Portside Reaches For The Sky, But Misses The Ground

Portside appears to have been designed to be approached and viewed from a car entering the city from Nelson Mandela Boulevard. Image: Portside

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”.

There are 4 comments

  1. OSlOlSO

    CT city planners need to note that Portside is not just going to be the ‘tallest’ skyscraper for Cape Town…it will probably set the standards for the next decade or so. The building and its surroundings really need to set a precedant and show that it can bring some vibrant city life to a part of Cape Town that is mostly dead at night. Nice article @TheSkillSmith:twitter 

  2. Guest

    “Portside reaches for the sky, but misses the ground.” It’s sad to see the spread of sensationalism to FutureCapeTown as well. My two cents: this post comes across as naive, and rather funny to be honest. It’s filled with criticism attempting to be thrown in the wrong direction. The fact that an effort has been made to activate three of the four streets upon which Portside faces is a very commendable move. Take a look at a building such as Triangle House and you’ll see “a missed opportunity.” Unfortunately this is the real world that we live in, and in that world the building needs to have a services entrance located somewhere. Every building of such a scale does. It makes complete sense to front that onto Mechau Street. We can’t pedestrianise and fill every small side street with cafe’s and whatnot. I would far rather that task be given to Mechau Street than any of the other three that could have been chosen. This is merely a long-winded complaint about something that you don’t seem to understand, and haven’t made any attempt to suggest alternatives for (probably because you aren’t able to). And finally, there is nothing stopping the developers of buildings on the adjoining site from increasing pedestrian interaction with Mechau Street either. What background do you have in architecture/development if I may ask?

    1. Gareth Pearson

      I admit, this post is loaded by my interest in what creates an interesting, diverse, walkable city at the human scale. I agree with you that what they’ve done is commendable, compared to other large commercial buildings in the city. The argument is embedded in a greater issue of development in Cape Town. I may be pointing fingers at Portside, but it is development in the city in general. Portside is just a medium that has brought about thoughts and questions. This scale and type of building doesn’t lend itself to interesting city life to start off with, and I understand that isn’t the goal of the developers. We’ve come to accept that the lower part of the city is what it is, a day-time office park, but should we keep reinforcing it with single-use buildings that take up entire blocks? City life doesn’t happen on isolated plazas bordering busy high-speed roadways, it happens on interesting streets that have a diversity of uses that attract people at different times of the day. I can’t see much happening on the Portside plaza after 6pm, I guess we’ll see once its complete. I’m not saying if Machau street was utilised by Portside the area would spontaneously come to life, but these things must start somewhere. Should we really be creating lifeless streets like Machau St that will remain that way for decades to come? Why can’t every street be walkable and interesting? That’s what makes cities attractive places to live. We cannot continue to make long term investments that deter city life. And I’m curious, why does a service entrance have to take up the edge of a building along an entire block? Obviously there are practical and economic reasons, but if we really wanted to, could we design the building to avoid this? We’ve come to think we have to, but do we really? As for that title, you’re right. In retrospect it is indeed sensationalist (and cringe-worthy). 

  3. futurecapetown

    I think Gareth in this post, has been allowed to share his honest and meaningful views based on attending the relevant presentation. Opposition to it is welcomed. But here are some thoughts.

    When did it become “ok” to activate three out of four edges in our Central City? Yes, service entrances are key, but cities across the world deal with this issue in a variety of ways, from Rio to Hong Kong to Shanghai. It does not always necessitate creating 3 out of 4 active edges. If this was the case we would end up with several “3 out of 4’s” around the world.

    Why should we compromise on where we promote walkability and a vibrant public realm. For a positive development of this scale (which we support), unprecedented in our city in more than a decade, is this the way forward?

    Sure, Triangle House is a missed opportunity, but is this the benchmark we should be fine with?

    An active edge need not have cafe’s and “spill-over” onto sidewalks, but a service entrance should not be the cause for a dead street either. Yes, we need them, but why should the rest of the street be a write off?

    Perhaps, the issue here is not the lack of his “architecture/planning” background.

    Given the state of our city, one can quickly rotate the argument of a “need for a background in architecture or planning”, into one that puts a spotlight on the industry you seem to think has promoted positive urbanism in our city.

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