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Werdmuller centre

Demolishing Aspirations

by Robert Bowen and Rashiq Fataar / 30.01.2012

Uytenbogaardt’s 1967 aspiration for a democratic architecture was never realized; an architecture that sought to use a building to draw people together, by creating an inclusive space in what was and remains a disconnected Claremont. The concept was to re-connect the marginalized trader with economic opportunity; those classified as white with those classified as non-white, the commuter, the pedestrian, and the private car user. The implementation of the Group Areas act shortly after it’s construction scuppered any chance for the ideals of the building to manifest. But now that it’s demolition is on the cards, and has been for a while, any influence that Werdmuller may have come to bear on the deconstruction of the legacy of the Group Areas Act will be lost.

With informal traders in the builidng having recently being told to move out, fresh rumours are now flying as to when the building will come down. The proposed demolition was first brought to our attention on 28 October 2011, through a notice received through the Cape Institute of Architecture. According to the document, Heritage Western Cape, a provincial heritage resources authority, had, in terms of the provisions of section 38(2) (a) of the National Heritage Resources Act, called for an impact assessment report (HIA) addressing the issue. Three months later, after registering our interest via werdmuller@ashleylillie.com and making several attempts to gain information, we have yet to receive any correspondence.

One is left to speculate whether this stems from either a lack of willingness to engage the broader public on such a challenging design issue or merely another example of a failed public participation process that is fast becoming a signature trait of our city.

Uytenbogaardt

While the majority of those reading this may cheer at the news of the demolition, many will sadly hang their heads. Love it or hate it, the Werdmuller Centre certainly makes a statement in a city yearning for inspirational architecture and struggling to find its design feet in a post-apartheid era.

Proponents of its demise generally argue two main points: firstly, that the building is ugly and, secondly, that it is a financial loss. What exactly is ugly about the building can surely not be its bones, which are dramatic, graceful and certainly evocative. What is unattractive, however, is the bad signage, thoughtless additions and utter lack of maintenance. Apply these to any building and it would likely appear to be a dog. But there is weight in the arguments supporting its demolition and it is worth exploring them.

While the architectural and built environment community largely consider the Werdmuller Centre to be a part of our architectural legacy and heritage, we must question what other parts of Cape Town society can be seen as embracing its legacy. The slow deterioration of the Werdmuller Centre is then a reflection of the futile efforts made by the opponents of its demolition in celebrating its existence and architectural signifcance. In a conservation study of Newlands, Claremont, Kenilworth and Wynberg undertaken in 1994 by Todeschini and Japha, they did not list the Werdmuller Centre as a building of cultural significance. So why exactly should we today?

In his book Cities for people, award-winning Danish architect Jan Gehl examines, amongst other things, the pyschological impact buildings or architecture can have on people in a city, from the perspective of a pedestrian’s five senses. On these criteria, the Werdmuller Centre would fall far short and, today, contributes little to the Gehl’s ideals of creating cities for people. In its current condition the Werdmuller Centre is irrelevant in the context of the shopper or commuter, acting as more of a barrier rather than Uytenbogaardt’s vision of a space that brings people together.

Werdmuller Centre

It is important to decipher what exactly we are hoping to retain and how this would translate in Claremont in 2012 and beyond. We should do more than just hold onto an idea of what this building could become, and critically explore the design challenges and potential solutions to make a transformation of this building viable in the long run. Could it not be that some are holding onto the fantasy of the renaissance of this building, when reality is pointing in the other direction?

To understand the second of the two points, the centre’s financial failure, is more complicated and for that we ought to start at the beginning.

The drawings for the Werdmuller Centre were completed by one of the country’s most highly recognised architects, Roelof Uytenbogaardt. This commission came to him from Old Mutual Properties, who were difficult clients in that, while ever more pieces of land were being added to the project, their financial brief remained blurred. Due to this various functional flaws crept into the design.

The building never really took off as the contemporary shopping centre it was originally conceptualised to be; a place for non-white traders to trade in a central business district, as an economic opportunity for the marginalized in the face of draconian trading restrictions. The realision came too late, the building had became too expensive for the income group at which it was targeted.

In November 1969, six months after Uytenbogaardt’s proposal for the Werdmuller Centre was accepted, the implementation of the Group Areas act came into effect. This saw Claremont classified as a whites-only area, and further impacted the building’s fortunes. However, Uytenbogaardt had already addressed this by creating a building which sought to filter pedestrians, and hence the marginalized, through the building past the shops and back into Claremont proper.

Werdmuller Centre

The fact that the centre was designed to today’s aspirations of a modern and democratic South Africa is just one of the many reasons that it should be preserved. It is a rare breed of building, being one of the few in South Africa that offered an interpretation of the international style as set up by the famous Le Corbusier in 5 Points Towards a New Architecture. These points are Pilotis (the concrete columns lifting it off the ground), free plan (the plan is flexible, the walls and windows can go anywhere), ribbon windows (long and horizontal to capture the landscape), roof gardens (to replace land lost below) and, finally, a free façade (the exterior walls aren’t load bearing).

This beautiful but neglected sculpture represents far more than just a building. It is a moment in world history recorded by the hands of an internationally recognised local master craftsman.

However, the role and relevance of modernist architecture in serving the needs of today’s society appears limited. Completed in 1977, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Sports Centre is another example of the modernist work of Uytenbogaardt, which, despite its functionality, has struggled to gain affection from its daily users, the thousands of students on campus. It currently sits bare, stripped of its skin, awaiting repair work while those in power question an approach. The challenges of modernist architecture are therefore not unique to the Claremont site, with little done to adapt any of these buildings to better serve their purposes. This brings into question whether modernist architecture and the work required in ensuring it remains viable is sustainable at all. And whether the local architectural profession has been flexible enough to see past the greatness of the man in order to make the changes that may result in the public warming to these buildings.

We should not shy away from the fact that despite its iconic forms, academic significance and egalitarian plan, the Werdmuller has been a failure.

It should be noted that buildings of this nature in many countries have become national monuments and cultural tourist attractions. And therein lies the key! They have become. The Royal National theatre in London has found new life with the introduction of experimental outdoor performances, statues and various modern building wraps which have sought to re-introduce the building into public life. More recently the remarkable renovation of the headquarters of ASM International, an organization of of scientists and engineers working with metals, designed by the Chesler Group ASM International HQ in Ohio, USA by the Chesler Group halted the imminent sale of the building and utilized federal and state history tax credits to reduce construction costs.

Uytenbogaardt

While the building does not produce capital for Old Mutual Properties, one must bear in mind that this is as a shopping centre. The building can be adapted, softened and altered sensitively to satisfy today’s needs and functions. It could be an asset to Claremont and Cape Town as a whole.

This has been recognised to some degree by the architects chosen by Old Mutual for the project, DHK architects. Now while it has been said that they will preserve part of the building, one remains dubious as to how much of the special complexity will be saved. The last time DHK preserved the memory of a building, the result was the hotel 15 on Orange, where, if you can see past the hotel’s black glass, you might find the remains of the previous building’s façade around the corner. It’s hardly an encouraging sight and provides little confidence in the skills and vision required to tastefully renovate this architectural gem.

Countless re-uses have been proposed and precedents have been given by architects desperate to see the building side-step the wrecking ball.

One exciting vision for the building might be as a place where fine dining and local street food meet. This option could provide Claremont with a gastronomical attraction that happily integrates both sides of Main road and draws in tourists looking for a thick steak, a Gatsby, or any other local cusine. It would be supported by a cultural centre that documents the area’s past whilst by its very nature remaining up to date with the flavour of our city.
In London, a building that no longer operated under its intended function stood barren for years until it was reborn. Its rejuvenation sparked a redevelopment of the entire South Bank. We refer, of course, to the Tate Modern, the most visited contemporary art museum in the world.

Not too long ago, architects were opposing the demolition of a very similar structure, also previously a power plant, in South Africa: the Central Foreshore Power Station. As most of us know, their pleas fell on deaf ears. Let us not be short sighted and allow the demolition of another icon.

Translating the strength of the narrative and original vision of the Werdmuller Centre into a modern day triumph is an opportunity that should not be missed, in a city that will soon hold the title of World Design Capital.

Aspiring towards a democractic architecture, using that architecture to contribute towards overcoming the legacy of the Group Areas Act, is ambitious. But it’s a challenge suited to a Cape Town, a city which was recently awarded the title of World Design Capital 2014. Facing this challenge head on could help realize Uytenbogaardt’s original vision more than four decades later and act as a shining example of the power of architecture to drive new inclusive spaces in South Africa. It is surely an opportunity that should not and cannot be missed.

Uytenbogaardt

*Rashiq Fataar and Robert Bowen are from Future Cape Town a social media movement aimed at inspiring citizens and stimulating debate about the city today and in the future.

**Footnote: Parts of this article were informed by the thesis of Hanno Van Zyl (2010), The Invisible Monument: A critical analysis of the Werdmuller Centre as an example of modern architecture in postcolonial South Africa.

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