The Proposed Demolition of Werdmuller Centre, Claremont
We wish to place on record the following comments in relation to the proposed demolition of Werdmuller Centre. We must emphasize that the remarks are based on the presentation given by the heritage impact consultants. We have not yet had access to the consultants’ report. The comments relate both to process and substantive issues.
1 Process Issues
1.1 The Act requires that the heritage decision-making authorities consider both the interests of the developers (private interests) and the public (public interest issues). Clearly, however, in a heritage situation, it is necessary to act conservatively: greater weight should be given to public interest issues. In the presentation by the consultants, the entire presentation was about private interests of the developer. Public interest issues were almost entirely ignored. In this sense, the presentation of the case was biased.
1.2 In architectural heritage issues, the debate cannot be reduced to an “I like/I don’t like” level. There will always be voices on both sides. The so-called opinion survey, therefore, is methodologically absurd. It has no value whatsoever.
1.3 It is not valid to use arguments about the condition of the building as a case for demolition. It is the developers who have allowed the deterioration to occur. In terms of the Slums Act, they can be forced to make good.
1.4 We believe that the fact that one of the consultants also operates as a consultant to the Claremont City Improvement District, a primarily commercially-oriented body, represents a potential conflict of interest.
2 Substantive Issues
We believe that any heritage assessment must objectively consider four issues:
2.1 Is the building significant in the architectural history of the country?
We believe that it is. In terms of materiality, it is one of a typology of important modernist buildings which included work which emerged from the offices of architects such as Uytenbogaardt, Revel Fox, Tony and Adele de Sousa Santos, and Munnik, Visser, Black and Fish at that time. Uytenbogaardt was a recognized leader of this genre.
There are other indicators of its architectural importance.
It has been an important part of the educational syllabus of architectural students in the region (and indeed the country) for decades. It is widely visited by architects.
Many of the ideas and concerns reflected in the building have been incorporated into, and have informed, the work of others.
Uytenbogaardt, generally, is recognized as a master of South African architecture and the Werdmuller Centre is an important part of his portfolio of buildings.
2.2 Is it an important part of the social history of South Africa?
We believe that it is. Uytenbogaardt was one of the few architects of the 1970’s who were consciously seeking to combat the exclusionary policies of apartheid, which sought to remove people of colour from places of economic opportunity. A central idea behind the Werdmuller Centre was to create a ‘souk’ for micro-businesses between the generator of the station and the Main Road. The building was explicitly challenging the exclusionary American model of ‘big box’ shopping centres such as Cavendish Square.
2.3 Is it an important part of the cultural landscape of Cape Town?
We believe that it is. Very few important international architects who come to Cape Town do not visit it, and many compare it favourably with other buildings of the genre internationally.
2.4 Is it an important part of the urban history of South Africa?
We believe that it is. The building is an intensely urban one. It attempted to deal with a number of central concerns which were not part of the modernist architectural model at that time. These included:
The need to contribute positively to the street, as opposed to taking the form of a free-standing object.
The need to work with the Mediterranean climate of the Cape, particularly optimizing breezes for natural ventilation, as opposed to reliance on energy-sapping technologies such as central heating and cooling.
The need to contribute to public space, as opposed to privatization of space. A feature of the building is the generosity of its public space.
A Way Forward
In short, we believe that the Werdmuller Centre is important on all counts, and, consequently, that it should not be demolished. Moreover, we believe that it is quite possible to recycle the building as an exciting, mixed use development, including housing and small business. A feature of urban buildings is that they are recycled from time to time. As a way forward, we suggest that the Cape Institute for Architects should approach Old Mutual to explain the importance of the building, and to persuade them to sponsor an architectural competition on creative ways to recycle and regenerate it while returning the building as far as possible to its original spatial quality.