Volkskas, Market Square
People:LOUW and LOUW: Architect
REID and KNUCKEY (PTY) LTD: Contractor
Designed by Gerard MOERDIJK in 1946 while in the employ of the firm of LOUW & LOUW who completed the project, the main Johannesburg Branch of Volkskas Bank was designed in what could be described as “Regional Neo-Classical” style. The building comprised of two basements, a Banking Hall at Ground Floor with mezzanine offices and rental offices in the remaining nine floors above. No architect’s drawings have been scrutinised and the description is based on detailed site inspections.
The building was constructed over the full width of two Johannesburg erven and the plan was arranged in a broad L-shape. The symmetrical front façade was divided into ten modules within which the fenestration was arranged. The middle two modules were combined at ground and mezzanine to accommodate the substantial axial entrance into the Branch. The east end-bay provided access into the foyer and lift lobby for the independent offices in the upper floors.
A substantial pair of solid bronze entrance doors (with decorative sculptured panels) provided access into a lobby, with a fine floor mosaic recording the Bank’s “Arbeidsaamheid” motto. Direct entrance was gained into a fine circular double volume banking hall with mezzanine gallery around. Marble clad fluted “giant-order” columns supported a domed skylight above. On either side of the entrance lobby were well appointed manager’s offices and ancillary accommodation, most of which were lined with timber panelling.
The nine floors of offices were located within the narrow block fronting onto Market Street. The office floors were accessed from the common foyers at the east side and comprised, as was typical at the time, of a narrow passage flanked on either side by cellular office space. The Cloakrooms were located in the south-east corner (in the stem of the L-shaped plan), in close proximity to the staircase, which was well detailed with a wrought iron balustrade, mosaic stair threads and a heavy hardwood handrail.
The vehicular circulation between the two levels of the basement was arranged around the outer perimeter of the circular structural grid of the Banking Hall above. Vehicular access into the basement was from a side entrance off Fraser Street.
Externally, the design of the façade was based on three separate zones; a heavy base or plinth, a tall vertical “shaft” and a narrow “capital” all clearly rooted in a strongly classical idiom. The plinth was clad in polished red-brown granite in large ashlar blocks, and was enlivened along its base with “pecked” or engraved images of agriculture, commerce and industry - in a stylised modernist idiom.
Directly above the engraved base were paired “giant-order” casement windows (serving both Ground and Mezzanine Floors) each pair separated by a fluted pilaster, with no base but an Acanthus leaf as the capital. The horizontal frieze supported on these pilasters was a combination of moulded cornice separated from an upper dentillated cornice by a flat surface onto which was applied a bronze “ox yoke” above each paired window. The yokes were connected by bronze chains – the whole ensemble creating an unusual and interesting regional adaptation of a traditional classical detail.
The main frieze terminated on either side of the front entrance. The bronze entrance door and timber fanlights were flanked by moulded stone pilasters, again with an Acanthus capital which supported a moulded “semi-arch” on which the name of the bank was fixed (now removed). A large finely detailed cast bronze lamp was suspended over the entrance door, and with its images of cattle another reference to the South African regional tradition.
The windows to the First Floor offices were also accommodated within the granite plinth. Above this, the façade was made in a fine yellow-brown facebrick with the timber casement windows slightly recessed and capped with a pre-cast hood mould and window cill. The windows to the eight central bays were paired cottage timber casements; those in the first and last bays were groups of three cottage pane timber casements, a device which served to emphasise and terminate the building on both sides.
The implied “capital” of the building was formed of a broad plastered band punctured with “bulls-eye” louvred ventilators, one for each of the ten modules. The plastered band was edged, top and bottom with a heavy moulding.
The fine Banking Hall has had some of its original qualities eroded by the usual modern security features, colour schemes and partitioning imposed by raised crime, and successive layers of interior designers. However, the axial approach and the significant details all remain intact. Some of the original cottage pane casements have been replaced with louvred glazing.
The building was officially opened in 1950 by Prof L.J. Du Plessis. This was recorded on a plaque appearing in the Main Entrance Foyer of the building with the following inscription (free translation of the original Afrikaans):
Directors:W. Buhrmann J.H. Greijbe Dr A. Hertzog P.J. Hugo C.C. Kriel Prof Dr A.I. Malan S.J. Naudé J.E. Reeler Prof Dr J.P. Van Der Merwe
Architects: LOUW & LOUW Supervisor: Philip Nel
The name of the sculptor appearing on the plaque deserves special mention. It was Willem de Sanderes HENDRIKZ, who was commissioned by Volkskas to establish a visual connection between the past and the ideal of the economic empowerment of Afrikaners.
The art work executed at the building by HENDRIKZ comprises the bronze entrance door panels, the surmounting lantern with the motif of ox heads and chains, the ‘disselboom’ frieze, and the engraved granite panels at pavement level, depicting “both skilled workers and businessmen, an alliance of agriculture and industry, of working and professional classes, in accord with representatives of new financial interest, of which the Bank is a prime example.” The figures on the large bronze door panels, all depict the same economic activity, i.e. being “arbeidsaam” (hard-working).
[Extracted from "Final HIA Report: GPG Precinct Project" by Dr. J Bruwer and W MARTINSON]
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