Monday, February 25, 2008


Where do we go from here ?

What should be the plan of action ?

Jean Nuttall

Monday, January 28, 2008

Save the Werdmuller

Letter of support for the Werdmuller campaign, submitted to the Cape Institute of Architects
25 January 2008

We are four London-based architects – South African Rome Scholar Suzi Hall (neé Du Toit),
environmental design expert and UCT graduate Quinton Pop, published author and senior architect at Penoyre and Prasad Rafael Marks, and Dr. Matthew Barac, winner of the 2007 RIBA Architectural Research Award –with links and experience of working, teaching and writing about South African architecture. As professionals and commentators established in our field, we feel it necessary to add out collective voice to the conservation campaign. News of the threat to the Werdmuller Centre has sent shock waves around the world, accompanied by a sense of disbelief that the city that nurtured South Africa’s pre-eminent architect may see fit to demolish one of his seminal works.

We believe that the ‘Heritage Impact Assessment’ (HIA) addresses too narrow a remit, highlighting its own inadequacies rather than those of the Werdmuller Centre. By focussing solely on the commercial retail viability of the building, it sidesteps wider questions about cultural heritage, and fails to address the role of this building in historical terms, not only in South Africa but internationally too.

There are three widely understood criteria for qualify a building as worthy of heritage status:
• Is it the work of a master-architect?
• Is it an exemplar of a style or movement?
• Does it have contemporary value or adaptive use?

1. Is the work that of a Master Architect?
The answer to this question is self-evidently yes, and the ‘heritage assessment’ acknowledges this fact. Not only did Roelof leave behind a body of important and ground-breaking work, rooted in South Africa yet international in outlook, but through his work and teaching he influenced current and future generations. We all know of Roelof’s achievements and we do not need to go into them here. However, on top of all his accolades from within the profession (including the ISAA Gold Medal) it is worth pointing out that he was recently profiled as the first of South Africa’s "Architectural Greats" in a feature series in mainstream public culture magazine Elle Decoration.

2. Is the work an exemplar of a style or movement?
Again the answer is yes. The HIA goes to great lengths to explain Le Corbusier’s Five Points of
Architecture. The Werdmuller is an exemplar of these five points, and an unmatched regional variant of an international movement that owes much to this seminal modernist treatise. The building’s spatial juxtapositions, sculptural form and urban ambitions belie its size. Its pioneering modernism places it clearly in a pantheon of international icons: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Rietveld’s Schroder House, Kahn’s Parliament Buildings in Dhaka, Niemeyer’s Brasilia and a host of other acclaimed buildings for which new uses and conservation methods have been found. The iconic status of the Werdmuller is underlined by its inclusion in the book "1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die" (ed. Mark Irving, Quintessence Books, 2007).

3. Does the building have contemporary value or adaptive use?
This question is clearly the most contentious of the three criteria, yet the answer must be an unqualified yes. Let’s consider the question in two parts.

Contemporary value The notion of value should to extended from one that understands it purely as relating to profit and commerce. The cultural value of the building cannot be underestimated it is poorly understood. Most would agree that the building is an exemplar of modernism in South Africa. No other buildings in Cape Town from the era can compete as a total piece of architecture. This in itself gives it an educational, historical and cultural value that is irreplaceable. There is also the wider urban question. While the building is considered a failure from a commercial retail perspective, its urban importance in Claremont is not to be underestimated. The Werdmuller Centre and what could be considered its sister building, the Hans Niehaus Gallery, are the only two local significant buildings of this genre (and indeed
two of the very few buildings that fall outside of a logic driven by commercial values.) Claremont is one of many shopping centres in Cape Town, but what distinguishes the area from other retail experiences? If it is true that the building is perhaps not appreciated by local residents and shoppers, we need to ask the question "why?" Is it because it is perceived to be bad architecture, or is it because it has been neglected over many years so that now it is seen as dilapidated and without value? This is no argument to demolish the building, more a reason to renovate, reinvent and renew.

The presence of a modernist architectural icon should be considered a major draw card for the area rather than an impediment to profit. What could Claremont offer in terms of architectural culture that would compensate for the loss of the Werdmuller? Another bland shopping centre? This leads to the second part of the question.

Adaptive Use The heritage statement, in its narrowly defined assessment of the building,
states categorically that the building is unusable from a commercial retail perspective and cannot be adapted to other uses. This claim quite clearly has not been tested. There are no feasibility studies to test how the building would work as something other than a shopping centre. Many fine examples of buildings given a new lease of life, by renewal, restoration and adaptation to new uses, exist. It is often in their second generation that buildings come to life. Several examples are identified by Martin Kruger in his blog ( Locally there is the reuse and adaptation of Constantia’s various winery buildings, the conversion of the Newland’s Brewery, and examples on the waterfront (where the quality of architecture is a significant factor in attracting shoppers). Farther afield, there is the Tate Modern in London, Foster’s Reichstag, Scarpa’s Castelvecchio and the Musee d’Orsay
in Paris. In London, the conversion of Owen Williams’ 1938 Pioneer Health Centre into private housing has been a recent success. All these buildings had fallen into states of disrepair and disuse yet through imagination and determination, they were resuscitated beyond what their original builders or owners had imagined, rejuvenating the areas around them. One only needs to think how London’s Tate Modern, a simple intervention in an old power station, has far exceeded expectations of visitor numbers and cultural as well as commercial impact, while the Reichstag is a must-see for every visitor to Berlin. These are direct results of imaginative reinventions of previously derelict buildings, and we feel that it is an obligation of the current custodian of the building to use their imaginations and the imaginations of others to test future possibilities thoroughly before writing the building off. It is not hard to imagine the
Werdmuller’s renewal, which could become a destination in its own right, not a route through.

The Future
The life of a building stretches many generations and it is the responsibility of each to manage, maintain and use it in a way that looks after its value for future generations. As owner and original client for the building, Old Mutual is the custodian of this artefact of South Africa’s modern culture. They have an obligation to extend the imagination of the building beyond retail use. It may seem obvious to say it but it is profoundly true: if the Werdmuller Centre is demolished, it can never be replaced. In straight commercial terms, the building is not going to realise the potential of the site as foreseen by Old Mutual. However, if the questions of value, reuse and adaptation are reframed beyond the narrow confines of the retail market, the building can be seen to have vast cultural potential. This in turn could generate commercial returns. The building is iconic and well known, and its profile and ‘brand’ provides an a priori resource, which could and should be redeemed.

The Werdmuller Centre is not just a failed shopping centre. It is part of a public inheritance that goes beyond immediate commercial needs. It cannot be replaced because its aesthetic, its architectural achievements and its role in shaping contemporary architectural identity in South Africa makes it unique. We call on Old Mutual to reconsider their proposals for demolition, and to engage the architectural and development community in meeting the challenge of generating a new lease of life for this important and internationally admired building.

Quinton Pop, Rafael Marks, Suzi Hall and Dr. Matthew Barac

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Werdmuller Centre Claremont, Cape Town



Cape Town, 28 Nov - 05 December 2007












Dear Interested member of publicThere will be a public presentation of the Heritage Impact Assessment regarding the demolition of the Werdmuller Centre on:

Wednesday 05 December 2007


First floor of the Cape Institute

71 Hout Street

Cape Town

Your support against the demolition of this building is needed at this meeting.

There is also a petition that is going around which we attach - to be completed and submitted to us at our offices or at Noero Wolff's offices at 136 Buitengracht street before the meeting.

Also follow this link created by Gaelen Pinnock to see pictures of the building in question.
We hope that you will all actively support for the protection of a valuable urban resource.

OH team et al. Cape Town, December 2007

Save the Werdmuller Center, Cape Town

Facebook Group Info "Save the Werdmuller"

Type: Organizations - Advocacy Organizations

The Werdmuller Centre is set for demolition.

This building, designed by Roelof Uytenbogaardt, forms a significant part of the South African architecturallandscape. Werdmuller certainly has its faults, but it's an important building for our Architectural heritage.

If it gets demolished, it will just be replaced by some large-scale commercial building. Frankly we'd much prefer a re-vamped or re-programmed Werdmuller than some bland impersonal edifice.
There are many viable and profitable options besides demolition.

How you can help:

- On Wed 5th Dec 2007, there will be a public presentation of the Heritage Impact Assessment regarding the demolition of the Werdmuller. BE THERE! See details below.

- Sign a petition protesting the demolition. Download this petition form, sign it and email it to us or bring it on Wed.

- Spread the word. Get people involved. Get people to sign the petition. We are running out of time.

If we can convince council that there is a large enough interest group and enough people against its demolition, we can certainly safe Werdmuller from permanent erasure.


We have proven with this document that there is a rapidly growing interest group that is in favour of protecting the Werdmuller Center in Claremont Cape Town from demolition and/or thoughtless alteration.

We believe that the Werdmuller Center is valuable because it represents the contribution South Africa has made to modern architecture.

We believe that it is valuable to students of architecture as it is one of the few examples that illustrate South Africa’s interpretation of all of Le Corbusier’s five points of architecture:

- the free plan (due to free-standing walls, everything is flexible)
- pilotis (columns which raised the building above the ground),
- roof garden (replacing land lost underneath the building)
- ribbon windows
- free facade (the exterior walls are no longer load-bearing)

Furthermore the ramp system at the Werdmuller is a powerful display of the modernist idea ‘promenade architecturale’.

We believe that with some thought and effort given to its use it can make a positive contribution to the life of the city.

We believe the building represents an urban ideal of prioritizing the pedestrian as opposed to the automobile – an ideal that our society should not completely obliterate.

We believe that the building represents an aesthetic that is a consequence of engaging with certain urban concerns such as connections, public trade and public shelter.

We believe that in allowing this building ‘to be’ indicates that we as a society allow difference and the experimental to co-exist and contribute to the experience of the city.

Ilze Wolff, for Open House Architecture

04 December 2007


The Werdmuller Centre is a building of cultural significance and it would constitute a failure of imagination to break it down.

The National Heritage Resources Act (1999) protects a building like the Werdmuller Centre for a number of reasons:

1. The building displays significant aesthetic characteristics; its undulating circulation system, extraordinary sculptural forms, its rare spatial complexity and its urban generosity makes it an exceptional artistic achievement. To this list one can add the dramatic play of light across the surfaces of the building and into the deep recesses of the façades, but these light characteristics are perhaps not so evident since the building is in a poor state of repair currently.

2. The Werdmuller Centre is highly valued by a community of people. From the petitions, letters, emails, websites, Facebook entries etc. it is clear that there is a growing group of people from all social backgrounds and all ages that are deeply concerned about the future of the Werdmuller. Many leading architects in the profession have joined the call that the building should not be destroyed and that it should be put to a better purpose. Giovanni Vio, a Venetian, with no relation to the architect, published a book on the work of Roelof Uytenbogaardt and featured the Werdmuller extensively. One can only assume that the book will increase the community of people interested in this remarkable building.

It should be considered that all letters, petitions, emails and Facebook entries were gathered in one week. Image if we had a month….

Most of the petitions were signed in person by people who had to drive a cross town to sign it. One of the signatories who spent a lot of his childhood at the building has said that it inspired him to become an architect.

All over South Africa and internationally there is support for the protection of the Werdmuller.

3. The high degree of creative achievement is evident form the masterful manipulation of space and architectural elements. The interwoven character of curved forms, its ability to break out of the orthogonal grid usually associated with concrete frame structures and the synthesis of curved and rectilinear elements are rare in the world. The exploration of many of these ideas became fashionable in Europe during the twenty first century. The Werdmuller was clearly ahead of its time.

Formally the building is one of a kind in South Africa and therefore clearly qualifies or protection by the Act.

4. The architecture of Roelof Uytenbogaardt is regarded internationally to be of great importance and the Werdmuller is without doubt synonymous with Uytenbogaardt. The Werdmuller Centre with the sport centre at UCT are the only two projects of his that is in this style. Uytenbogaardt is without doubt one of the top architects to have practiced in Cape Town during the twentieth century. Internationally, the work of any architect of this importance will never be demolished.

The book by Giovanni Vio and many other publications testify to the international enthusiasm for the work of Uytenbogaardt

Considering the above, the Werdmuller Centre clearly complies with several of the provisions of the National Heritage Resources Act. A building has to comply with only one of these to be protected in terms of the Act.

The problems that the owners of the Werdmuller are confronted with are not unique. The negative sense that some residents of Claremont has of the building comes as no surprise. The building is not cared for very well and in its dilapidated state people may prefer something new and clean instead of old and dirty.

Most people agree that the building does not serve its current use very well. We must remember that 40 years ago the Castle of Good Hope did not serve its use very well at all. It was a useless military installation completely incapable of defending itself against contemporary military threat. Uselessness is therefore not the only measure of value.

An even more notorious building of a much larger scale than that to the Werdmuller, but with similar problems of circulation and public perception is the Barbican Centre in London. I include the following extract from Wikipedia to give some background:

“The Centre had a long development period, only opening long after the surrounding Barbican Estate housing complex had been built. It is sited on an area which was badly bombed during World War II.

The Centre has a complex multi-level layout with numerous entrances, making circulation difficult for some. Lines painted on the ground to help would-be audience members avoid getting lost on the walkways of the Barbican Housing Estate en route to the Centre. The Centre's design – a concrete ziggurat – has always been controversial and divides opinion. It was voted "London's ugliest building" in a Grey London poll in September 2003[3]. In September 2001 the then arts minister, Tessa Blackstone, announced in that the Barbican complex was to be a Grade II listed building. It has been designated a site of special architectural interest for its scale, its cohesion and the ambition of the project.[4]. A younger generation increasingly admires Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the architects' brutalist design.[citation needed] This architecture practice also designed the Barbican Housing Estate and the nearby Golden Lane Estate. Project architect John Honer later worked on the British Library at St Pancras – a red brick ziggurat.

In the mid-1990s a cosmetic improvement scheme by Theo Crosby, of the Pentagram design studio, added statues and decorative features reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement. In 2005-6, the Centre underwent a more significant refurbishment, designed by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, which improved circulation and introduced bold signage in a style in keeping with the Centre's original 1970s Brutalist architecture. That improvement scheme added an internal bridge linking the Silk Street foyer area with the lakeside foyer area. The Centre's Silk Street entrance, previously dominated by an access for vehicles, was modified to give better pedestrian access. The scheme included removing most of the mid-1990s embellishments.

Outside, the main focal point of the Centre is the lake and its neighbouring terrace. The theatre's fly tower has been surrounded by glass and made into a spectacular high-level conservatory. The Barbican Hall's acoustic has also been controversial: some praised it as attractively warm, but others found it too dry for large-scale orchestral performance.

In 1994, Chicago acoustician Larry Kirkegaard oversaw a £500,000 acoustic re-engineering of the hall "producing a perceptible improvement in echo control and sound absorption", music critic Norman Lebrecht wrote in October 2000[5] – and returned in 2001 to rip out the stage canopy and drop adjustable acoustic reflectors, designed by Caruso St John, from the ceiling, as part of a £7.5 mn refurbishment of the hall. Barbican Centre managing director John Tusa wrote to Kirkegaard Associates to thank them "for doing something that many thought was not deliverable – the acoustic transformation of the Barbican Hall at a highly affordable price and in a very short time. We couldn't have asked for more."[6] But art music magazine Gramophone still complained about "the relative dryness of the Barbican acoustic" in August 2007.[7]

Anybody familiar with the Barbican before its renovation can testify to the immensity of the problem. Today the Barbican is a popular and important venue for cultural events in London.

The parallels with the Barbican are important:
* It has circulation that did not serve its use well
* It is architectural significant and roughly dates from the same period as the Werdmuller.
* Its significance was had to be reconciled with its lack of popularity
* A younger generation of people unfamiliar with its origins have a great enthusiasm for the building

The most significant lesson from the Barbican is that the problems are surmountable. The recent architectural intervention ranged from invisible manipulations to clearly necessary “surgery”. Great buildings like these, warts and all, are not broken down. It calls on us to amply our minds and not to pretend we cannot imagine something better.

Heinrich Wolff
4 December 2007


In the Werdmuller Centre we have a manifesto of the democratic city, perhaps expressed under the light of a desperate confrontation with an incontestable devolution.

A humanistic city related, rooted and confirmed by it’s historical precedents like the little town of Calcata near Rome, or it’s contemporary modernist experiments like two LeCorbusier’s projects: maison Currutchet in La Plata (1949) and the MIT Carpenter centre for visual studies in Harvard (1961).

The Werdmuller centre is a mixed use building, built in 1973: a sort of a commercial mall with a post office and with private offices and restaurants at the top level.

This is a project that Roelof was not very keen to present to the public to the extent that it was not included among those he submitted for Space and Society’s dossier.

This building, in fact, did not receive full appreciation from the critics from the very beginning. There were complaints about the abundance of communal open space compared to the amount of lettable commercial space obtained from the building, and also for the location of shops along a complicated uphill route, not too easy to use. These comments were true, if one is expecting from this project the same features and performances of the typical commercial centre: a big box with a car park around. The Werdmuller never let all its spaces, and never had very busy shops.

The centre slowly lost its original appeal as a fantastic, psychedelic piece of architecture, and started running down.

For many years this building has been considered a failure and recently it’s demolition was decided.

The “timeless” in Roelof’s architecture has nothing to do with the success of a building. Rather it is a concept that deals with the understanding of human needs, in an ethical way and with enriching the idea of space with the spirit of the context.

To create continuity between past, present and future, and so producing the timeless qualities is view of architecture requiring a wider consciousness that spreads from the scale of the building to the one of the public space, the city and the site.

So in the Werdmuller centre we must understand the deep urban ideas that make the building so specific to its site.

The site was on the “poor edge” of rich Claremont. The building was intended to be a bridge between the two sides. From the developer’s point of view, as described in the articles of the time, the intention was to reach a different type of shop user. From Roelof’s point of view it was an opportunity to activate an appropriate, clever urban strategy.

First of all the main idea for the layout of the project is to intercept the flow of people coming from the nearby train station and minibus terminal toward the centre of Claremont. In the 70’s there were many commuters that used to enter town by public transport. New shops and public services set along this commuter route could have promoted the use of public transport more and more. For the early 70’s this idea was very innovative, almost utopian. In fact, if in those years the use of public transport, specially the train, was diffused throughout the population, despite racial differences, later, due to the apartheid’s urban policy, the use of public transport became a means of segregation and prerogative only of poor people. The face of Claremont became more and more the image of a safe precinct, accessed by cars, in which the wealthy part of the population could safely shop. The destiny of Werdmuller could only be different, at that stage.

Secondly the project posed a great importance on the landscape, particularly on the beautiful view of Table Mountain. Nowadays the west elevation we see along Lower Main Road is all covered up by recently added windows and roof. Originally there was a terrace, the final point of the ascending pedestrian ramp.

Now I would like to ask to the people who know Cape Town: which of buildings among the commercial area of Claremont offers this attention to the characteristics of the landscape? None, or maybe very few.

I leave you to discover the other reasons that make the Werdmuller so important by reading the book.

The Werdmuller is a modernist utopia. We have many of them in Europe. As architectural mistakes they do not last long as they are. Firstly they get amended, fixed with additions, changes, improvements, exactly like the owners tried to do with the Werdmuller, adding the roof to the upper terrace, or like the tenants of Le Corbusier’s houses in Pessac did closing up the loggias and building extra bits and pieces. But after this first phase of constant decay, not all of these buildings will be wrecked.

Some of them, with time passing, become objects of affection; they start to belong to the place and to the people of the place where they are. This happens specially to those buildings where people are originally forced to spend it’s life in: homes. Modernist radical and experimental spaces such as the Brunswick housing blocks and commercial square in London, designed by Patrick Hodgkinson in 1970 or the 900 housing units scheme of Park Hill, built between 1957 and 1961, in Sheffield, today are object of conservative regeneration projects. Even an elevated railway might become a building worth conservation according to the locals who got used to have it and see it outside their houses’ windows for many years. I think of the High Line in New York.

If the building does not belong to anyone, if it is only considered as a money machine by it’s owners, then the modernist utopia will never became one with the life of the citizens, and there will be nobody standing out to defend the building from the wrecker’s ball.

This is not a good sign.

If there are any new urban visions for Cape Town this project should be re-evaluated as a powerful tool for making a democratic and meaningful space.

Giovanni Vio, architect, Venice.
(Lecture at UCT School of Architecture, 2007-05-04)


The Werdmuller Centre is many things, but most importantly it is a beautiful piece of Architecture and a very important part of the Architectural landscape of Cape Town. It must be preserved, restored and its use re-invented. It has and should always be there to be used as a reference by students and practitioners of Architecture, and all those who care about Design.
Simone le Grange, architect, South Africa.

Roeloff’s work was contextual, exploratory, conceptually imaginative and competent at all levels. To lose such a poetic building founded on the humanist tradition of accessible and evocative space making is more than a pity but a travesty! It demonstrates in full clarity a crisis of values within the profession and the built environment.
Let’s convert the building into a museum of south African architecture, with offices and conference space for architects and make that building a real part of the city, instead of lifeless acontextual pseudo middleclass high rise dwellings that are doomed to be immemorable. If the museum won’t work, I propose a rebel school of architecture to evangelize for quality in the public realm.
Mokena Makeka, architect, South Africa.

Herein lays an excellent example of a building that has been relegated to the basement of public memory. The building is greatly valuable in that, in a sense, without containing a single ornament, it is in itself a museum to South African Modernist Architecture.
Lorenzo Nassimbeni, architect, South Africa.

What are they planning to replace it with?
Timb Curtis, London

Anything he built being destroyed is sheer murder
Renee Rossouw, South Africa

Well, I mightn't have thought I'd say it when I was younger, but more fuck-off faceless Sandtonization would be a great shame. The Werdmuller Centre is about the only interesting thing in Claremont.
James Duncan, commissioning editor, London.

If we, as a society, demolish our mistakes, how will our youth learn?
Edward Van Kuik, South Africa.

As a modernist myself I was always fascinated by that statuesque & bold form. I think it should be saved for the sake of modern history in this country. Go Go Go!
Bobo Motha, Architect, Johannesburg.

If the programme of the Werdmuller Center was re-appraised so as to facilitate a different use, it could survive as an exemplary piece of modernist architecture. Permeable and accessible, the building promotes openness to the street, and it fosters human interaction. Aren’t they the same values we are looking for to find in the buildings for the 21st century in Cape Town? The Werdmuller showed this sensitivity 25 years in advance. Why demolish it?
César Besada, architect & urban planner, Spain.

I am not sure on your thoughts on the Werdmuller (as many are varied!), but from what has been going up around Claremont Main Road, we feel that it is one important building that not only has heritage value but also has the potential for a cultural core - the demolition would just replace this with more exclusive housing apartments out of the reach of the general public…
Kathryn Ewing, architect, South Africa.

I'm a UCT Archi school graduate (1994) and Roelof was my Professor. I love the Werdmuller. No-one designs shopping centers like that. It's a great place to get lost, but the relationship between inside and outside is unique. It would be a fantastic cultural center. The only significant building on Claremont Main road.
Simon le Roux, architect, Finland.

Now I would like to ask to the people who know Cape Town: which of buildings among the commercial area of Claremont offers this attention to the characteristics of the landscape? No one, or maybe very few.
Giovanni Vio, architect, Venice.

The Werdmuller’s demolition threat is not a new attitude.

It’s a sad attitude that shows incompetence and lack of imagination from Old Mutual’s advisors.

It’s an insensitive attitude that will destroy one of the last interestingexamples of architecture in that area, whose architectonic and urbanlevels of quality are decreasing with every new finished intervention.

What the Werdmuller needs is a re-conceptualization, by resolving itsinadequacies with full conscience and respect for its qualities and uniqueness.

What the Werdmuller needs is a fresh look, away from old arguments,personal motivations or cold indifference.

What the Werdmuller needs is this demonstration of people who show care and interest.

This demonstration alone should be reason enough not to destroy it.

This demonstration alone is not enough to make it work,but it’s a start…

Uno de Lemos Marques Pereira, architect

December 2007

Ricardo Sá

I think the demolition of the Werdmuller Centre shows the following:

of the Architectural value of the building…
of its form and of the oeuvre of a magnificent architect.
of the History of the country…
by neglecting the positive ideals and vision of the South African Modern movement of arts.

Lack of Creativity…
in seeing the possibility of changing the building’s use,
to turn the building into an icon, into a destination (arts centre, arts museum, police station, etc) that Claremont might need and in general the city of Cape Town,
of the owner by underestimating a community to revamp a present dysfunctional space.

One sided Investment opportunity – Money…
by a Investment Company that I believe knows better.

This is a good chance for investment in Culture and in Arts…
and a chance to turn the building into a culture and commercial precinct as part of Claremont’s consolidated residential area.

By demolishing the Werdmuller Centre, Old Mutual is not embracing diversity but only Conformity.

Ricardo Sá, architect

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Proposed Demolition of the Werdmuller Centre: Some Further Information and Comments

The Proposed Demolition of the Werdmuller Centre: Some Further Information and Comment
Fabio Todeschini Monday, January 21st, 2008

I refer to the contribution made on the 14th January 2008. Having reflected on the matter and having been advised of some aspects relating to an offer to purchase the property from the Old Mutual some years ago, I wish to add as follows.

Additions to the Core of the Matter
I propose to ask what seem to me to be some more pivotal questions and to answer them to the best of my understanding, as follows.

Was the Werdmuller Centre a well resolved development brief in financial terms? With the benefit of hindsight, the evidence suggests that, over the period that The Old Mutual appointed Roelof Uytenbogaardt to develop plans and their land-holdings for the project continued to expand as proposals were framed therefore, Claremont tended increasingly to be overtraded in the retail sector, particularly as it related to goods and services for the lower income group. Consequently, no amount of ingenuity would have rendered the proposition a financial success. This in particular because the site was located to the east of the Main Road and, in contrast to Cavendish Square shopping centre located to the west of the Main Road, it had to mainly cater to a lower income group. This is borne out by the inability of The Old Mutual to attract an anchor tenant for the easterly portion of the expanded building, which therefore, had to be limited to small shops and offices.

Why was so little parking provided in the Werdmuller Centre? In the context of most of the development being targeted at lower-income shopping, it was agreed with The Old Mutual that a minimum of parking should be provided.

Were alterations made to the Werdmuller Centre by The Old Mutual over the years sympathetic? The alterations made were clearly not sympathetic.

Did The Old Mutual maintain the Werdmuller Centre appropriately over the years? Clearly not.

Have offers to purchase the Werdmuller Centre been made to The Old Mutual in recent years? I was advised by a Director of Equity Investments last week that they did make an offer some two years ago but that The Old Mutual was not prepared to entertain it, irrespective of the sum involved. Perhaps other offers were also made.

Interim Conclusion
Having not been very good from the beginning with neither the brief nor management of the development of the Werdmuller Centre, it would seem that The Old Mutual see in the new planning framework for Claremont a way to recoup all their losses on the project with a far larger development. They appear to be intent on total demolition of the Werdmuller Centre as a way to achieve this. The Draft HIA is silent on a number of matters, including some raised in this document and that dated 14th January 2008. Is it possible that the HIA is not entirely impartial and in the public interest and that it tends to be ‘apologist’ and even ‘advocating’ re-development?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Werdmuller Centre Main Road Claremont



The Werdmuller Centre, which was developed by Old Mutual Properties, designed by Roelof Uytenbogaardt in the late sixties and completed in 1976, is a fine example of modernist architecture in Cape Town.

The late Roelof Uytenbogaardt was an inspirational teacher and award-winning architect, with the undoubted talent of a master of architecture.

Over the years, Uytenbogaardt’s visionary philosophy and innovative approach to the design of buildings and cities have inspired many students and practicing architects. Many of them – inspired by the work of Uytenbogaardt – have now too delivered work of excellence.

The work is seen as part of Le Corbusier-inspired architecture, which is exemplified by the concrete work done in Cape Town and South Africa by, amongst others, Tony de Sousa Santos and Adele Naude Santos (Rowan Road Townhouses and Block of Flats on the Main Road), Revel Fox (Educational Building, UCT Upper Campus) and Munnik, Visser Black and Fish (Lesley Building, UCT Upper Campus). The work of Wilhelm Meyer in Gauteng – the Rand Afrikaans University – are also seen to be part of a South African modernist legacy.

Second Floor Layout: Werdmuller Centre (Giovanni Vio, Roelof Uytenbogaardt Timeless: October 2006, Il Poligrafo, Padua)

Work has also been completed elsewhere in the world that was similarly inspired by Le Corbusier. These include work by the Pritzker prizewinner Richard Meier (United Sates), the RIBA Gold Medalist Charles Correa (India), Balkrishna Doshi (India), Mario Botta (Switzerland and Italy) and Rem Koolhaas (the Netherlands, earlier work).

Le Corbusier was the most influential architect and named The Architect of the 20th Century. Roelof Uytenbogaardt was voted the Architect of the 20th Century in South Africa.

A building of Aalvar Aalto or Le Corbusier would nowhere in the civilised world be threatened with demolition. In fact, some projects by famous architects often only get completed after they have passed away – notably Le Corbusier’s Fermini Church and Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Le Corbusier: Carpenter Centre, Harvard (Ching, p.274)

The University of Cape Town’s Sport Centre and the Werdmuller Building were designed at the same time and have a similarity of language and formal expression. These were both seemingly inspired by the Carpenter Centre (United States) and Ahmedabad (India) projects by Le Corbusier.

The Werdmuller Centre and some of the cited examples share Le Corbusier’s five principles of architectural design, which is the basis of modernist architectural thinking:

1. The free plan
2. Pilotis (circular columns)
3. The free elevation
4. Roof garden
5. The horizontal windows

The ramp idea of the Carpenter Centre has been exploited and the notion of the ramp as an expression of movement improved – some architects believe – at the Werdmuller Centre.

Ramps and free Form: Werdmuller Centre Vio, 2006)

Roelof Uytenbogaardt was assisted in his design studio in the mid-sixties by Fabio Todeschini (later his colleague and professor at UCT), Peter Schneider and Ian Macaskill. Piet Louw, now a practicing architect in Cape Town just matriculated and worked on the model of the building during 1970. The work was executed on site under the name of Uytenbogaardt Schneider Macaskill Architects.

The work was inspirational as a new building and has always been at the centre of architectural debate in Cape Town. The architectural and spatial features are:

* The vertical and horizontal expression of sculptural form (at many levels)
* The idea of building-as-city
* The robustness and bold expression of the building
* The many facets and layers enrich the spatial experience (ramps, roof top activity, the linking sky bridges, free form).

We believe that this building is a modernist architectural masterpiece, which should for that reason be preserved for future generations. In our architectural history, it is a building that compares with the significance of others elsewhere such as the Villa Savoye outside Paris and Schroder House, Utrecht.

Over the years, the Werdmuller Centre has seemingly fallen into a state of neglect, due to no or little maintenance. Some people hate it. Others love the sensuous forms, the clear legible circulation and the light penetration and exploitation of the roof terrace. Much of the negativity has to do with the negative visual impact of signage that was not controlled and the maintenance on the building. The Pompidou Centre (with now an average of 6 million visitors annually) and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, initially sparked similar public debate.

In Claremont, the recently constructed Hans Niehaus Gallery designed by Uytenbogaardt’s partner, Norbert Rozendal and antique shop is another example of the type of architecture that Roelof Uytenbogaardt and his partners have subscribed to. It may well be a good example to look at to improve the current Werdmuller Centre through re-use and renewal as the finishes with the use of timber, contrasted with the concrete are more successful.

Re-use of buildings
The re-use of historical architecture have many fine examples of buildings given a new lease on life, by renewal and restoration, and selectively adding and sometimes demolishing parts.

In South Africa, the work by Uytenbogaardt’s contemporary Gabriel Fagan at Boschendal, Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, the Newlands Breweries Visitor’s Centre, as well as the work by Revel Fox at Groot Constantia, the GSB School in the Breakwater Lodge, as well as John Rennie’s conversion of SAHRA’s Offices in Harrington Street are fine Cape examples.

Internationally, the work of Carlo Scarpa (Castelvecchio), the Tate Modern (Herzog and de Meuron), Foster’s Reichstag Complex in Berlin and Sverre Fenn’s Heidmark Museum in Norway, the conversion of the Museum d’Orsay and the Louvres, and Giancarlo de Carlo’s addition to the Il Magistero convent (Urbino) are some of the fine examples of new and old integrated into a wonderful new work of architecture.

The Werdmuller Centre is a fine piece of architecture and very urbane. It is an example of modernist architecture that should be preserved as future heritage. Students of architecture and scholars should be able to view and enjoy the building. It holds lessons for architecture of a public scale. It failed as a shopping centre, but could be converted into another use.

In the words of the great Italian architect and urbanist, Victorio Gregotti:

The worst enemy of modern architecture is the idea of space considered solely in terms of its economic and technical exigencies…” (Gregotti, addressing the Architectural League- New York, 1983)

Martin Kruger
Architect Urbanist

5th December 2007

The Werdmuller Centre: Seeking the Souk

The Werdmuller Centre : Seeking the Souk

The Visit
On the Thursday after the Werdmuller presentation, I visited Claremont at lunch time to do some shopping and visit the Werdmuller Centre which I hadn’t been to for many years. Cavendish and the revamped Link and interspace were crowded and buzzing with throngs of Christmas shoppers enjoying the range of merchandising opportunities in a contemporary up-market bazaar-like atmosphere. The Main Road too was crowded with pavement shoppers but the Werdmuller was empty.

It was like entering a ghost town - a very unsettling experience which caused one to recall the heady days of Sea Street in the late sixties and early seventies with Roelof and the Santos’ in full cry. Roelof had then moved from his Kahnian into his Corbusian period. Werdmuller and the UCT sports Centre were to be the two major works of this period but both created great public controversy - the Sports Centre for aesthetic reasons and Werdmuller for both aesthetic and operational reasons.

Werdmuller went through a difficult gestation period with the back [station] portion being added during documentation. The two were never really knitted together and the notion the important route [‘souk’ ?] linking Claremont Station to Main Road never realised. The viability of the scheme was also never realised with shops being a commercial failure and only the east facing offices something of a success.

Today the building is even more illegible than before and this labyrinthine quality has been exacerbated by disruptive ad hoc alterations. It is clearly an unloved - and uncared for - building with a scary and noisome environment. Believe me, it is nothing like the collage of images in the Institute Notice nor in the recent monograph on Roelof by Giovanni Vio.

The Vitruvian Imperative
In short, it is an architectural failure and even embarrassment. So why is it that so many architects feel passionately about preserving it?

In trying to understand this I recalled the Vitruvian founding architectural principles of firmness, commodity and delight which underlie other more abstract values such as time/space, space/place and place/perception.

The building appears to be structurally sound although suffering from years of neglect on part of the owners. It still has fragments of architectonic delight, particularly in the stair wells and the entrance to the old Post Office. But it never has had commodity as witnessed by the lack of financial viability, the rapid turnover of tenants, the desperate ad hoc alterations and its current state of near dereliction.

To my mind a building which does not meet all three Vitruvian imperatives in some measure - and this varies from building type to building type - is not a complete work of architecture. Werdmuller is not a complete work of architecture although it had, and still has to some extent, fragments which make it an architectonic tour de force, but it is a husk which needs some life breathed into it.

Commerce and Culture
The presentation and subsequent discussion at the Institute identified the issues very clearly. On the one hand, we have a building which is not a viable commercial proposition - under bulk, minimal parking, unsuitable for commercial activity, no anchor tenant and needing major maintenance - and is a wasting asset on a prime site in a developing Claremont.

On the other hand, we have a building which is highly regarded by the architectural cognoscente, authored by an architect who some consider to be the foremost South African architect of last century. A building, which speakers stated, was a contribution to South Africa at an architectural, cultural and even social level [the latter being difficult to understand in view of its almost universal rejection by users and public]. It was noted that no one would consider demolition of a 20th century masterpiece in a civilised country. Would we consider the demolition of a Baker building?

Steve Townsend summed up the discussion by noting that the property owners had the right to demolish and that no one could stop this taking place unless the heritage value of the building could be established beyond doubt. My understanding of this is that the heritage would have to be powerfully motivated at an architectural - not architectonic- level. In other words the building would have to be a viable commodity. It would have to have a use.

No amount of preaching about architectonic qualities will do it. No amount of accusing the demolishers as philistines will do it. And certainly, no amount of bluster will do it.

The challenge, therefore, is to propose a viable alternate use for the building. Roelof’s architectural faithful, and there are many, will have to put their architectural money where their mouths are.

A viable alternative will depend on an anchor activity. Stadium on Main - an architectonic disaster - was rescued by a gym/sports/recreational facility as anchor. Others will know better than I, what would be an appropriate anchor activity for Werdmuller but it seems that Claremont is singularly without a cultural, educational or entertainment hub, a museum of some type, an IT resource hub with high end computing and media facilities or a fun palace surrounded by studio/office/apartments, boutique shops and eateries.

What about a Museum of the Environmental Culture of the Western Cape [MECWES]? We live in a very special region ranging from its geomorphology and flora to the agricultural, horticultural and architectural transformations which have taken place over the years.. A natural, agricultural, viticultural, urban and architectural museum looking backward and forward would be a perfect venue for all the debates we are going to have in dealing with local problems of urban development, transportation and poverty and at the same time conserving and sustaining our environment as part of an African and world wide attempt to arrest climate change.

Make no mistake, it would require major architectural interventions in order to make it into a viable work of architecture. In this endeavour those involved should be mindful of Ed Bacon’s principle of the Second Man, for [to paraphrase him] it is he [they] who will determine whether the seeds inherent in the original work will grow to their full potential or wither away.

A radical intervention will be required to realise this potential but please, let it be more sensitive than what Foster has recently done to Candilis, Josic and Woods’ Berlin Free University, where big Norman, like Captain Marvel, has landed his space ship in the middle of the complex taking out 6 courtyards and seriously affecting both the building form and delicate web like structure of this icon of the sixties.

Julian Elliott
Cape Town; December 10, 2007

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Proposed Demolition of the Werdmuller Centre: Some Information and Comments

The Proposed Demolition of the Werdmuller Centre: Some Information and Comment
Fabio Todeschini Monday, January 14th, 2008

At the outset, I have to declare that this contribution to the professional debate about the future of the Werdmuller Centre is offered in the context of two personal connections to the building:

* to the best of my recollection, I worked full-time in Roelof’s office from July 1965 till January 1972, obviously on many projects, one of them being the Werdmuller Centre, to which I dedicated about 3 years of my life;
* years later, I was a principal in the firm Todeschini and Japha, who prepared a heritage survey (then known as a conservation study) of the area in which the Werdmuller Centre is situated, commissioned by the city.

I also have to record that I was overseas at the time of the public presentation of the Draft Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposed demolition held in December last; otherwise I would have participated in discussions then. Having missed the presentation and having only obtained copy of the HIA today, my contribution can not really be properly informed by the presentation since I do not have that background. Yet, as is common to all of us, and as an architect, city planner, urban designer and heritage practitioner, my purpose is here to make some contribution to this high profile debate occurring within the professions.

The Core of the Matter
I believe that the matter is complex, although I imagine that if Roelof Uytenbogaardt were among us today he would support demolition of the building; just as I remember Louis Kahn supporting demolition of one of his earlier buildings in Philadelphia in 1973-74, when I was studying there, saying that its time had come, or words to that effect.

But I am getting ahead of myself. I propose to ask what seem to me to be the pivotal questions and to answer them to the best of my understanding, as follows.

Is the Werdmuller Centre significant in the history of the development of contemporary architecture at the Cape and nationally? The answer has to be yes because all the evidence points in that direction. The work was that of a young master searching for and finding his way via some imitation and elaboration, just as Palladio did at an equivalent time in his life in many projects in and about Vicenza and Venice.

Should the Werdmuller Centre have appeared amongst the list of significant buildings in the Todeschini and Japha conservation study of 1994? The answer has to be yes in my view, because of the evidence. Why did it not so appear? Simply because I thought it should but my partner Vivienne Japha was not convinced of this (note that Derek Japha was not part of the team on this job). In the context of my having worked on the Werdmuller Centre for years, I did not think it appropriate that I should go to great lengths in persuading my colleague as to the correctness of my point of view.

Was the Werdmuller Centre ever a well resolved building across functional, tectonic, formal, security and financial realms? There are many sub-questions here, many debatable today as they were debated at length even when I was in Roelof’s office as a team member on the job for years. While Roelof was the master, I recall many discussions and even disagreements (some very heated) about how to realise the fundamental idea of a ‘bazaar of shops’, with which we all agreed. This particularly in a context of a seemingly endless expansion of the very site for the building, as the Old Mutual progressively continued to purchase adjacent sites as the months and years went by. At stages, working drawings were virtually complete and additional sites were made available to the project. Even a veritable magician would have been hard pressed to take some parts as given and try and remodel the balance into a coherent whole. Moreover, because the theoretically attainable bulk kept on increasing virtually exponentially, as sites were added seriatim over time to the original narrow core site that bounded Newry Street with only a small frontage onto Main Road (not including the north west corner of the present building)―yet total redesign was ruled out of court as time progressed―, so the gap between attainable bulk and the legal maximum kept widening disconcertingly. It is obvious from Stuart Finlay’s report referred to in the HIA that the client was not really clear on what they were asking, was unsuccessful in getting an anchor tenant for the easterly portion of the expanded building and did their sums way too late.

Is it in the interests of the Old Mutual, of the Claremont CID, of Peter de Tolly (who has been acting as a consultant to the CID for some years) and of DHK Architects to have the building demolished? Yes, absolutely so. The Old Mutual and its shareholders are sitting with a very valuable site and a very badly altered and poorly maintained building which is not paying its way. The revamped and beefed-up (too beefed-up with its arguably horrendous by-pass boulevard?) plan for central Claremont are changing the context to such an extent that the Werdmuller Centre has been painted into the convenient historic corner of an unloved, unwanted, passé and far too small a surviving ‘dinosaur’ from an age gone by, when demolition could deliver an ‘unencumbered site’ ripe for a new and much larger and more profitable beast.

Is it in the interest of the professions of architecture, planning and urban design to have the building demolished? I am not at all sure that the loss of memory would be salutary. Many in the professions of architecture and urban design, particularly, seem to agree, for different reasons perhaps, but probably bound-up with the reality that the building was authored by a master whose work is notable and memory dear.

Is it in the public interest to have the building demolished? This is, of course, the central question. Undeniably, most of the vast public did not, and do not, like the building, ever; although it had and has its aficionados beyond architects.

Interim Conclusion
I note that colleagues Julian Elliott, Dave Dewar and Piet Louw have argued in their submissions that a creative way to retain at least part of the physical fabric and the memory of the Werdmuller Centre should be pursued. I agree. I think the notion should be explored and the CIA should try and facilitate this. Because I have been overseas and have only today applied my mind to the matter, I reserve the right to further comment on the HIA in due course.