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.


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