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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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RESPONSES (25)
  1. Chris says:

    “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”

    You’re reaching.
    Far.

    This building couldn’t even succeed as a space for retail. It’s unrealistic to suggest that it was capable of reversing racial segregation and apartheid in the country.

    And to suggest that, elsewhere in the world, similar modernist monstrosities have come to be loved by the public through experimental outdoor performances is ridiculous. The public doesn’t care enough. And why should they?
    They’re looking for a place to buy things before catching the bus home.

    The truth is, retail has never succeeded on ramps. And the UCT sports centre is an absolute fucking nightmare to use. If you ever want to experience a building telling you to go and fuck yourself, try approaching from the North and wanting a beer.

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  2. mud-debunker says:

    Dude it is is truly, truly fugly building which is impossible for anyone to use in any sensible way.

    By all means lets have inspirational architecture but this is not it, time to accept it an move on

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  3. Lizzy says:

    Just a short musing-
    I feel as though the central argument of the article is/should be: Just because something isn’t beautiful in a contemporary sense does not mean we should replace it. It has historical value and can stand as a physical reminder of a particular time and way of thinking.
    I also think perhaps the heritage act should apply to builings under 60 years old with some kind of architectural merit. Who defines this ‘merit’ though?

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  4. Andy says:

    so what to do with a dysfunctional space in a highy prized commercial location that should have national monument status?

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  5. Lizzy says:

    ask any city planner/developer in one of the ‘old’ cities full of useless but historical buildings…

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  6. die treadmill van Danville says:

    “Ghosts Of The Civil Dead” is an interesting futurist prison movie made in Australia by John Hillcoat in the ’80s. In the DVD interviews, Blixa Bargeld (who did the sountrack music) makes the remark that the film is not so much about incarceration as it is about architecture. The building is the lead character in the film, the plot and the humans mere victims of it’s presence.

    I am reminded so much of this view every time I go near the Werdmuller Centre. I cannot think of another building in this country that is so determined to impose its ethos upon those who frequent it, no matter what their practical needs or comfort zones may be. It has loads of dark, damp crannies and dead ends, more amenable to impromptu urination or muggings than healthy social interaction. A nagging reminder of how architects sometimes get the latitude to impose their naive idealism and unsympathetic determination on the lives of many.

    The sooner it goes and we get the opportunity to wise up, the better.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    I think the piece concedes it failed as a place for retail in the same way the Tate modern failed to supply dirty power once it was obsolete. Pretty unusable by te public until re-invented no?

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  8. Roger Young says:

    @Chris

    I don’t think it’s reaching. The author doesn’t assert that Werdmuller will end the legacy of the GAA in Claremont but that, based on its original intention, it might bear some influence toward that. By using the word “any” the implication is obviously that it might be a really small influence. Surely in an area that needs all the help it can get it might be a good thing to rather try and see if the ideals of the architect, derailed by the GAA, could work, as per the original design, before Old Mutual knock down a reminder that back then, not every architect was pro apartheid. The building itself is a piece of activism, that should be honoured.

    Also, maybe the sports center was never designed to be approached from any angle while wanting a beer, it’s all in the name Sports Center. Modernists did not equate sport with social drinking.

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  9. Chris says:

    @Roger,

    All I’m saying is that the building was unable to achieve even it’s most basic pragmatic aims. If it had succeeded in any of the ways a shopping centre would be expected to work, then architects could be forgiven for suggesting that it was capable of more noble aims.

    Perhaps hidden somewhere in the dark corners and disorienting ramps of the Werdmuller Centre is a seed of the ‘activism’ that you hint at, but in my opinion, whether it was designed as a radical ‘social condenser’ (to borrow from the parlance of the architecture fraternity) or not, the fact remains that it has never worked. As such, I don’t believe that we need to honour or commemorate or preserve it.

    Also, I’ve played sports in the Sports centre. I’ve both frozen my ass off and baked while writing exams there, and drank beers at the bar. All of these activities are extremely challenging precisely because of the design of the building. And to suggest that certain users of a building aren’t deserving of a pleasant experience is an example of the same line of thinking that all of the orthodox modernists were guilty of, and the reason that their buildings, and the movement as a whole, are considered a failure and are today only valued by architects.

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  10. Roger Young says:

    @Chris

    The conditions that were needed for the Werdmuller to work no longer existed by the time it was finished. It has never been in a pristine, properly managed state in the right conditions. To that end it can’t be called a failure as a social condensor, because it never had an opportunity to try. Yes, it’s a failure as a retail space, but it’s intentions were noble and it could be re-imagined while honouring those intentions. Why then, tear it down.

    As to the sports centre, I actually have no experience of it, I just found your statement, about approaching from the north wanting a beer, quite amusing, the kind of statement the Modernists would have recoiled in horror from.

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  11. Roland says:

    Times have changed and whatever the intentions, the building now, itself indicates that it must come down.

    The question that should be dealt with urgently is, are there any important issues to be handled before it is gone. If the architecture is valuable. Keep a historic record in photo and even holograph if you like.

    Museums are wonderful ways of preserving the past. You don’t have to let it spoil your future. And of course, the internet makes all this even more accessable.

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  12. Chris says:

    “Architects certainly deserve admiration for what they, alone among us can do: create monuments of the built environment.

    When Howard Roark, the architect hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, points to a building and says, ‘I don’t care what anyone says about me; I built that,’ one cannot but admire the material certainty of his pride.

    But one toxic result of ‘starchitecture’ culture is the steady stream of theoretical bafflegab that pours from architectural schools and journals. This is usually the result of what me might call ‘philosophical backformation’: finding some plausible-sounding theoretical cladding to hang on an already conceived, even completed, structural project. Self-respecting architects would not allow useless aesthetic decorations to mar their designs, yet they perpetrate intellectual design crimes by the week.”

    Mark Kingwell – Concrete Reveries

    If the Group Areas Act hadn’t been passed, and the Werdmuller completed in time for the society it was designed for, it could have been a powerful monument to the social power of Modern Architecture.

    If I had been born with longer fingers I could have been a concert pianist.

    I’m an architect and I find this building, and the obsession among local architects with Uytenbogaardt’s work, embarrassing.

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  13. die treadmill van Danville says:

    Well said Chris, a naked monarch is a naked monarch.

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  14. Ed Ifice says:

    Chris, be very careful with those Ayn Rand references in this here site, Edmonds will start to froth.

    In many ways the Werdmuller reminds me of those horrible cylindrical UCT residences on Main Rd in Rosebank, the same cold concrete isolation in too many places. Didn’t that architect commit suicide?

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  15. John Mongrel says:

    I thought it was the guy who made the tampon towers in Vredehoek who offed himself.

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  16. Guest says:

    @ Chris,

    Yes, the Werdmuller failed as a shopping centre (for reasons architectural or otherwise) However, your implication that it should be scrapped because of this is a far leap.

    Just because it doesnt work as a shopping centre does not mean it couldnt have any other programmatic uses. Seen apart from the ‘architectural activism’ and Roeloff loyalty it is still a beautiful sculptural form with interesting spaces, just compare it with Cavendish across the road. We preserve interestingly shaped bits of rock and anciet crockery in museums, so we certainly should preserve the spaces in the Werdmuller.

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  17. Chris says:

    @Guest,

    Koolhaas’ 2010/11 curriculum at Strelka dealt with exactly this issue.
    The problem is that every component of the built environment becomes heritage at a point and our current method of evaluating its worth (is it 100 years old yet?) is inadequate.

    Our Heritage body is currently in a transitional phase (perpetual beta, it has been for the last five years) and so, in the mean time, we have to rely on two systems to decide what we do with old buildings.

    The first is our personal, critical position on works of Architecture. I’ve voiced mine, and I don’t think it’s you can call it a ‘leap’ as it is an opinion. You’ve voiced yours and I appreciate it.

    The second system is the market, and though I seldom agree with what the market wants, I’m happy to say goodbye to the Werdmuller.
    Which is lucky for me because the market tends to win in this country.

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  18. Ed Ifice says:

    ‘interesting spaces’ my arse. Yes, let’s compare it with Cavendish, a vibrant, successful, self-sustaining building that has adapted well to changing needs over the decades. A place where functionality, accessibility and sociability have integrated well. And let’s consider that the erstwhile “Link” was saved from the wrecking ball because someone was smart enough to integrate it with Cavendish as part of a successful indoor/outdoor experience.

    There’s an interesting polarization of opinion and intent taking place here. Pragmatists and contemporary aesthetes clearly want the Werdmuller monstrosity razed to the ground. Conceding to this would uphold the likes of Cavendish as a social success, which is why the die-hard socialists want to see it stay. But within this struggle lies the sickest message of all, that concession to utopian ideals devoid of practicality and alignment with human nature will deliver nothing but ugly grey disfunctionality sustained by dogma alone. Look at the Eastern Bloc architecture from the Cold War – the similarities are striking.

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  19. Roger Young says:

    @Chris

    Oh, you’re that kind of architect.

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  20. Ian says:

    I read in the DHK report on the significance of this building that, with the late addition of more space on the site by old mutual, and a rush to include the extra portion in the design to meet old mutual’s deadlines, Uytenbogaardt himself was cited in a letter as saying he was not happy with the final product.
    While I agree with this building being a testament to architects’ opposition to the Apartheid ideals, one cannot avoid the fact that as it happened, the centre did not work economically.
    I fully support the movement to rip off the ill-considered additions and tasteless alterations, but I think an international architectural competition should be held to find an excellent, socially inclusive, beautiful, viable, culturally-centred re-visualisation of this non-functional icon. The competition could be the centre-piece, or even just one of the many huge events which COULD take place during Cape Town’s 2014 Design Capital year.
    Claremont needs a dose of culture and this project could become a catalyst of social renewal and urban renewal in an area full of even uglier monstrosities (stadium on main, the exterior of cavendish, the main road facade of the link, that big nautical-themed block of flats and that whorish Claremont Pick and Pay monstrosity).
    Cultural gems can be economically viable and I think its about time that big white business (and the BEE buffer zone protecting it), used its might to contribute positively to this country culturally and they would look good and probably make some money off it too.
    It’s win-win-win. The public gets a fresh new cultural/social/urban icon-the nostalgic architects get to keep their modernist monument-Old Mutual doesn’t seem to be a greedy corporate pig and makes a bit of money in spite of it.

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  21. Anonymous says:

    I am a fan of the Werdemuller Centre. I don’t believe that you will find a similar architecture anywhere else in the world (even though it has been compared to Le Corb in this article), and that is something to appreciate in design- you need to take a careful look at the photos included in this article- great stuff. But I also like to be a realistic fan of the Werdemuller. And that, in essence is its short fall. Idealism, very unfortunately, is not a concept that succeeds very often when it comes to architecture- and that is what this building is- a representation of a couple people’s ideal in what was then an extremely messed up society- but who wasn’t idealistic back then?? Wasn’t apartheid idealistic to the people who created it? And look how that ended up. I wish this building could remain purely because of the concept that drove it and the unique architecture that sufficed. But at the same time I think South Africa needs to move forward at slightly speedier pace than what is currently going down. So very unfortunately, I vote: Take Down the Werdemuller. (Sorry Robo)

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  22. H2 says:

    @ Chris.

    Are you actually an Architect or did you receive your education from that puss Howard Roark.

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  23. Bernd Jendrissek says:

    I find the photos here, and photos in general, of the Werdmuller Centre beautiful, while I find it fugly in real life. There’s something about the building that lends itself to photographic art.

    Yet I don’t believe that sentimentality alone is an appropriate measure of heritage. Perhaps the (admittedly arbitrary) 100-year rule is the only sensible one – whatever stands the test of time is also worth keeping? Some of us we sentimental also about the Athlone power station cooling towers, yet their absence now makes the (IMHO much prettier) turbine hall more visible. Every structure built is not worth keeping merely because it was built. We must allow ourselves to admit failure of our buildings, our ideals, and yes, also our architectural movements. And if the best place to remember historically relevant places and spaces is in books and photographs, then by all means let us keep them there, but let’s also make room for something better.

    As an environmentally aware species, we can’t afford simply always to find a new place on which to build the replacements for our failed spaces.

    Oh, and as for Cavendish Square: as a mere user of the building (with no real architectural clue), I like it more than I like the Werdmuller Centre because it *gets out of my way* and lets me do what I want to do: browse for stuff I don’t need while people-watching during lunch / while waiting for family to finish their shopping.

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  24. Maxi Me says:

    so many big words

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  25. Sanha says:

    The thing that I hate the most about the way the instructors teach us in dgiesn courses is that they force you to choose a concept before starting to work on your dgiesn. What I think is correct at least to me is that I should start working on the dgiesn, analyse what is wanted and the sizes and functions of the forms first before choosing the concept. For example, if it’s a residential house, the concept must not affect the function of the building and should not affect the 3D shapes dramatically because this is a house after all, not a museum. What made me feel really confused is how some instructors like it. They like that the house in an ordinary neighborhood and for ordinary people is shaped like a snail, seriously? Really interesting post, thank you. Also, your drawing is horrible, it doesn’t deserve even a C ~.~

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