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


Miss Opinionated said...

I agree that nowhere in the civilized world would an icon like the Werdmuller Centre even be considered for demolition, but what can an interested member of the public do when the profit-hungry corporates want to destroy an artistic artefact to build a dead-pan, four-walled, retail supernova? In general SOuth Africa does not appreciate art and culture, evident in how artists of all kinds are treated (or rather ignored) in this country. They have to find appreciation beyond our borders for their work, and this current travesty is yet another confirmation for our lack of culture and creativity.

Rene said...

I recently witnessed the demolition of the Athlone Towers and was going through a list of functionless blights on our landscape such as the Disa towers and I stumbled on this site. I have to ask what sort of depraved mind would want a dismally ill conceived eye gouging user unfriendly dilapidated shopping mall to be preserved. Werdmuller is where all taste good and bad goes to die.

Nisha said...

The Werdmuller Centre is [another] blight on Old Mutual's failing all-round reputation, but particularly their arrogant and tired Property Investment Group. True, the Council regards the eyesore that the Werdmuller Centre is as "having historical and architectural significance" and wont allow Old Mutual property people to do a re-development. This does not mean that Old Mutual should just let the building go into further decay. As landlords, they should be forced to significantly spruce the centre up, at least. Minor refurbishments, lighting, tiling, etc, would make a big difference. In its current state, the Werdmuller Centre, is no better than the worst one can find in third-world Hillbrow! Besides 2 or 3 "good" tenants [paying only R20 - R30 per square metre pm, the others appear to be dens of iniquity. It seems that greedy Old Mutual would like the architecturally-significant building to decay to such an extent that demolition becomes the only option. But, their new ±50% equity partners might get the current management off their lazy butts! (Yes, they've sold half of their equity.)

Mark Dean said...

@Miss Opinionated, It is precisely for people such as Rene for whom "dead-pan, four-walled, retail supernova('s" are built. They will flock to anything bright, shiny and new and when the appeal fades, they leave it to rot and it is replaced with another bright, shiny and new. Did I get that right?