Tall Buildings Week: A city undeserving of the World Design Capital title?

Tall Buildings Week consists a series of articles and blog posts focussed on the draft Tall Buildings Policy put forward by the City of Cape Town, which will “provide guidance during the early phases of the design and planning process for tall buildings in Cape Town”. The draft policy is available for perusal from 1 March 2012 at the City’s 24 Subcouncil offices, municipal libraries and Planning District Offices; as well as here.

by Lydon McGrane

I have strongly supported Cape Town’s bid to become World Design Capital 2014, but I can’t help but feel that we are undeserving of the title. From an architectural and developmental perspective, we are stuck in a boring, uninspired rut, where progress takes second stage to preserving the past.

As Capetonians, we have the rare privilege of residing in a city that boasts natural wonders to rival those of almost any city the world over, but it is those same natural wonders – such as Table Mountain – that often hold us back, when they should be a source of inspiration. In an age where environmental concerns are taking centre stage, we have to densify Cape Town in order to remain sustainable and become inclusive – whether we like it or not. We cannot continue to condone urban sprawl or approve small stubs of buildings in what is dubbed our Central Business District.

There is a notion amongst some Capetonians that any progress in the built environment is bad, and that it is somehow a direct attack on the natural environment. Emotion often trumps logic. Similarly, the sense of entitlement to mountain and sea views is ironic in that the same people supposedly dedicated to protecting our natural environment are often the last people you’d find riding a bicycle or recycling their waste. Regularly, a vocal minority’s own selfish wishes are hidden under the guise of environmental concern, and the majority suffers as a result.

The time for change has arrived. We cannot continue to obsess over our past and prevent vital progress.

Therefore, I propose that the following should occur:

1) Height restrictions need to be adjusted to favour density in key nodes of the city, such as the CBD, Century City, Bellville and Strand. The foreshore, for example, has no historical significance as it is proclaimed land, leaving little valid argument against a policy of densification in the area. Densification is sustainable and can be undertaken in a controlled manner. 30-40 storey towers in the area are perfectly feasible, and suggesting that they would somehow detract from Table Mountain and its counterparts is an insult to our natural environment. No one is entitled to a mountain view from the foreshore. A mountain view is, after all, pointless in the long run if we continue to build unsustainably.

2) The City should do all in its power to attract mixed-use developments with an affordable residential component to the CBD. A mix of ground-floor retail, with parking, office space and residential apartments above is a model that works in cities around the world. There is little reason why it cannot work here as well. Every morning we witness a mass influx of office workers from the suburbs into the CBD, followed by a mass exodus of those same workers once the work day is complete. The CBD is near dead at night. The more people we have living, working and playing in the CBD, the more vibrant and sustainable a city we will be. Why sit in traffic every morning when you can afford to live within ten minutes’ walking distance from your offices?

3) Cape Town is the victim of boring, uninspired architecture. The likes of Portside springs to mind. We had the potential to do amazing things with the rare opportunity to build tall on a gateway site in the CBD, and completely botched it by designing yet another glass box. Whilst I am excited about the densification prospects of the building, and appreciate that there is little the City can do to influence architects’ and developers’ work, it is depressing that this is the benchmark we are setting for ourselves. It is an insult to our local creative talent, and an embarrassment compared to our overseas counterparts. There seems to be an opinion that “iconic” will automatically result in crazy or over-the-top buildings popping up across the city, when this is not the case. It simply means that we are aiming to impress in all respects, not rely on nature alone to do that for us.

Therefore, I propose the creation of an aesthetic design committee to oversee the future expansion of Cape Town. Their mandate should be to impartially oversee the shaping over the city’s skyline so as to best please as many parties involved as possible, with a focus on sustainability and aesthetics. Seattle is the perfect example of an architecturally pleasing city without the need for ridiculously tall or overly-designed buildings.

Whilst I understand that this may not be what appears to be popular opinion, I implore you to bear in mind that it is often minorities that are the most vocal, and end up dictating to the majority. An intelligent design city will do what is right, not what may appear to be popular opinion. The time for Cape Town to break out of its mold and inspire its citizens has arrived. Let us embrace the opportunity with this rare chance we have to re-evaluate our outdated policies.