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Union Buildings
Tshwane (Pretoria), Gauteng

Sir Herbert BAKER: Architect

Client:Transvaal Colonial Government
Type:Government Buildings


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25°44'25.88" S 28°12'42.50" E Alt: 1388m

(Greig 1970:173-96). Fleming was involved in execution (Fleming 1985)

(Initially called the Government Administration Building)

The Union Buildings, washed in the lights as they were tested for effect on the eve of the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela as the first president of the full democracy in South Africa, the amphitheatre set up with raked seating for the dignitaries right into the columned hemicycle loggia and decked out with the array of the fresh flags of nation - made it all seem that it was the very moment for which those building had been ordained.

That conception had started some eighty-five years before. The ideal of Union was the conception of Jan Christian Smuts. It seems to have been in his nature to conceive grand visions – he lent the name 'Commonwealth' to the then British Empire, was founder of the League of Nations which transformed into the United Nations for which he wrote the preamble to the Charter, had helped formulate the economic accord which set the European Union in motion. When it had become clear in 1909 at the Durban convention that Pretoria would not be sole but rather administrative capital of a united South Africa it was decided that the then Transvaal Colony would provide a building eminently suited to the purpose.

Herbert BAKER was appointed, although not without criticism. The broad public, and the architectural fraternity in particular, was of the opinion that the project should be put out to competition, a not unreasonable sentiment for a building of that nature and importance. The authorities, however, felt hard-pressed to get on with the job before Union. The President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Baker’s once employer Ernest George wrote to General Botha "Your Government’s action is more likely to result in the production of a dignified and appropriate building than if a competition had been resorted to"! The last act of the Transvaal Colony was to allocate one-and–a half million Pounds sterling to the project. Smuts, then Secretary of State, with a stroke of a pen literally spent the last of the treasury. As an interesting aside, this was not the first time he had done so. He had entered Pretoria just hours before the British in 1901 and, claiming his position of State Attorney, commandeered all gold and monies from the safes of the Mint of the South African Republic (ZAR). Not many men in history can lay claim to twice having cleared the coffers of state!

Smuts took keen interest in the project. Baker rejected the proposed site as "unworthy of a united South Africa". This area of land is where the Transvaal Museum and Pretoria City Hall now stand and had been purchased previously for the new buildings when Pretoria might be capital. Instead Baker looked for the highest available land so that the siting of the new complex might be like an Acropolis. At that time, although only one-and-a-half kilometres from the city centre, it felt somewhat removed and remote from the hub of activity. This too drew criticism.

More controversy was to follow. The amphitheatre was considered an expensive and un-heard-of thing. The government appointed an advisory board consisting of two of the architects Piercy EAGLE of the PWD and Willem DE ZWAAN, a prominent Pretoria architect who had started practice in the time of the ZAR. They judged the colonnade "extravagant and expensive" and condemned the amphitheatre as being of "no practical value" since "the tiers of stone, unprotected from the weather offer very poor comfort to the visitor as they will either be too warm or too cold for sitting upon". Baker, in his biography states that "Its value was surely proved when a crowd gathered there to welcome Botha [as the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa in 1910] … and a second time when Smuts returned victorious … [from his East African Campaign in the First (Great) World War]". We might add "a third when President Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as State President of a fully democratic Republic of South Africa in 1994".

The contract was managed in cumbersome fashion. Baker and his office were responsible for drawings, the Transvaal Colony Department of Public Works for specifications and contract management. The choice of stone was a cause of ongoing discord and controversy, and the continuing deterioration to-day perhaps a vindication of Baker’s agitation about the inferior quality. The arrangement however held unexpected benefits for Pretoria and the architectural profession in particular. Baker took Gordon LEITH out of Public Works into his office to produce first the sketch plans and then the technical drawings for the Buildings. The superbly executed presentation perspectives are his. From an artistic interest it can be added that Pierneef, who was a school-mate of Leith and was later to collaborate with him on the Johannesburg Station complex, documented in pictures the entire construction process. At the suggestion of Smuts, Baker brought the young Vivian REES-POOLE up to Pretoria from his Cape Town office but wondered that "although he likes Pretoria, I doubt if the climate agrees with him". He stayed and went on to design Church Square as we know it to-day and the home of the Provincial Administrator in Church Street. In turn young architects taken into Public Works, the so-called 'Milner Kindergarten', were exposed to a particular styling and architecture which became pervasive in the execution of civic buildings, even the smallest dorps having a magistrates office or school done in the Baker Style. The style of the Union Buildings has become Baker’s international legacy and his contribution to world architecture. It was propagated further through his joint appointment with Edwin LUTYENS to the Secretariat in New Delhi, India, and his various commissions in Kenya. For the first time the architectural idiom was not a derivative from Britain but an interpretation of a style taken from an area with a similar climate to South Africa, namely the Mediterranean. This set a style for the other colonies in the Empire and is elsewhere termed the 'Empire Style' while its idiom in Cape Dutch revival has been termed the Union Style, typifying all works done in house by the PWD at the time.

One of the criticisms of the proposed scheme for the Government Administration Building (as it was then known) was that it was south-facing and hence would be seen as a flat and solid mass. Baker was keenly sensitive to the problem and through the devices of the deep-set semicircular colonnade at the centre with the wings splayed slightly backward to catch the rays of the early morning and late evening sun diagonally, and the light and shade of the flanking porches, the building has a subtlety of light and shadow which changes its character throughout the day. The most satisfying aspects architecturally of the building are the central loggias and fountains. The most sophisticated machinery of the day was used to manufacture the columns, and the best sandstone is found here. Baker bragged that every conceivable vault type has been used in the construction of the building, and their configurations are well observed in this space. Another device not seen by the general public are the glass prisms specially cast for and imported from Britain and used to reflect light back into the basement.

Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the project is that, as far as was possible, locally available and manufactured materials were used. That would have been inconceivable twenty years before. The tiles were manufactured in Vereeniging, the stone quarried from all around the country, the timbers from the forests of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). All the furniture was especially designed and manufactured for the building, a remarkable achievement and contribution to the legacy of the country. The other is that it brought a host of building skills to Pretoria that would serve the industry well for many years hence.

The greatest omission from the scheme was the 'Temple of Peace'. Smuts had apparently conceived the idea and Baker latched onto it with enthusiasm. It is one of the ironies of histories that someone so committed to the idea of peace should play such a prominent role in the three great wars of the twentieth century. The large central domed building atop Meintjieskop is shown in all the sketch plans and perspectives, but was finally abandoned because of the cost. Keath also refers to it as an Heroon, which is an ancient funerary temple. A conjecture that might have been raised in discussions when trying to find a purpose for an architectural idea might have been a use similar to that of the Pantheon in Paris where the Worthies of the Nation are laid to rest. Baker was at the time firmly of the opinion that the newly constituted Union government should not have two remotely separated buildings, but one, and that one should be the Union Buildings with the parliamentary complex on the hill, although in his memoirs he denies this. A central building would have unified the conception architecturally, and created a focal point, rather than the "empty center" which is said to typify Baker's designs.

To-day we do not question the one-and–a half million Pounds spent on a public asset. It now seems like money well spent. Three million Rands (to-day's monetary equivalent) would hardly get us anything remotely similar.

[Roger Fisher]

When assessing the architectural merits of the Union Buildings the design thinking of Herbert Baker should be considered. He expressed himself on these matters in various texts throughout his productive years. Not all of these have been available to the critic. This article attempts to make his thinking available to the critic and researcher, especially in terms of applying the tenets of the Grand Manner, as well as abortive aspects of the design, particularly as regards the proposed Temple of Peace and Via Sacra.

This is an abstract from an article 'The Union Buildings: reflections on Herbert Baker's design intentions and unrealized designs' by Roger C Fisher. To read the full article Click here.

Architects associated with the Union Buildings

Francis BLACK often arbitrated on disputes during its construction.

In the employ of the PWD

George Sydney Herbert BRADFORD
GH BURSTOW between 1912 and 1913
David Alexander CROMBIE during the period 1909 to 1911
Samuel Baikie CUNNINGHAM
William Rhodes HARRISON
Charles Douglas ST LEGER worked for the PWD on the Union Buildings on a temporary basis but was part of BAKER’s team from 1912
Spencer WATERS in 1913 as a quantity surveyor where he was said to be largely responsible for the survey of quantities of the principal Government buildings including the Union Buildings
Alan Clement WOODROW from February 1920 to August 1925 was employed by the PWD on the Union Buildings

In BAKER's office

John Daniel CLARKE joined in 1909 in the preparation of the drawings
William Henry GIBSON left for South Africa in 1909 to join Herbert BAKER's office in Johannesburg
John Albert HOOGTERP joined H BAKER in 1911 until 1913
George Esselmont Gordon LEITH in the preparation of perspectives and drawings
Geoffrey Eastcott PEARSE worked on the drawings from 1912
Henry Lionel Gordon PILKINGTON
Vivian Sydney REES-POOLE
James David ROBERTSON about 1909/1910
Harold Wolseley SPICER around 1910/1912
Charles Douglas ST LEGER worked for the PWD but joined the team from 1912

Later architects associated with the Union Buildings

Robert COLE BOWEN, gifted cartoonist, in 1932 executed a large cartoon depicting the move of the PWD from the Union Buildings to new quarters in the Central Government Building, Pretoria. He called it 'The retreat from Moscow'. It portrays the members of the Department's staff capturing likenesses and characteristics.
Henri Pierre COMRIE made input into the design of projects such as a proposed Visitors' Centre at the Union Buildings (unbuilt)

The c 1913 scanned photographs are from:

The City of Pretoria and Districts. A Official Handbook describing the Social, Official, Farming, Mining, and General Progress and Possibilities of the Administrative Capital and Surrounding Districts. Publicity Department, South African Railways, Government Printer, Pretoria, 1913. Sent to us by William MARTINSON

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

Radford, Dennis. 1988Baker, Lutyens, and the Union Buildings. South African Journal of Cultural and Art History in vol. 2, no. 1
FISHER, RC. 2004The Union Buildings: Reflections on Herbert Baker's design intentions and unrealized designs. SA Journal of Art History in Vol 19, No 1
Baker, Herbert. 1944. Architecture & personalities. London: Country Life. pg B&w photos, 57-62
Bakker, Karel A, Clarke, Nicholas J & Fisher, Roger C. 2014. Eclectic ZA Wilhelmiens : A shared Dutch built heritage in South Africa. Pretoria: Visual Books. pg 198, 200
Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pg 6-7
Fisher, Roger & Clarke, Nicholas. 2014. Architectural Guide : South Africa. Berlin: DOM Publishers. pg 12
Gaylard, Shaun & McDougall, Brett . 2022. RSA 365 : 365 Drawings of South African Architecture. Johannesburg: Blank Ink Design. pg 118-119 ill, 119
Johnson Barker, Brian, Maclay, George & Steyn, Alfie (Eds). 1987. Off the Beaten Track : Selected Day Drives in Southern Africa. Cape Town: AA The Motorist Publications (Pty). pg 74 ill
National Building Research Institute (Compiler). 1985. Handbook of South African natural building stone. Pretoria: National Development Fund for the Building Industry. pg 37 (photo)