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PFG Glass Centre
Midrand, Gauteng

Henri Pierre COMRIE: Architect

1995SAIA Award of Merit


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26°00'36.17" S 28°07'03.20" E Alt: 1528m


Award of Merit Citation

This is the built product of a smoothly run and widely publicised national competition. It is proof of the value of such competitions, even if the choice of winners is often contentious.

The rationale of the design is widely publicised and thus well known, a plan-form generated from the image of glass shards. The question was whether such imagery could attain built form?

The building is complete and has been well realised. The crispness of line promised in the presentation drawings persists into the finished product. The final building is smaller in reality than the mental picture it evokes in representations but still manages through its unique appearance to capture the attention and thus fulfil its role as a highway hoarding.

The various spaces of specific designation serve their functions well, and thereby the building demonstrates the various qualities of the product - glass - which it advertises; for instance the stillness of the double-glazed offices on the highway, the shattered surfaces of the panes in the shooting range.

There are small quibbles - the break in continuity of lines in the finishes from inside to outside at the surfaces of the vertical panes of glass; a slight disappointment at the spatial qualities of the interior after the dynamic lines of the exterior.

The building is deserving of an award as it demonstrates the consistency of design integrity from inception to realisation doubly rewarded by being built in a short time and housing enthusiastic clients.


Comrie's swashbuckling cubist essay in sheet glass bites the dust

Sunday Independent April 23, 2006 Edition 1


A decade of our fledgling democracy finds us celebrating many achievements and, simultaneously, pondering as many shortfalls, embarrassing revelations and unsettling - often viciously macho or racist - attitudes.

A cavalier disregard for our built heritage is scarcely the most unnerving of these, but it can signal other, more gross societal issues. So, one suggests, this form of vandalism, or offhand inattention, can be of import. A recent event, one worthy of public lament, illustrates the point.

Consider the precipitate demolition of the PFG Glass Centre on the Pretoria-Johannesburg road, the N1. Consider, that is, a building of which I wrote glowingly in this column less than 10 years past; a building that the architect Ora JOUBERT, head of the school of architecture at the University of Pretoria, referred to as "an extremely sensual building"; one which Henning RASSMUS, then a freshly graduated architect, described as "the most brave architectural statement of the recent past".

Consider, further, my comment of the time: "The Pilkington PFG Glass Centre is a swashbuckling cubist essay in sheet glass and smooth wall planes, an architectural tour de force."

Those plaudits notwithstanding, the centre is now gone, summarily dematerialised; sacked in a campaign mounted by crane-swinging steel weights and marauding bulldozers in the hands of a hammer-wielding workforce. Reduced to debris, dust.

Nothing new in that, you may respond: it is a common, age-old phenomenon; one that has occurred and recurred worldwide. Recall, as an especially memorable local instance, the handsome 20th Century cinema building in central Jo'burg, on Von Brandis and President streets.

Built in the late 1940s, that, too, was soon wrecked; ransacked at the command, one imagines, of tough-minded fiscal entrepreneurs via their hired demolition squads. Then … replacement by yet another weary inner-city mediocrity. Vandals all?

The PFG Glass Centre was forcibly imploded, wantonly removed, lost to us. The drive for quick bucks prevails. Profits rule, OK or not. Architectural quality and felicitous civic memories have again given way to "'progress", to the advancement of crass property manoeuvres, of - the cliché is all too applicable - financial wheeling and dealing.

Allow me to highlight something of the background to the building. But before that, an overriding proviso. Grave as it may be, that injury fades, becomes negligible in the fierce glare of our indigent population's multiple deprivations.

The designer, Henri COMRIE, then a young architectural employee, won the commission in an open, national competition administered by the South African Institute of Architects. That was in 1994. Not surprisingly, entries were heavy: throughout the country, the building industry was in another of its periodic slumps. COMRIE was awarded first prize for plans he had prepared during December 1993, while on vacation in Swakopmund, Namibia - distant in locale and contact from his Johannesburg-based employment and, significantly, from the nominated site.

In the accompanying absence of computing facilities, he relied on his considerable draughting skills and on snatched memories of the precise site conditions and surroundings. Then the competition. The building contract was completed early in 1996, when the institute conferred its 1995 Award of Merit.

COMRIE explains that he "always intended … a building that would entertain the highway user. A rotating form that exposes aspects of the design with movement along the highway. Enjoyed by a younger generation of architects for its clarity and bold form after the excesses of post-modernism … [it is] one of the few examples of deconstructivist architecture in South Africa …"

I hurry to concur: its well-functioning, spatially exciting interiors and engaging rear facades excepted, the building was decisively turned toward the adjacent M1, now a fume-filled, rowdy passageway for hell-bent traffic.

In that maelstrom, until the demolition, one flashed by the PFG Glass Centre in ever-pressing appreciation of a structure that, for once, acknowledged its salient orientation - the passing motorway, a not necessarily welcome but none the less an overtly contemporary transit route.

This markedly relevant symbol of our swift-moving modern life has now been pulverised. We are left - strikingly for even this exceptionally banal reach of inter-urban highway - with an intrusive, especially dreary ribbon development. We remain with excessive stretches of the ill-designed, the climatically unsuited, the close-packed, visually dispiriting buildings that mar the edges of this quasi-race track.

Now indeed, calling on Shakespeare's 30th sonnet, "can I drowne an eye (un-us'd to flow) … and mone th'expence of many a vannisht sight".

Back to COMRIE's stunned e-mail: "As a young architect, it [the centre] … proved to me that anything was possible… I was proud of the fact that right up to its death, it was as handsome as ever. [Until a friend] called me from … the highway as he witnessed the wreckers tearing into it."

He continued: "Abandoned by PFG Building Glass three years after occupation, for reasons which remain unclear to me, Norwich Life Properties developed the property for PFG, who signed a 10-year lease (which expired close to the 2006 demolition date).

The Norwich Life Properties portfolio was taken over by Investec Properties … who I suspect demolished the building because of its low bulk on a highway strip that is now on steroids. Only 1 000 square metres on a 5 000 square metre site! Originally designed for an open plain and gradually hemmed in by nondescript mediocrity on all sides … squeezed to death by a heavyweight scramble for frontage along South Africa's longest linear billboard - the N1 between Jozi and Pretoria."

RIP, PFG Glass Centre.

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

Muwanga, Christina. 1998. South Africa : a guide to recent architecture. London : Köln: Ellipsis : Könemann. pg 210-211