Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Werdmuller Centre: Seeking the Souk

The Werdmuller Centre : Seeking the Souk

The Visit
On the Thursday after the Werdmuller presentation, I visited Claremont at lunch time to do some shopping and visit the Werdmuller Centre which I hadn’t been to for many years. Cavendish and the revamped Link and interspace were crowded and buzzing with throngs of Christmas shoppers enjoying the range of merchandising opportunities in a contemporary up-market bazaar-like atmosphere. The Main Road too was crowded with pavement shoppers but the Werdmuller was empty.

It was like entering a ghost town - a very unsettling experience which caused one to recall the heady days of Sea Street in the late sixties and early seventies with Roelof and the Santos’ in full cry. Roelof had then moved from his Kahnian into his Corbusian period. Werdmuller and the UCT sports Centre were to be the two major works of this period but both created great public controversy - the Sports Centre for aesthetic reasons and Werdmuller for both aesthetic and operational reasons.

Werdmuller went through a difficult gestation period with the back [station] portion being added during documentation. The two were never really knitted together and the notion the important route [‘souk’ ?] linking Claremont Station to Main Road never realised. The viability of the scheme was also never realised with shops being a commercial failure and only the east facing offices something of a success.

Today the building is even more illegible than before and this labyrinthine quality has been exacerbated by disruptive ad hoc alterations. It is clearly an unloved - and uncared for - building with a scary and noisome environment. Believe me, it is nothing like the collage of images in the Institute Notice nor in the recent monograph on Roelof by Giovanni Vio.

The Vitruvian Imperative
In short, it is an architectural failure and even embarrassment. So why is it that so many architects feel passionately about preserving it?

In trying to understand this I recalled the Vitruvian founding architectural principles of firmness, commodity and delight which underlie other more abstract values such as time/space, space/place and place/perception.

The building appears to be structurally sound although suffering from years of neglect on part of the owners. It still has fragments of architectonic delight, particularly in the stair wells and the entrance to the old Post Office. But it never has had commodity as witnessed by the lack of financial viability, the rapid turnover of tenants, the desperate ad hoc alterations and its current state of near dereliction.

To my mind a building which does not meet all three Vitruvian imperatives in some measure - and this varies from building type to building type - is not a complete work of architecture. Werdmuller is not a complete work of architecture although it had, and still has to some extent, fragments which make it an architectonic tour de force, but it is a husk which needs some life breathed into it.

Commerce and Culture
The presentation and subsequent discussion at the Institute identified the issues very clearly. On the one hand, we have a building which is not a viable commercial proposition - under bulk, minimal parking, unsuitable for commercial activity, no anchor tenant and needing major maintenance - and is a wasting asset on a prime site in a developing Claremont.

On the other hand, we have a building which is highly regarded by the architectural cognoscente, authored by an architect who some consider to be the foremost South African architect of last century. A building, which speakers stated, was a contribution to South Africa at an architectural, cultural and even social level [the latter being difficult to understand in view of its almost universal rejection by users and public]. It was noted that no one would consider demolition of a 20th century masterpiece in a civilised country. Would we consider the demolition of a Baker building?

Steve Townsend summed up the discussion by noting that the property owners had the right to demolish and that no one could stop this taking place unless the heritage value of the building could be established beyond doubt. My understanding of this is that the heritage would have to be powerfully motivated at an architectural - not architectonic- level. In other words the building would have to be a viable commodity. It would have to have a use.

No amount of preaching about architectonic qualities will do it. No amount of accusing the demolishers as philistines will do it. And certainly, no amount of bluster will do it.

The challenge, therefore, is to propose a viable alternate use for the building. Roelof’s architectural faithful, and there are many, will have to put their architectural money where their mouths are.

A viable alternative will depend on an anchor activity. Stadium on Main - an architectonic disaster - was rescued by a gym/sports/recreational facility as anchor. Others will know better than I, what would be an appropriate anchor activity for Werdmuller but it seems that Claremont is singularly without a cultural, educational or entertainment hub, a museum of some type, an IT resource hub with high end computing and media facilities or a fun palace surrounded by studio/office/apartments, boutique shops and eateries.

What about a Museum of the Environmental Culture of the Western Cape [MECWES]? We live in a very special region ranging from its geomorphology and flora to the agricultural, horticultural and architectural transformations which have taken place over the years.. A natural, agricultural, viticultural, urban and architectural museum looking backward and forward would be a perfect venue for all the debates we are going to have in dealing with local problems of urban development, transportation and poverty and at the same time conserving and sustaining our environment as part of an African and world wide attempt to arrest climate change.

Make no mistake, it would require major architectural interventions in order to make it into a viable work of architecture. In this endeavour those involved should be mindful of Ed Bacon’s principle of the Second Man, for [to paraphrase him] it is he [they] who will determine whether the seeds inherent in the original work will grow to their full potential or wither away.

A radical intervention will be required to realise this potential but please, let it be more sensitive than what Foster has recently done to Candilis, Josic and Woods’ Berlin Free University, where big Norman, like Captain Marvel, has landed his space ship in the middle of the complex taking out 6 courtyards and seriously affecting both the building form and delicate web like structure of this icon of the sixties.

Julian Elliott
Cape Town; December 10, 2007

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