The building blocks of change

Posted On Wednesday, 30 November 2005 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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The controversy surrounding the proposals for the new Gauteng Provincial Government Precinct — the Kopanong Project at Beyers Naude Square in central Johannesburg — has served to drown out the merits of the scheme.

Fanuel MotsepeThe project is principally the work of the in-city architect Fanuel Motsepe. During 2003 and 2004, I acted as consultant in urban history for the design architects. Although I ended this role 18 months ago, I remain committed to the principle of supporting spatial interventions by a new generation at the place where Johannesburg began.

I do not regard Johannesburg as a sacred cow, and in fact this would go against the historical grain of the city.

Similarly, the New York Times concluded in May 2001 that "few things in New York are more deeply contextual than change". London too, has grappled with these issues. In 2004, preservationist bodies were persuaded to make concessions regarding London’s transformation. In fact, English architect Christopher Wren’s new biographer argues: "Cities are organic. The urge to protect is sometimes the response of those nervous of change." This is one of those awkward facts that reflects the internal contradictions of cities.

It is important to relate that Motsepe and I differed in some aspects of the project and that I asked that the Market Street underpass — the intended tunnel under the square — should be abandoned, as should the moving of the old Rand Water Board building. But we agreed that it was necessary to confront change and to avoid leaving the status quo entrenched.

The fundamental question is: how far should the preservation of cultural heritage go without stifling growth and innovation? The move from a colonial-conquest society to a democracy represents a significant enlargement of expectations — and these should become evident in the urban fabric.

On the other hand, the rigid application of heritage rules results in the embalmed city, where change is impossible and buildings of a nominated vintage become holy icons; where the past and present are enemies of the future.

All buildings in central Johannesburg are the products of architectural practices working during the period of white hegemony. Vital space must be found for the new generation of architects sensitive to formerly invisible issues.

I recognise that some of the opponents of this project have voiced genuine concerns and valid worries. But many of those loudest in their condemnation, urged on by their cheerleaders, have arrived with a confrontational attitude and belief in conspiracy theories.

Even the letter of February 2004 — signed on behalf of the South African Institute of Architects, the Gauteng Institute for Architecture and various heritage organisations — contains, in my opinion, some dubious arguments. For example, that axiality and symmetry are fundamental to western culture. This is an argument disproved by the modern movement and Gothic asymmetry. Yes, Beaux Arts classicism, which they refer to by implication, does comply with this orthodoxy, but the Piazza of St Mark’s in Venice, which is dog-leg in shape, most certainly does not.

But at least the institute’s letter conceded the argument that the Beyers Naude precinct is Johannesburg’s central place — what the author Rodney Mace, in his history of Trafalgar Square, calls a city’s "front room".

There are undoubtedly three buildings of substantial quality threatened by the proposals. I am opposed to the removal of one of these buildings. But the opponents say that all 10 — others say nine — of the targeted buildings are invaluable parts of Johannesburg’s "heart and soul". I find this absurd.

Just as ridiculous are the claims that our Art Deco heritage is threatened. The old SAPM building is not Art Deco and, in any case, its original character was ruined by a 1980s conversion. Clegg House is only remotely Art Deco. SARB House is Art Deco Banal.

I have written previously that "we must feel pretty desperate if we need to rely on these buildings to substantiate our Art Deco heritage". Why is there this element of exaggeration which greatly attracts the whinging generation? Why is there so little sense of pragmatism? My own explanation is that there are other agendas at work. An important point to remember is that Motsepe has been at pains to incorporate large portions of our past into this project — including the Cenotaph and Gordon Leith’s old Reserve Bank building, where his rehabilitation work will create an architectural treasure open to the public.

How to break the impasse? These are my personal conclusions.

The treasury component — the Matlotlo project — on Commissioner Street should go ahead. This would necessitate the demolition of Clegg House and SARB House to make way for what we anticipate will be good architecture, representative of its time.

The rest of the project should be put on hold for 18 months. We could learn from Liverpool and hold a limited competition for five or six invited practices at the most. The terms of the competition would be to invite proposals for the upgrading of Johannesburg’s central place, create increased civic space for celebrations and political gatherings, create a heritage complex where modern architecture will have reference to SA’s pre-colonial past and our post-colonial future and make the precinct a "major cultural destination".

There are no guarantees, but it is an objective worth fighting for.

 

Last modified on Saturday, 17 May 2014 11:10

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