by architects working for the National Department of Public Works in Pretoria, in the late 1960s, Customs House was built on the harbour-side of the N1 in violation of the intentions of the Cape Town Foreshore plan, which intended to have no tall buildings built beyond the highway.

The material use and façade modulation shows affinity to the ideas discussed on the Broadway House. The use of durable, quality finishes has paid off: after two decades of use, with no significant maintenance, the façades remain in remarkable condition. The facades, with their cellular concrete window surrounds, communicate eloquently the building’s bureaucratic purpose. The shaded windows show the Brazilian influence on South African architecture and represent a move toward environmentally responsive buildings. The domed hall is part of a fine composition of solid and perforated volumes, particularly when viewed from the highway entering into Cape Town. The glass facades, wooden panelling, mosaics and artwork inside the domed hall form a congruent treatment, offering a sense of the time out of which the building emerged, a rarity in Cape Town.

To my mind the building is worthy of partial conservation. Most people will agree that the ground floor treatment of the building is poor. This presents an ideal opportunity for the transformation of Customs House and its integration into the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), who currently favour its demolition. In a personal interview with Rashid Toefy, CEO of CTICC’s parent company, Convenco, he admitted that although additional exhibition space is required, it does not all have to be on the Customs House site, or on a single level. This means that the preservation of the important features of this building can be achieved in tandem with CTICC’s need to expand.

Some would argue that Customs House ought to be demolished since CTICC is a very successful economic stimulator; further, that the proposed extension of CTICC offers an environmental nirvana, although paradoxically the new extension would magically render a fully occupied 17-storey building useless. Fortunately heritage issues precede arguments about the future use. But unfortunately heritage consideration was denied by the authority charged with protecting it.

Werdmuller Centre, Main Road, Claremont, Cape Town
Architect: Roelof Uytenbogaardt

The proposed demolition of the Werdmuller Centre by insurance company Old Mutual has sparked international resistance against the move. The condemnation came from people of all backgrounds and age groups (a rarity in heritage) and demonstrated publicly the value that people attach to this building. What is significant in this case is that public opinion was tested after a heritage impact assessment was called for.

The Werdmuller Centre was designed by Roelof Uytenbogaardt, an important South African architect. The building is an extraordinary creative and technical achievement, and its particular aesthetic characteristics are regarded as exceptional by the architectural community. It was designed as a counter proposal to the internalised shopping mall; the undulating circulation and small shops tried to emulate the character of a souk. Claremont, where the centre is located, used to be characterised by tight streets and small shops until forced removals and a large internalised shopping centre across the road put an end to it all.

Design limitations caused the building to perform less than satisfactorily as a shopping centre, but problems with its use are not sufficient reason to demolish. If one owner cannot make a building of cultural value work to their satisfaction they should consider selling it to another owner who can. It is hard to believe that an experienced property management company such as Old Mutual cannot make the commercial space work: it is situated directly between a train station, bus and taxi termini and a commercial main road. The severe state of neglect that its owners allowed it to fall into might explain why they struggle to get tenants when neighbouring buildings are fully occupied.

Only four of the twelve floors of bulk available were originally built, which may account for the owner’s desire to demolish the building. When a site has rights to develop in excess of what might exist on a site and demolition to redevelop is intended, but refused, this is tantamount to expropriation without compensation. Put differently, this means that an owner is divested of a real right in the interest of preserving cultural heritage. The administration of the Heritage Act makes no provision for any kind of compensation when real rights are in contention and this diminishes the effectiveness of the act, in turn making post 1950s buildings even more vulnerable.

The eager support of the Claremont Ratepayers Association to “clean up” the area by removing the Werdmuller Centre plays, knowingly or unknowingly, into a 40 year history of removing lower income traders and shoppers from Claremont. The proposed demolition of the Werdmuller Centre shows a failure of imagination about how to value our recent past while engaging with adjustments required for contemporary use.

Isolated cases or common occurrence?

Are these three buildings isolated cases or are they symptomatic of a national or international tendency? Recent international debate suggests that South Africa does not have a unique struggle in this regard. Locally, the partial destruction of Norman Eaton’s Nedbank building in Durban is unforgivable, in any circumstance, since it is one of the best buildings of its era in the country. The proposal to privatise parts of the Seapoint promenade in Cape Town has drawn incredible public resistance since it is one of the most used and popular public spaces in South Africa. The proposed demolition of Mutual Square in Rosebank, Johannesburg, is another example of a prevailing trend and demonstrates a serious lack of insight into its historic significance, never mind a failure of imagination to engage with its legacy. The Western Cape Government’s proposal to add two more floors to Revel Fox’s Provincial Administration building is also ill-judged, since the strength of the design will be tarnished by an addition. It bears pointing out that the provincial government owns much of the developable land around this building.

Heritage authorities need to accept that the 60-year rule leaves valuable heritage sites seriously exposed. The record of losses shows that the bar is set unacceptably low. NGO’s involved with heritage and the built environment need to accept that as long as inventories of valuable buildings are not compiled and submitted for approval by the heritage authorities, post 1950s buildings will remain desperately vulnerable. Precedent shows that without approved inventories valuable buildings slip through the initial considerations of value at city or provincial level.

The political context of these buildings is also important to consider. It is useful to consider that the South African situation is not unique: much can be learnt from countries that have come out of various struggles for freedom. When considering the relative value of a building somehow connected to the apartheid era, one should still seek to understand its social, political or even aesthetic significance through heritage impact assessments. With transformation in mind, these assessments could advise on how best to approach a historically significant building, on what to keep and lose. A good example of how an old building that both recognised and transformed its Apartheid legacy is the offices of the Gender Commission on Constitutional Hill. The building was formerly a woman’s jail.

The continued destruction of valuable architecture from our recent past seems to be the flipside of the Disneyfication of commercial spaces and the urge to theme living environments. Together, these impulses are contributing to the construction of a present without depth.


I would like to thank Herbert Prins, Steve Townsend, Julian Cooke and Walter Peters for their assistance with this article.