Undermining 22nd Century Heritage Today

If we went to 200m in the CBD and were more modern/daring, would we 'really' threaten Cape Town's natural integrity? Original panorama courtesy: André Wessels

If we went to 200m at Adderley & Strand & were more modern/daring, would we really threaten Cape Town’s integrity?
Original panorama courtesy: André Wessels

I wonder if they thought whilst constructing Mutual Heights, Africa’s largest building when completed in 1940, that this art deco grand dame would become an integral part of Cape Town’s architectural heritage? This building is literally a storybook of South Africa at that instant in time; history, both colonial and tribal, is physically etched into the façade’s design.

This prompted me to make a statement on twitter, the ultimate hedonistic broadcast for instantaneous thought, “Are we value-engineering the design out of buildings today that will become the soul of CapeTown’s architectural heritage tomorrow?” Well, are we? Are we giving what we erect today any real thought? Are the conservative attitudes, financial pressures and overpowering profit-driven priorities destroying our future architectural heritage?

Little has been erected in decades that shouts out to future eyes, “I am an architectural paragon of my time. I am my era’s design screaming loudly across the decades and centuries.” We’ve been playing it too safe, we’ve been value-engineering creativity and we’ve been kept hostage to monotony and mediocrity, when it comes to architectural design; in this, the World Design Capital 2014.

It is dangerous for me to single out individual buildings. However, to premise this article, it’s impossible to avoid. Also, it could be viewed as presumptuous by those in-the-know, as I’m not privy to the rationale behind each building’s initial design brief, eventual conceptual design and subsequent modifications resulting in their construction.  So I dive into these freezing waters…

Portside is rising rapidly. Albeit, she does appear to have eaten a few too many McMeals since the original render. The sleek, tall and curvy lines have given way to something rectilinear, resembling an overweight version of London’s Heron Tower, with less flashy clothing. I understand Cape Town is known for the understated; flashy is usually left for our Gauteng cousins. However, the original render was a sleek, classy, contemporary 21st Century building that, although not ostentatious, definitely made a statement. Although still enthused by the rise of Portside, I find myself underwhelmed.

22 on Breë has topped out. Although this building is dwarfed in height by Portside, it makes more of a statement, in my humble opinion. It has dared to be different, albeit gambling in a manner that risks little. At least they have tried to play with interesting roof elements, curtain-wall treatments and eclectic façade design. Since Triangle House, few buildings have been capped-off that shout, “I want to be taller than I am.”

Admittedly, we haven’t fared too badly in the heritage-building-conversion department as a city of design. Mandela-Rhodes, Mutual Heights, Cartrights Corner, Taj Hotel and Old Biscuit Mill immediately springs to mind. Notwithstanding, we cannot be a forward-thinking city of design if inspiration is only found in the past, for today’s inspiration becomes tomorrow’s heritage. The same gusto that prompted the construction of the 91.4m artwork that is Mutual Heights needs to also happen today; creative in our own era of design, in our own inspirational context.

Are we failing? Our built-environment is becoming increasingly safe, increasingly inoffensive-to-the-most-sensitive, increasingly profit-at-all-costs. I’m not Irvin Jim; I understand that profitability drives commerce which drives construction in CBD’s. However, as iconic companies have impressive balance sheets, so why can’t iconic buildings have impressive returns on investment? This may be achieved, either by becoming that desirable address, or that impressive space that communicates the prowess of my company to the public; iconic people or institutions advertising just that in the physical realm.

Some of the most maligned structures have become the loved architectural icons in their host cities. The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower in Paris are such examples. Even New York’s Guggenheim Museum was initially described as a toilet bowl.

Perhaps it is time conservative Capetonians loathed something daring and visionary. Perhaps it is time an architect and developer was willing to push the envelope. Perhaps it is time we didn’t only look to the mountain to carry Cape Town, but allowed our built-environment to shine somewhat. Perhaps it is time to embrace the World Design Capital 2014 title. Take off our metaphorical clothes and skinny dip in the freezing waters of awe-inspiring design. It may anger some today, but will thrill generations.

About Andres de Wet

Passionate about all things urban, political and developmental. Have championed numerous projects, including the proposed Breede Valley Partnership, managed the local chamber of commerce and general contributor to local tourism associations. Been intricately involved in rural empowerment and agricultural sustainability through FairTrade. Worked in the USA as a lead architectural designer from 2006-2008. Although currently self-employed, maintain a keen interest in the public realm and the Cape’s march towards excellence.