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Tower of Light, West Campus, University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, Gauteng

Geoffrey Eastcott PEARSE: Architect

Date:1936
Type:Tower
Status:Extant

 


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Coordinates:
26°11'23.32" S 28°01'33.50" E

The Tower of Light was commissioned by the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company (precursor to Eskom) and built of reinforced concrete using Pretoria Portland Cement for the Empire Exhibition in 1936. It was the focal point of the Showgrounds standing at the top of the main axis (later Victory Road) and remained the icon of the Rand Show until the Showgrounds were moved and the land was given to the University of the Witwatersrand.

Designed by Professor G.E. PEARSE, according to Bernard COOKE who worked on the drawings, it is a simple soaring circular tower with fins. CHIPKIN calls it “a major futuristic monument.”

It was apparently never completed to its full height. According to Bernard COOKE there were time constraints; other sources attribute this to budgetary constraints.

The Tower of Light is a fine example of a ‘deco-moderne’ building - conceived and designed in what was then a bold new international architectural style. It was designed as the focal point of the Empire Exhibition, and was to be the beacon visible from all points within the grounds, and in fact from the surrounding suburbs. Sited at the highest point of the central axis through the Exhibition, it provided an anchor for the site layout.

The tower consists of a hollow circular reinforced concrete shaft of large diameter with four substantial concrete fins attached; one on each of the four diagonals. The fins rise from the ground plane with a nominal taper and terminate at a short distance above the full height of the shaft. The overall effect is one of a soaring verticality and power.

A raised circular cantilevered viewing platform was originally provided at the base of the tower. The curved outer edge of this platform was slightly recessed behind the faces of the four fins and was protected with a wrought iron deco-style balustrade. Circulation around the viewing platform was made possible with door ways let through each of the fins at their junction with the curved face of the tower. Access to the viewing platform was via an attached, curved open stair on the west side of the tower, set between two of the fins.

Access to the top of the tower (for staff only) was provided via a narrow wrought iron cat-ladder fixed to the internal face of the column shaft in line with the northeast fin. The ladder terminated at a trap door in the upper platform. Access to this level was required in order to service the flagpole and the light fittings.

The tower shaft was capped with a circular cantilevered upper platform, which intersected with, and was supported by, the four fins. The four fins rose about 1 200 mm above the level of the platform but did not extend onto the platform further than the inside face of the circular shaft and became four free standing piers, joined by the wrought iron balustrade at the curved slab edge. A tall flagpole was installed at the centre point of the upper platform.

The exhibition grounds were at some later date provided with a suspended cable car system whereby the small cable cars travelled up and down the central north-south axis. The Tower of Light was used as the point of return for the cable cars. A large circular reinforced concrete cantilevered canopy was then installed as the loading platform and a second smaller canopy was installed overhead to support the cables.

Since the University took over the show grounds the cable car system has been removed and the Tower of Light accommodates at ground floor a small tuck shop, and the West Campus Security offices on the upper level. Circular perspex windows have been installed to provide light within the security office.

Despite the minor modifications made to the building, it is an extraordinarily important urban marker, and unusual example of Deco Moderne architecture. It should be retained, conserved and valued as an important part of the architectural heritage of Johannesburg, and indeed, South Africa.

[MARTINSON, WA The Tower of Light: an architectural description; 2008.]
References: Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust Data Sheet; 2008

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The Tower of Light was rated one of Johannesburg's top 100 sites in the lead up to Johannesburg's Centenary Celebrations in 1986.

Bernard COOKE compiled a statement of significance in 1985 - a copy of which is lodged in the records of the Egoli Heritage Foundation.

"The Tower of Light at the old Milner Park showgrounds [now Wits West Campus] was erected for the Empire Exhibition held there in 1936. Its symbolism was related to electricity and it was sponsored by Escom. It is said that Van der Bijl, then Chairman of Iscor and Escom was personally interested in the project.

For some time before the Exhibition a tower of this nature had been mooted and envisaged constructed in steel. In the event the decision to proceed was taken so late that there was insufficient time and it was decided to build it in concrete which would be quicker. The architect was Professor Geoffrey PEARSE, then Professor of Architecture at the Witwatersrand University. He consulted with Professor W.G. SUTTON who was Professor of Engineering at Wits at the time. The structural design was prepared by him and his Department.

The bold architectural design with its central cylindrical core and projecting fins, had the mechanistic quality of the Modern Architecture of the 1930s, railings and details are suitable 'ship-like'. The top of the Tower with the fins projecting over the top balcony is slightly 'Art Deco' in character and reminiscent of the top of the tower of Escom House (now demolished) also designed by Professor Pearse.

It was intended to build the Tower 200 feet (60.96m) high but it was reduced to 150 feet (45.72m). Various reasons have been given for this such as problems with wind pressure, foundations, or completion in time, but probably cost was the major consideration. At that time, 1935, Escom House at 225 (68.58m) feet high was the tallest structure in the City. Ansteys was next and the Tower of Light third at 150 feet. Escom House was started first but completed at the about the same time as the Tower.

The Engineering of the Tower did not appear to present any excessive difficulty and the structural design was not particularly advanced or outstanding for that time. However, in the process of construction a method was used for the first time in South Africa. This was the use of sliding shuttering, in which the form work or mould in which the concrete is poured was slid upwards after each pour. The Contractors were LEWIS CONSTRUCTION (later consolidated into the present LTA organisation) and the Manager in charge was Mr Schwarrer with his foreman 'Blue' Rafferty.

Various ideas were envisaged for the Tower such as a lift to the top for sightseers and a searchlight mounted at the top but these were never carried out.

As a striking monument and one of the tallest of its time and as a familiar landmark and reminder of the Rand Show, are factors that seem to strongly qualify it for preservation for posterity."

Information provided by James Ball of The Heritage Portal, extracted from the records of the Egoli Heritage Foundation. Submitted by William MARTINSON