At 139m high, Portside will be the tallest building in Cape Town. Even so, compared to the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s absurd attempt to get the World’s attention, “tallest in Cape Town” is not actually that tall. A diagram shown by architect Peter Stokes revealed that Portside will stand at only around 17% of the height of Dubai’s dust-covered tower of glass. This is not a bad thing, since Cape Town has more than sand dunes to look at and by no means is Dubai’s exhibition of power admirable. Relative to the global skyscraper “show-and-tell”, Portside may not stand out, but at this scale its easy to forget about life on the street.
The architects talk about the design considerations for Portside at three scales: the city scale, the precinct scale, and the local scale. At the local scale, the fact that the building has “three active edges” is certainly made known. The 1200sqm of ground floor retail and banking space appears to be a point of pride for Portside, at least compared to other lifeless commercial buildings in the city. Such large new developments naturally don’t foster vibrant streets, and I didn’t expect that Portside would, but I still feel as though there was a lost opportunity.
The “three active edges” of the building are those bordering Buitengracht Street, Hans Strijdom Avenue, and Bree Street. It’s those edges that the building is designed to be approached from. But its exactly that which shows how the building is designed to be viewed and arrived at from a car as one comes into the City Bowl from Cape Town’s sprawling suburbs. Bree Street is an exception, and will have a MyCiTi bus stop right outside, but the corner of Bree and Hans Strijdom is a large unwalkable intersection. The active edges of the building will open onto a plaza, which includes the two separate entrances for the two primary tenants, First Rand and Old Mutual. The plaza acts as a necessary screen to allow pedestrian activities without having to confront the harsh traffic navigating the intersection.
No, Portside is not a triangular building. It does have a fourth edge, and it’s that edge that is wasted. It lies along Mechau Street and is designated for the services entrance. It is the smallest street that borders the building, so it is obviously the easiest from which to handle deliveries, arrival by car and other services. But it is the fact that it is a small, slow traffic street that makes it conducive to walking and vibrant street life.
With a number of smaller, older buildings on the other side of the road, Mechau Street has the potential to have a number of activities that attract people. Its not as if this area of the city does have a lot happening. It is abandoned at night and becomes lifeless, but does that mean it should remain that way into the future? It seems as though Portside is showing off and enjoying the view of the Atlantic, while turning its back to city. Mechau Street could have been dealt with more progressively and at least thought of as an important element that connects Portside at the “precinct scale” to the Fan Walk and De Waterkant.
Besides the neglect of Portside’s “backstreet”, there are some admirable features of the building. It will achieve a 4-star Green Star rating, which is partly made possible with the innovative mix of concrete being used. 65% of the concrete mix is made up of Corex slag, a waste product being sourced from Saldanha’s steel industry, with the other 35% made up of Portland cement. There will also be shower facilities and 260 bicycle racks for bicycle commuters. This is a great step to invite active modes of mobility, but I’m curious to find out the number of showers and the planned design of the bicycle parking facilities. 260 bicycle racks aren’t worthy of praise if they’re not designed properly.
As Portside reaches for the sky it must not forget what is below. Although the development has taken some steps to integrate life at the human scale, there are some opportunities lost.
P.S. I also learned that “vision panel” is just a fancy word for “window”.