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

No comments: