In 1969 Roelof Uytenbogaardt was asked to design a shopping complex for the South African Life Assurance Society (now Old Mutual) next to Main Road in Claremont, Cape Town. This building, completed in 1974, would become the most contentious building of his career and one of the most controversial buildings of the 20th century in South Africa.


At the time Old Mutual decided to boldly associate itself with the building by naming it after its chairman, Brigadier Werdmuller. Now, after nearly 40 years, Old Mutual is applying for a permit to demolish the Werdmuller Centre.


Sharply conflicting opinions surrounded the project from the start; many architects praised the architecture, some criticised its excesses and meanwhile it became clear that the centre was not a commercial success. Conflicting views continued over the years, even intensified, but today a new generation of admirers and asset managers is contesting the Werdmuller’s future.


What went wrong? Was the design flawed or did its owners fail to manage it appropriately? In considering the problems facing the Werdmuller, we have to establish whether the building has failed its intended purpose or whether the city and the society failed the Werdmuller.


We would like to present an argument that an understanding of what the Werdmuller signifies to the contemporary generation, could show a way forward for this building.


A failed ideology

In the 1969 proposal, Uytenbogaardt claims that the building would serve “a hinterland of a well mixed community ranging from high income through to middle and low.” He was not only referring to customers arriving via the train or Main Road, but also to the diverse community of Claremont area at the time. The proposal was submitted and possibly accepted by February 1969 but by November 1969 Claremont was declared a “whites only” area under the Group Areas Act. Evictions and removals started early in 1970 mostly from an area previously known as lower Claremont and today called Harfield Village. It was a popular area in which to reside because it provided the mostly working-class inhabitants easy access to the cheap network of public transport and therefore access to work and economic opportunities. In addition the lower Claremont area had also developed into a self-sufficient area with many people running shops and family businesses with some family businesses dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

Claremont as a whole was always seen as a major shopping district and as Joyce Murray describes in 1958 in her book ‘Claremont Album’ (1958:63):


‘Claremont preens itself when outsiders praise its wonderful shopping Centre.

But the people who live in Claremont have their own special shops, often

not the big showy stores with huge shop-windows but little places tucked

away down a side street, recommended perhaps by a neighbour who has dealt

there for years.’


She goes on to describe how (1958:64):


‘outsiders complain that the population of Claremont is ‘so mixed’ not

stopping to think how much the character of the Village owes to this

variety. The different races have learnt to live together here in a civilized

fashion: there is room for all in this Market Place.’


But what impact did the forced removals of an estimated 19000 people have on the Werdmuller Centre? For one it reduced the number of foot traffic to the centre because not only was there a decrease in the Claremont population but also a decrease in visitors to Claremont. Secondly, the Werdmuller Centre’s idea of catering for a micro economy and small scale traders – the souk idea – could not happen because that part of the population was not there anymore. Conversely, a more up-market shopping centre like Cavendish Square thrived partly due to the influx of the more affluent whites moving into Claremont.


Incoherent planning

Two planning aspects have had a direct affect on the commercial marketability of the Werdmuller Centre. The one is the Claremont By-pass, which was at the time that the Werdmuller Centre was designed, a plan by the City to relieve some of the traffic congestion in Main Road. The elevated by-pass, which fronts the station side of the building, was considered as a design informant by Uytenbogaardt as he included it in his 1969 proposal as well as in some of his conceptual sketches. The question mark hovering above the highway is testament to the uncertainty of the proposed highway, but Uytenbogaardt proceeded to design Werdmuller in part as a response to the idea, perhaps captivated by the heightened urban quality that the duality could evoke.


The By-pass, now called the Claremont Boulevard was opened in 2009, at grade and not elevated. The City’s decades long inertia in defining that space, caused the building to be situated within, for most of its life, an eerie urban wasteland.


In the proposal of 1969, Uytenbogaardt cites that the design for the Werdmuller Centre would take advantage of the fact that the site is located at the fulcrum of wide range of transportation opportunities, including depending on a ‘generous public parking area to the north’. It is for this reason that the approved design allowed for only 23 parking bays. However, 2 years after the completion of the building the City of Cape Town released a plan – the Claremont Report of 1976 – that would have a severe effect on the Werdmuller Centre’s viability. The report indicated a building on the land previously dedicated to public parking. Today, although a bus terminus occupies the site, a large-scale parking area that is required to meet conventional shopping mall standards is not accommodated for.


The legacy of innovation

At the time when the Werdmuller was designed, indoor shopping centres were a rarity in South Africa. Main road department stores were more common, surrounded by smaller scale shops connected via the street. Shopping complexes with outdoor, off-street circulation have just made its appearance in South Africa in the previous two decades. By the mid-sixties, the first shopping malls were being developed on the periphery of the major cities with urban shopping centres following in the Seventies.


Since the clarity with which the mall typology is understood today did not exist in the late Sixties, developers entered into typological experimentation. For instance, Old Mutual developed the Werdmuller and Cavendish Centre at the same time; two completely different shopping typologies built within 100m of each other. The typology of Cavendish proved to be the more successful one. It should also be noted that none of the early shopping malls exist in their original condition; not only did they have cosmetic facelifts, but all of these early buildings had adjustments made to its circulation. These adjustments optimise the commercial efficiency of the architecture, eradicate problems of the original design and respond to urban change. This is of great significance to the Werdmuller debate, since no 1970’s mall would respond satisfactorily to contemporary commercial and urban demands, without significant adaptation.


The typology of the Werdmuller grafted itself on that of a souk; small shops with narrow shopfronts facing onto a common passage. Unfortunately significant departures were made from this typology; the concentration of shops is not high enough, the shopfronts are too wide and the circulation goes up a ramp (without assistance, people flow like water in commercial buildings – always down, never up.) The multiple internal circulation routes are also in conflict with street based circulation around the Centre’s periphery. For all it’s shortcomings, the Werdmuller has a rare typology, so rare that Wessel de Jonge (world renowned expert on the Modern Movement and co-founder of Docomomo International) said that he believed its typology was unique in Modern architecture and valuable for its multi cultural reference. For many of the Werdmuller’s supporters, the free flowing, intertwined spaces of the building signify a resistance to racial stereotyping of apartheid and the income and class categorisation of commerce which is the contemporary norm.


Today, the Werdmuller is still appreciated for its spatial innovation, without this extraordinary quality being put to any meaningful use.


The failure of profit

One must appreciate that Old Mutual exists to grow investments, but the optimisation of profit has caused substantial problems for the Werdmuller. The trouble started before the building was even built. After Uytenbogaardt completed the design for the centre, Old Mutual acquired the other half of the same city block and asked the architect to develop this portion as well. Uytenbogaardt insisted that everything should be redesigned, but Old Mutual would have none of it. This presented a substantial challenge to the design since the first portion was designed around a central spiralling ramp with shops on the periphery, which produced blank edges to the newly acquired portion of the site. The final design dealt with the joint between the first and second phases with great formal skill, but the circulation of the block was badly fragmented.


Old Mutual’s insistence that their investments in buildings are primarily financial assets, is the origin of substantial conflict in the urban environment. For most of us, these “assets” are not assets at all; they are buildings in our shared urban environment. The conflict between financial interest for some and urban consequence for all, is what is at stake here. The blank street facades of internalised commerce are a shocking legacy of urban malls and the urban and economic consequences of suburban malls are even more devastating. Old Mutual has also been reluctant to recognise that their assets may be the heritage of others; Mutual Square in Rosebank, Johannesburg would be a prime example. This fine building was demolished in spite of substantial appeals to Old Mutual to respect its heritage value. If an owner finds it difficult to use a building for its own purposes, demolition is certainly not the only option; the building could be adapted or sold in acknowledgement of its heritage value.


In the case of the Werdmuller, it is quite possible that the request for a demolition permit has very little to do with the building itself but rather the 7 floors of unrealised bulk that sits above it. The profits that can be realised from the Werdmuller’s destruction must way heavily on the minds of the asset managers who are considering the “value” of the building. Old Mutual’s insistence on profiting from the Werdmuller, regardless of the consequence, is in direct conflict to the repeated appeals that the structure can be rehabilitated (for whatever use and by whoever) to become a rare and exceptional part of our city.


Significance of failure

By all accounts, neither the shopping component, nor the offices of the Werdmuller worked well. The undulating circulation routes of the building, which are so celebrated, are simultaneously part of the problem; the spatial order is not legible and with the rise in urban crime, its open “democratic” spaces, have become hard to defend.


Today, the Werdmuller is a sorry sight. It is also in a state of purposeful neglect. Old Mutual is turning away prospective tenants and the building has received no maintenance for quite some time. It is hard to believe that any kind of space, with a main road, a train station, a bus station and a taxi rank on each of its four sides respectively, cannot be made to work. Or maybe this transportation hub is used by a clientele that is perceived to be incompatible with the “vision” of an upmarket Claremont.


Do the shortcomings of this design outweigh all other considerations of value to the point where demolition becomes the only option? Certainly not. The Castle of Good Hope is useless as a defence structure and yet our society pays large amounts of money to maintain it. The South African Breweries claim that Gawie Fagan’s award winning conversion of the Ohlsons’ Brewery, a kilometre up the road from Werdmuller, is not serving their purposes. Is this fact sufficient ground to demolish this important work? Again, no. Problems of usefulness are not sufficient grounds for demolishing important works of architecture.


A clear understanding of the failures of the Werdmuller is central to its future, so too should we understand its achievements. Systematic research should be done to articulate these issues. The Barbican Centre in London suffered from many similar problems to those of the Werdmuller, just at a much larger scale. It was repeatedly voted the ugliest building in London. Research was conducted to establish the problems, physical adjustments were made and today The Barbican is an important cultural centre in Europe.


The failure of imagination

More than anything, the proposed demolition of the Werdmuller signifies a failure of imagination. The idea that architects are not capable of inventing a new life for this building, is insulting. One would have to find the right architect and ask the right questions.


The current owner appears to be part of the problem. If they cannot use or adapt the building to serve their purposes, they should accept that someone else could. Pass it on to someone who wants it. To destroy something valuable, just because one cannot imagine how to use, is unacceptable.


The V&A Waterfront has shown leadership in this regard. The massive grain elevator in the Clocktower Precinct has lost its usefulness long ago and presents major physical and structural challenges to adaptation. Many have tried their hands at a solution over the years, but recently the celebrated British architect, Thomas Heatherwick was approached to break the impasse, and apparently is doing it well.


The Werdmuller has a generosity towards the city and wonderfully intertwining spaces which are very rare. Only a lack of imagination could lead anyone to conclude that a blank site would be a richer starting point than the building as it stands today.