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 (neĆ© 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

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