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Park Station
Central, Johannesburg, Gauteng

George Esselmont Gordon LEITH: Architect
David Aitken McCUBBIN: Architect
SAYLE and ROSSACK: Engineer
Gerard Leendert Pieter MOERDYK: Architect

Date:1932
Type:Railway Station
Status:Extant
Street:De Villiers St

 


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Coordinates:
26°11'56.37" S 28°02'35.27" E

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SAYLE & ROSSACK in association with David Aitken McCUBBIN.

In about 1926 Johannesburg desperately needed a new station. The railways had done their own plans under the direction of the Railways Engineer, McGubbin. This plan was viewed with dismay by the Department of Provincial works. They passed on the plan to Gordon Leith with the instruction to “fix it up”.

"I had no stomach for the idea" Leith later admitted to Sylva Moerdyk, "but I was a beginner and each commission was welcome. I waivered to and fro."

There was, says Sylva Moerdyk, the odd exceptions [to the Minister of Public Works, Boydell's Anglophile stance] that did not bear lukewarm sentiments to the Afrikaner and his struggle for cultural expression. One such minister was Charlie Malan, Minister of Railways. The Minister of Railways had other plans.

It was a glad day early in 1927 when Minister Malan asked Moerdijk to see him in his office at the Union Buildings. There he informed him that he had decided to award him the commission for the design of the new Johannesburg station building.

...Minister Malan, after the public announcement, had to bear much acrimony. The Afrikaans press and Afrikaans-speaking public gave Moerdijk's appointment their wholehearted support, but the English language press was incensed. An enormous brouhaha was stirred by the commission being snatched from the hands of the PWD, and further, that the Railways Engineer, Mr McGubbin had been insulted. The influence of the English language press was so great that Minister Malan buckled. He then struck upon the idea of awarding the commission jointly to Moerdijk and Gordon Leith. This decision found general approval, especially since they had already worked so well together in the past.

… They did, it is true, each do portions of the building under personal attentions regarding design and execution. The way the matter was resolved however worked well."

[Extracted and translated from Afrikaans from: Sylva Moerdyk in VERMEULEN, Irma. 1999. Man en monument: die lewe en werk van Gerard Moerdyk. Pretoria: Van Schaik. Ch 12 'In Pretoria, stryd en stasiebou’ pp. 81-2.]

The reinforced concrete structure was designed and engineered by SAYLE & ROSSACK. Of interest, the contractors were subject to restrictive legislation introduced by government with the depression and only white labour was permitted to place the reinforcing steel!

On 11 December 1928 the Minister of Railways and Harbours laid the foundation stone for Johannesburg's new terminal station: Park Station, the destination for all South Africa's railway traffic from the coastal ports to the gold wealth of the Witwatersrand. History - and geology - had determined this as a terminus, and to a large extent all main lines end at Park Station, Johannesburg.

The architect for the great terminal building in Johannesburg is recorded on the foundation stone: Gordon Leith - George Esslemont Gordon Leith MC ARIBA (1907), elected FRIBA in 1930. Leith was ideologically Baker's man, and Park Station was his magnum opus up to that time.

The street front of the new building responds to the giant Ionic orders on the adjacent Transvaal University College building with a coupled Tuscan colonnade. This provided a visual stop to the north end of Eloff Street, the city's avenue la gare, fast becoming the principal shopping street in the sub-continent whose growing reputation extended up the East Coast as far as Kenya Colony. But this street exterior is long and muddled with untidy friezes and Mussolini-inspired heroic national sculpture to support giant medallions that are empty of inscriptions. For what inscriptions could a tired, deeply conservative Pact government summon up on its buildings during a world Depression? The building's face fails completely, inexcusably, to reflect the public scale of the great railway concourse behind. And here we encounter a heartbreaking discrepancy: on the one hand, the splendid terminal building that LEITH had conjured up in his perspective drawings - with its majestic vaulted-arch clerestory and two giant pedestals to support notional bronze sculpture of African elephants — and on the other hand, what was built: an insipid building, with three mean entrances, a crowded frieze and a relief of three disembodied, flattened elephant faces with outspread ears, sculpted by a local art teacher. Herman Bosman got it right, as usual. Describing Johannesburg's shantytowns, he declared the architecture could be described as not undignified: 'about none of these shacks is there that false attempt at drama that makes Park Station an eyesore'.

The station is an exact contemporary of Milan's new station, built in 1930 and representing Mussolini's concern with train timetables and the economic dominance of the Italian north-west. Both stations are the products of railway systems owned by the state, and similarities in the architecture confirm that they are of the same vintage.

Behind the main exterior of Park Station is the great sunken station concourse — magnificent, like vast Roman thermae. The floor is three-and-a-half metres below street level, but the stunning intersecting barrel vaults and lantern clerestories rise up nearly fifteen metres above the floor level in a controlled explosion of public space. Klompie bricks up to the springing of the main arches, the green- and grey-veined marble of the orders with bronze composite capitals (invented by LEITH for the occasion), and the modernistic light pendants introduce the stylisms of the Movie Age. At the same time the thirty-two mural panels of South African towns and scenery by J. H. Pierneef — LEITH's old schoolfriend — contribute to the exciting flavour of the space. These panels were originally commissioned by the Railways Administration in 1929, and they were to become the finest single collection of Pierneef's work. Leith and Pierneef, it seemed, were standing on the threshold of a new cultural renaissance.

Here in this concourse LEITH created a splendid social space possessing the inherent quality of grandeur and exuding an authentic metropolitan sense of occasion. At the time of its completion people were noticing that Johannesburg was beginning to acquire the air of a metropolis. Sarah Gertrude Millin, biographer of Cecil RHODES, had recognised this when she described the city's atmosphere: 'it has a habit, an air, it makes the impression of a metropolis' — a phrase she repeated in her biography of General Smuts.

The white middle classes now felt they possessed a sophisticated venue with their own Blue Room restaurant, leading off the concourse, for New Year's Eve dinners or for enjoying a night out on the town. The concourse featured, too, in short stories in local periodicals and in local novels: 'Jill Westcott ran down the marble steps of the Johannesburg railway station into the blue-dome vault with the sunken goldfish ponds and the murals. The clock said she had still fifteen minutes to catch her train, and she slowed to a sedate walk. She told herself she had nothing to fear. He hadn't rung up and after last night he certainly wouldn't have the nerve to come to the station.'

But the dramatic station concourse was restricted to 'Whites Only' for six decades, whereafter the racial signs were eventually taken down. What Gordon LEITH and his old colleague Henk Pierneef had achieved in fact was to make definitive statements of a land in repose, its culture — like its politics -permanently settled under white dominance. Nothing could have been further from the truth. And Gordon LEITH lived long enough to suspect this when he told me in 1962 that he was an old Smuts man and found it very difficult to move beyond that position, even though, he disarmingly added, he suspected he should.

[CHIPKIN, CLIVE M. 1993. Johannesburg Style Architecture & Society. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers (Pty) Ltd. p. 80-2.]

A description of the tiled panels created by the Ceramic Studio.

"In the tea room, in blue and white tiles, at eye-level, the history of South Africa can be followed.

This was the first task to which Moerdijk applied himself once he and Leith had been appointed to the project. He carefully examined all the old Dutch mottos that festooned the walls of the waiting room. These mottos had been done by the builders of the Republican era. It was generally assumed that these had been painted directly on the walls. Gerard’s investigations revealed that they were painted on fabric. This fabric had then been applied to the walls. To remove this fabric was difficult but not impossible. This fabric was taken to Olifantsfontein under Moedijk's personal supervision, where the letters were precisely copied onto the wall-tiles: blue motifs on white for the new tearoom and brown on a cream-colour for the waiting rooms.

This work was done by a team of eight trained and exceptionally artistic women under the guidance of misses Short and Mathley. Besides the tiles bearing the mottos, Moerdijk had many others painted, altogether some 4500. Motifs depicted include: SA wild animals and plants, Bushman drawings, depictions of various figures from our history, White as well as Black, scenes from the gold and diamond mines, wagons on trek, The Zimbabwe ruins, buildings of importance to the state, and much more. The consequence is that our history, from the landing of Jan van Riebeeck to the time of the completion of the station, is depicted in the tearoom.

Gordon Leith designed the wine bar directly adjacent the great stairway. He also used tile decoration. He used bright coloured tiles arranged geometrically. This motif is inspired by buildings he had seen in Spain. Miss Short of Olifantsfontein was sent to Spain to research this."

Extracted and translated from: VERMEULEN, Irma. 1999. Man en monument: die lewe en werk van Gerard Moerdijk. Pretoria: Van Schaik. Chapter 12 'In Pretoria, stryd en stasiebou', pp 82-3.

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Johannesburg's Rail-way Station is certainly one of the finest buildings South Africa has yet been responsible for. From the street it is calculated to arrest attention, particularly the fine frieze showing different means of transport down the ages, apart from its comprehensive planning and organisation.

Round the concourse are several very attractive apartments, notably the dining-room where the walls are lined with South African marbles, and the monolithic columns and pilasters have specially designed bronze caps and bases. Plate-glass mirrors relieve the wall surfaces and help to reflect and diffuse the light admitted from clerestory windows. The Bar is lined with brilliantly coloured tiles in geometrical patterns.

In the handsome tea-room in another corner of the concourse the walls are lined with pictorial tiles.

In the entrance hall is a tourist bureau, the main-line booking office, post office and cloak rooms. Non-European [sic] tea-room and waiting-rooms are placed in the corridor on the right which overlooks the concourse below.

The treatment of the concourse of the Johannesburg Railway Station may be said to be unique in respect of the manner in which it has been lit by means of the open courts with impluvii.

By means of being placed on the lower ground floor, passengers are kept apart from porter traffic and administrative departments. Some very fine paintings, the work of J. H. Pierneef, are to be seen here, above which the fretted stonework filling the arches is also to be noted.

At the back of the station various official offices are to be found, and the yard where motor cars bring baggage to the weighing and checking hall. Two lifts convey baggage from the baggage-room to various platforms by means of an overhead system on rails.

[Cumming-George, L. 1934. Architecture in South Africa Volume Two. Cape Town. The Speciality Press of S.A. Ltd. pp 23-4.]

(Greig 1971:144; Van der Waal 1987:180,ff; AB&E Feb 1927:1; AB&E Mar 1927:1; AB&E May 1927:8-12; 1927-30)

For more photos of the station visit the site of mrbaggins1

To see photos of the Pierneef Panels see the Rupert Museum

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.


Writings about this entry

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 144
Fisher, Roger C The Third Vernacular: Pretoria Regionalism — Aspects of an Emergence: in Fisher, RC, Le Roux, SW and Maré, E (Eds). 1998. Architecture of the Transvaal: pp 138
Keath, Michael The Baker School: A Continuing Tradition 1902-1940: in Fisher, RC, Le Roux, SW and Maré, E (Eds). 1998. Architecture of the Transvaal: pp 82