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Book

Author:Picton-Seymour, Désirée
Year:1989
Title:Historical Buildings in South Africa
Place:Cape Town
Publisher:Struikhof Publishers

Introduction

The ever-changing cities and towns of South Africa have fascinated me since my arrival in South Africa as a schoolgirl. Coming straight from London, the colonial version of Georgian and Victorian buildings was somewhat of a surprise to me, though the whitewashed, thick-walled buildings of the Dutch era, apart from their gables, were strangely reminiscent of Mediterranean buildings I had known as a child. I have always drawn buildings, and here I drew the buildings around me too, especially making records of those about to be demolished. Eventually I wished to know more about these buildings: who built them and why they were designed in that particular manner. Research was difficult. There was remarkably little to be found on record; architects had turned out their offices and destroyed the evidence, municipalities had lost' their old plans, but fortunately people still remembered the past and the older generation of architects helped me greatly. I did succeed though, in finding journals, catalogues, memoirs, some plans and much intriguing information. The architects themselves emerged as personalities and their buildings had the particular quality of their individual creators.

This book covers buildings erected in South Africa ranging from the 17th-century Castle, Cape Town, to the pre-World War II, Art Deco Voortrekker Monument. The styles and fashions in the architecture of this country are closely bound to the history of its peoples. Firstly, there was the Dutch settlement at the Cape, and then the influx of the French Huguenots with their refining influence on the hitherto robust baroque style of architecture. The times of prosperity prior to the waning of the Dutch East India Company produced many fine and famous buildings. At this period the strong neo-classical influence of the Frenchman Louis Michel Thibault, together with the German sculptor Anton Anreith, brought new life to the buildings of the Cape. Thibault's influence continued throughout the First British Occupation and, following the Treaty of Amiens, the Batavian Republic and then the Second British Occupation. However, during the early years of the 19th century fashions in architecture changed completely with the introduction by the British of the severe Georgian and the more delicate Regency styles. The 1820 Settlers created the peculiarly Eastern Cape version of the Georgian and Regency idiom, whilst the Voorrrekkers spread the basic Cape style throughout the land. The missionaries, meanwhile, built their far-flung stations with whatever building materials were available. Basically the traditional Cape manner of building lasted throughout three quarters of the 19th century until the discovery of diamonds brought untold prosperity in its wake. Simultaneously, the improvements in transport by both sea and land made it possible to import European mass-produced building materials. Young architects came to the colonies and to the Boer Republics in search of good health and prosperity, bringing with them the expertise and current fashions of their home countries. The Anglo-Boer War cut across the country both materially and spiritually; with its ending in 1902 came the beginning of a new century. The 20th century brought to the world new technology and new ideals - the Brave New World of the Bauhaus and the Modern Movement. However, the previous tastes and architectural styles lingered on, especially the Arts and Crafts style as adapted to South African needs by Sir Herbert Baker. His Union Buildings marked the end of an era, and soon afterwards, World War I blackened the horizon. When peace was restored, the attitudes of the world had changed and for the next two decades South Africa expanded considerably, with much new development taking place and all types of buildings being erected. Perhaps it is the large Art Deco business houses that typify this era, the multi-storeyed city blocks of Johannesburg in particular. The devastation of World War II virtually brought to an end the way of life of the first half of the 20th century. The world was to emerge a very different place with very different ideals.

My selection of some 300 buildings was indeed a difficult task. Some were obvious choices, being of national importance, while others were included because they formed interesting groups. I also selected buildings that had not previously been recorded, and finally, there are my own favourite buildings, either beautiful or eccentric. In order to give some sort of logical sequence to the book, towns and buildings are listed in a roughly geographical order. An alphabetical index to names of buildings, people and towns is given at the end of the book for quick and easy reference.

To the best of my knowledge the buildings included in this book are still in existence. Many are National Monuments (marked with an asterisk in the index), and there are others that deserve to be proclaimed. Some of the groups of buildings have been declared conservation areas either by the National Monuments Council, or by their respective municipalities. Several buildings are museums and are therefore open to the public, but for the most part these buildings are in private hands and may not be visited without prior permission.

Dates of buildings mentioned in the text should be accepted with caution; it has not always been possible to differentiate between the date on which a plan was passed, and that on which a building was begun, or completed.

Much of this work has been the result of direct observation, supplemented by archival, published and verbal sources of information. I have travelled extensively throughout South Africa over many years and have sought out buildings of architectural and historical interest. Whenever possible I have made sketches and taken photographs, especially where points of style have seemed worthy of special analysis and illustration, or when a worthwhile building has been threatened with demolition.

Although the buildings of South Africa conform to certain types, the variety is limitless. But in order to keep the unique and rich aspect of the towns, cities and country districts, great care is needed in planning for both development and conservation.

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