Escom House (Van Eck Building)
Geoffrey Eastcott PEARSE: Architect
FE KANTHACK and PARTNERS: Engineer
(SAAR Jun 1937:245-60; Herbert 1975:234; CE Dept plan 15 April 1935; exhib cat SA Acad 1935, perspective by HLG PILKINGTON)
Escom House, originally designed by P Rogers COOKE but completed by PEARSE with the help of past students Rex MARTIENSSEN and John FASSLER, is devoid of all trace of classicism and perhaps has some affinity with the News Building in New York by Raymond Hood. Its stately entrance echoes that of Asplund's Stockholm Library. Generally this building is a mature and forthright statement with much of the radical logic of the 30s at a time when a modern vocabulary of form for buildings of this scale had not yet emerged.
(Bernard S Cooke, 1985: 59)
Escom House and Anstey's vied with each other as the highest modern buildings on the African continent, though they were well short of the building height achieved in Ancient Egypt of the fourth dynasty in 3700 BC. But as reinforced-concrete building structures, they were amongst the highest in the world at the time. Escom House equalled the 21 storeys of the Milam Building in San Antonio, Texas, which was regarded in 1928 as the highest building of this type.
At a height of 236 feet (71.93 meters), Escom House was pre-eminent in Johannesburg, and was considerably higher than the tower of the Senate House at London University But Anstey's, surmounted by its Art Deco flagmast, seemed in the 1930s (when viewed from Hospital Hill) the highest point in the Johannesburg skyline. From pavement level, however, Escom House looked the higher building to the generation of children who were taken to stand and gape at the incredible sight, not believing it possible that human beings could build so high. Only North America possessed higher structures. That is what we believed and I shall not make any effort to dispel this comforting illusion.
Escom House, a vast, symmetrical, rectangular pile, was originally designed by P. Rogers COOKE with a Woolworth spire. But when Rogers Cooke was succeeded by Professor PEARSE and his team from Wits, the roof profile was redesigned and given cubic setbacks to support a modernistic flagmast. This represented a change of direction and formed the source of contradictory impulses in the building envelope. Previously shaped by the new town-planning regulations, the building was now transformed under the influence of modernist sensibilities into a rectangular grid with large windows competing with the solid surfaces - which is precisely what American architects like Raymond Hood avoided.
Of all the new skyscrapers, Escom House was the most prestigious, representing the idea of progress embodied in the work of Dr Van der Bijl and his para-statal Electricity Supply Commission. When the building was formally opened in June 1937, the official booklet proclaimed that the new building symbolised service to the community and stood as a monument to Escom and to General Smuts, 'with whom the idea of such a body originated'. No expense was spared to achieve the imagery, of progress and modernity. Like the Tower of Light, Escom House was floodlit at night to reveal the glow of urban electricity and the 'stately cleancut lines' of a building where all offices, it was claimed, had panoramic views, in striking contrast to lower buildings with their dark internal light wells. No mention was made of exposure to summer sun but this was solved in a matter-of-fact way by curtaining.
A large permanent exhibition space was provided in the Hall of Achievement, which was designed with glinting modern materials: vertically striped columns faced in black-and-white polished marble, stainless-steel handrails and trim, a large curved wall of glass-brick panels, recessed circular luminaires in an acoustic ceiling, and a central mural like a Vorticist work, sandblasted on black glass, by Willem HENDRIKZ. A legend in Bauhaus script above the mural read: 'Dedicated to the ideal of cementing together by common endeavour for achievement all the peoples of South Africa regardless of race or creed into a brotherhood of mutual trust and goodwill for the welfare of our country and the glory of Almighty God.' That sounds like a precept for a new South Africa. The description of the lifts - three high-speed lifts plus a goods lift, 'which native messengers and delivery boys are permitted to use' - sounds again like the norms of the old South Africa.
The fan-shaped lecture theatre, which was equipped with motion picture and 'talkie' apparatus, was spanned by a giant Vierendeel truss (one-storey high and spanning 60 feet (18.29 meters)) to support thirteen upper floors. This was designed by the civil consultants F. E. KANTHACK & PARTNERS.
[CHIPKIN, CLIVE M. 1993. Johannesburg Style Architecture & Society. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers (Pty) Ltd. p. 146-8.]
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.
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