Architectural Education in South Africa - an historical outline.


[This entry is still under development for publication.]

All peoples make structures. The seminal exhibition ‘Architecture without Architects’1 high-lighted the role of tradition and the vernacular in the legacy of the architectural discipline. Until the present day in South Africa traditional - or, in the title of the exhibition ‘non pedigreed’ - architecture in the South African context has remained largely the preserve of anthropologists and ethnologists and in the domain of what in contemporary terminology is known as Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).2

Architecture as profession and academic discipline comes to southern African shores by way of European colonisation, specifically the founding of the Cape Colony. It is inevitable that the history of the formalised teaching of architecture follows this chronology, where the once prevailing attitudes of race, gender and class systems reflects these historical imbalances.

The architect, Louis Michel Thibault, in service of the Dutch East India Company, first as mercenary military engineer, thereafter as free-lance architect and surveyor and in varying of these capacities depending on his then current masters, as the vagaries of political power swayed first from the Dutch to the British at first occupation of the Cape (1975-1802) then back to the Dutch, this time to the Batavian Republic (1803-1806) then finally to the British as Colony. He is regarded as the first formally educated and trained architect to take residence in southern Africa, and through his membership of and involvement in Free Masonry at the Cape, of the earliest formal educators of architects in southern Africa, although this was in his twilight years when he assisted in formulating the curriculum rather than himself doing any teaching. After his death the task as teacher fell to Anton Anreith. This enterprise ended with his death. His pupil TEubes can be considered the first formally trained architect in South Africa but beyond this fact, little further is known about him.

Thereafter the educating of persons to become architects fell firstly to the military in the form of the Royal Corps of Military Engineers, the various Departments of Public Works, but principally in the age-old tradition of in-house tutelage under the guidance of a practitioner with the debutante as an ‘improver’ or in today’s parlance, a candidate architect. It should also not be forgotten that the missionaries, of which, in the nineteenth century, South Africa was the focus of their activities, also brought with them skills of design and building, and it was exactly at this time the liberation of slaves fostered endeavours of creating settlement with the mission settlements as core but rapidly extended by freed slaves who brought skills and crafts, a field not yet fully explored.

In the nineteenth century, and particularly in the Anglophone colonies, architecture was a dilettante affair. In South Africa, despite attempts by the Boer Republics to distance themselves from this influence, in the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, Transvaal Republic, 1854-1902) more so than in the Republiek van die Oranje Vrij-Staat (Orange Free State Republic) inevitably engaged the services of amongst others, British trained architects. Hence, the development of the profession of architecture parallels its development in Britain. The formation of the Institute of British Architects in London in 1834 was at the time of Britain’s rising influence in southern Africa through its colonisation of the Cape (1806) and later Natal (1843). This led to the creation of Departments of Public Works which initially employed engineers, many of whom, while being responsible for civil structures such as bridges and harbours, inevitably turned their hand to the design of buildings. It might be deduced that there vocational direction as architects was influenced by experience in the workplace, innate talent and ability and personal predilection for the profession. While most professionals in the built environment were brought to South African shores after training in Britain, in time locals taken into public service, in time, developed independent expertise to present themselves to the public as architects.

The late nineteenth century saw, in Great Britain, through what by Royal Charter had become The Royal Institute of British Architects, a formalisation of the architectural profession and with it the education of architects. By the beginning of the twentieth century this impacted on the way the discipline architecture regulated and those who chose to enter the discipline were educated there.

in southern Africa, where two western cultures held sway - that of the British and that of the Dutch - a parallel and alternative mode took hold in the ZAR. The then President, Paul Kruger, deliberately sought expertise from the mother country, The Netherlands, so as to bolster both the staunch Calvinism of the ‘Golden Republic’ he wished to foster as well as stave off British Imperialism, spear-headed by its avowed and powerful advocate Cecil John Rhodes. The traditions of education here were different to those of Britain, and were allied to the cultural divide there, that of Christian Catholicism in apposition to Dutch Calvinism. While the Catholic educational heritage lay in the university, a mode of intellectual endeavour derived from meditative and contemplative tradition with its objective an ideal world founded in idealised and ideological thought, the Calvinist tradition followed one of craft and bookish learning through the acts of engagement, doing and making, in architecture particularly that of carpentry. One may here speculate that the trade was ennobled by its direct associations with the profession of the Christ. However, there is a further consideration - its text books by the end of the late C19 were sophisticated exemplars of applied descriptive geometry, well suited to architectural application and endeavour. The Chief Architect and Engineer of the ZAR DPW, Sytze Wopkes Wierda, preferred to train the locals in-house and their status was designated through their promotion, from Second-Grade Draughtsman (there were no women in the profession then) through the hierarchy of ranks to to Architect.

Here, after the hiatus after the Free Mason’s early endeavour, we begin again to encounter the formalisation of architectural education in southern Africa. Oddly, and perhaps surprisingly - but not unexpectedly - the transfer of the School of Mines from Kimberley in the Cape Colony to Johannesburg in the ZAR also changes it from a British to a Dutch controlled institution. This parallels the change of fortunes in the world of mineral wealth, for as the diamonds dwindled and their exploitation became more expensive in Kimberley, the bounty of the gold-fields of the Witwatersrsand attracted the wealth and the wealthy as well as increasing demand for engineering and mining expertise. The first Director of the School of Mines on the Rand was Middelberg - Dutchman and NZASM Chief Engineer. Employees of the Department of Public works had taken to teaching in the local institutions and one … is recorded as being a teacher of descriptive geometry at the Gymnasium in Pretoria. All this was to be of brief duration. The Second Anglo- Boer (South African) War put paid to all these endeavours and changed not only the political but educational landscape - particularly that here under review - architectural education. In Cape Town, where the War had been less disruptive, the profession of architecture was in the throes of being formalised. The development of architectural education at the turn of the C20 had been steady with classes given in architectural History at the Cape School of Art from about 1912.

The Second Anglo-Boer (South African) War saw the loss, after the expulsion or internment of all Dutch immigrants during the British occupation in the War, with the of the independence of the ZAR to British Colonial rule as the Transvaal Colony. Lord Milner was determined to ‘civilise’ the inherited agrarian Republic of the ZAR, and to this end Baker’s - protege and imminent architect of Rhodes and the Randlords - advice was sought to populate the PWD. In 1907 a private Act was passed in the Transvaal Colony, now under ‘home rule,’ to protect the architectural profession. This required that all practicing architects in the Colony be members of the RIBA, which in effect meant that they would have sat the examinations of this body. These were all British trained architects. Those who worked in the PWD, pre-eminently Gordon Leith and his school-mate Gerard Moerdijk, followed each other to London to the Architectural Association to further and formalise their architectural education. In 1910 with the promulgation of Union the dispensation of the Private Act of the Transvaal Colony fell away, but immediately the profession agitated for a replacement private Act, vehemently opposed by some of the profession and particularly members of government. Pivotal to the Act was the matter of architectural education and who might be considered qualified to present themselves as architects.

Practicing architects ever-increasingly engaged themselves in matters of education, helping set up reading rooms, preparing candidates for examination by the RIBA, and generally agitating for and fostering the formalisation of architectural education as part of the endeavour to have the Private Architect’s Act passed by the Union Government. The war years of the Great War (later the First World War, 1914-1918) intervened and relegated these as non-pressing concerns, but after the peace they once more came to the fore.

Duncan McDonald Sinclair (1877-1964), member of the Association of Transvaal Architects and was President of the ATA in 1920, was an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign for the registration of architects, working on the drafting of the Private Bill of the Architects' Act of 1927 and organising the sponsorship of the bill. The advent of a possibly unified profession held implications for the education of architects in South Africa. Preparatory to the submission of the Private Act by the South African architectural profession, an educational congress was called and held in Durban at the Natal Technical College on 9 and 10 July in 1923. At the conference it was underwritten that the proper place for architectural education and the proper examining authorities were held to be the universities. This stance was taken so as to align the status of the architect as professionals with those of Law and Medicine. In this the Conference helped to separate the development of architectural education into two main regional centres, locateded at the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town. The 1923 Conference gave impetus to the Cape's desire for the establishment of a University course in architecture. By 1924 these negotiations had reached a successful outcome, and the following year saw the establishment of the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Courses led to the Degree of Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, and the Diploma in Architecture. On January 3 and 4 1924, the Federal Council on Architectural Education held its first meeting in Cape Town. It adopted two standard courses in architecture - the degree and the diploma - and accepted as the model for its own diploma the diploma course of the University of the Witwatersrand and the full course of the University of Cape Town. With this both geographical and academic divide came two spheres of tradition and influence. The University of the Witwatersrand initially took responsibility for qualifying graduates from Natal as professional architects. At a joint meeting of the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Pretoria, on 4 December 1931, it was decided to centralise Architectural Education in the then Transvaal at the University of the Witwatersrand and Quantity Surveying Education at the University of Pretoria, an arrangement which held until 1943 when Pretoria established its own School of Architecture.

The education at each centre developed its own traditions derived from the personalities at the helm, the experiences of those that taught, the socio-political and economic circumstances of the student cohort and the trajectory of these traditions as the institutions evolved.

The tradition and evolution of the Wits School of Architecture lies firmly in Johannesburg as a then new, vibrant, brash, materially wealthy and rapidly developing city as the economic capital of South Africa and a pioneer in industrial mining technology in the world. It was meant to get South Africa’s first full-fledged University but through an act of parliament the monies intended in the Beit bequest were diverted to the Cape where those who held political sway believed represented the centre of European tradition, culture and civilisation, hence more suited in fostering tertiary learning.

Geofrey Eastcott Pearse was appointed first Professor of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand (Transvaal University College) in 1921 and thus became first Professor of Architecture in South Africa. He was born at Riverton near Verulam in Natal and came to live in Johannesburg as a child in 1894, but in 1899, his father foreseeing the outbreak of war, moved his family to Durban. After the War the family returned to the Rand in 1903 whre while in apprenticeship, Pearce studies for four years part-time at the Transvaal University College and at the Transvaal Technical Institute.3 He obtained a certificate from these institutions before leaving for England in 1907. Pearse attended lectures in London at the Technical Institute, Regent Street, studying under AE Richardson, Bannister Fletcher and CF & G Mitchell. He toured Italy in 1908 with TG Ellis who had come to England to study. In England he sought out EW Sloper, a past partner of Hebert Baker, who had taught him architectural design at the ‘Tin Temple’. Sloper immediately found him a position with Leonard STOKES, then the President of the RIBA. Pearse, through his friendship with Ellis, got to design what was then a novel building type, a cinematographic theatre at at Chatham. While in England, Pearse wrote to Baker in Johannesburg (1911) successfully approaching Baker for work in Baker and Fleming's office. Pearse returned to South Africa to assist in preparing drawings for the Union Buildings, joining TG Ellis, who was there at that time, and with whom he later joined in partnership. He had became an Associate member of the RIBA in 1912. On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Ellis took charge of the partners' Johannesburg office and, with he with HW Spicer, helped keep the architectural classes going at the School of Mines, thus helping to lay the foundations of a School of Architecture for the future University of the Witwatersrand. After the War, Ellis, in 1919, returned to London but came back to South Africa in 1921 to join Cowin and Powers in partnership, taking charge of the Pretoria office. He also instructed evening classes at the Pretoria Technical College, these then the forerunners to the School of Architecture at the University of Pretoria. From the above brief biographical accounts we see how Pearse, South African born and educated and though direct associations with Baker would have imbued local architectural education with home-grown sensibilities. One could say that the British traditions of the Grand Tour and British School at Rome served as model and he emulated these by taking his students on what was probably the first architectural student tour to Cape Town to document Cape Dutch architecture and hence bring these traditions to the Transvaal not just as a style but as an understanding through academic rigour. Hence, although in the same year that these labours were published in his seminal tome, Eighteenth Century architecture, his students under the sway of the Bauhaus and le Corbusier in particular, most of whom had contributed to the Cape Dutch study, published in that same year, 1933, their seminal journal ‘zero hour’ [sic]. Perhaps the tensions of this divide - one of home-grown tradition in competition with the lure of international avant-garde persists in the cultures of the Rand, and in particular, the schools of architecture there to this day. Leonard William Thornton-White was appointed the first professor of Architecture at the University of Cape Town in circa 1936. He had previously held lecturing post at the London Polytechnic School of Architecture, Surveying and Building, where, in this capacity, he raised the previously unrecognised school up to recognition standards of the RIBA. Thereafter He was appointed vice-principal of the Architectural Association in London where he remained for four years. He was responsible for moulding the structure and spirit of the Cape Town School of Architecture, the second school of architecture to be founded in South Africa after that at the University of the Witwatersrand. He had himself, very soon after his arrival, acquainted with South African architecture, especially the modern buildings of the Transvaal, photographed by him in about 1940. His photographs of the houses of shows an appreciation for the local architecture of this time, particularly that of Douglas Maurice Cowin. A lover of good living and a keen teacher, he would assure his students that life was more important than architecture. He was succeeded by Pryce Lewis (born in Natal?). He had won the Emma Smith Art Scholarship in 1931 which enabled him to spend two-and-a-half years at the Architectural Association in London, from which he graduated in 1933. He was a studio master on the staff of the Architectural Association from 1935 to 1937. In 1938 he joined the staff of the School of Architecture, University of Cape Town, and at times worked in association as private practitioner with Professor L Thornton White, whom he had known at the Architectural Association. From these early personages at the Cape School of Architecture it can be deduced that while both had local sensibilities, the British way of the Architectural Association must have impinged on both the direction and trajectory of architectural education there.

Another trajectory of tradition which also holds intrigue - again British - is the influence of the Liverpool School of Architecture in the South Africa. Its history is closely allied to that of the RIBA and its regularisation and accreditation of architectural education in Great Britain. Under Sir Charles Reilly it became, from 1902, the first university based school of architecture in Britain to design and run RIBA accredited degrees in architecture. Its graduates spread a style of architecture around the world - from Johannesburg to Cairo - to become known as the 'Liverpool Manner'. Of particular interest for South Africa is the South African born William Graham Holford, (Baron Holford), the most distinguished town planner born in South Africa. He graduated from Liverpool in 1930 with Honours and later taught there, becomingLever Professor of Town Planning at Liverpool in 1941, as one of Lord Reith's key men in the reconstruction of post-war Britain. Although Holford never had a practice in South Africa, he did return for several visits, where he delivered lectures and talks. He contributed plans for the re-planning of Pretoria and Johannesburg in 1953 as well as the proposed re-planning of central Durban in conjunction with SN Tomkin. On another visit to South Africa in 1961 (as President of the RIBA) he presented the Van Riebeeck lectures for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, in which year he was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Architecture by the University of Natal. He was awarded the ISAA Gold Medal of Honour for the year 1962-1963. While he may not be directly influential, his returning presence as lecturer and planner, and the consequences of his teaching of South African alumni in town Planning at Liverpool as well as engagement by later local architectural graduates with the urban consequences of his planning of major South African cities - often in critical opposition - have impacted on the South African architectural conciousness. We have already earlier met Douglas Maurice Cowin who had studied architecture at Liverpool for five years ,from 1928 to 1933, under Professor Reilly. Various other Heads of Schools and teaching staff were educated there and these influences must have rubbed off in some fashion. Adriaan Louw (Att) Meiring attended the University of Liverpool School of Architecture from October 1929 until July 1932 from where he when he received a first class honours degree. Although he is recollected as not being a very present or diligent academic, yet in some way he must have brought something of the pragmatic sensibilities of the Liverpool School to Pretoria. These would have been reinforced by another members of the staff, also educated there, namely Christiaan Strauss Brink. Brink was awarded British Council Scholarship for August 1947 to June 1948 academic year to study Town and Regional Planning at the School of Civil Design, University of Liverpool where the South African born Prof Holford was the Head of School. Brink was later to become Chair at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Cape town but his term was marred by revolt and fractious internecine relationships there. Leslie Thomas Croft, after a year of teaching at the Natal School of Architecture of the Natal University College, persued the BArch degree at the School of Architecture of the University of Liverpool. On his return in 1950 he commenced duties as lecturer and studio master in the fledgling School of Architecture at the University of Natal, where he was appointed senior lecturer in 1953, and Professor and Head of the Department in 1965. He organised the establishment of the Diploma course in Town Planning at the University of Natal in 1956. He served on the the Building Research Advisory Committee of the National Building Research Institute (NBRI) of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which brings us to the next institution whose influence of South African architectural education, this time home-grown.

The NBRI of the CSIR was of the earliest institutes there, and of the first engagements was that of researching housing for the urban poor, in particular those for ‘black’ - or as then termed ‘bantu’ - urban dweller. The CSIR was established by an Act of Parliament of the then Union government, The Scientific Council Research Act (33 0f 1945) one of the many such institutional initiatives spearheaded by Jan Smuts in the years following the Second World War. After joining the staff at the School of Architecture and Planning, University of Cape Town Paul Harold Connel was appointed a founder member and first Head of the Architectural Division of the NBRI of the CSIR in Pretoria in 1945. In 1949 he was appointed the first Professor of Architecture at the Universituy of Natal in Durban, one of the youngest professors ever to be appointed to the University, aged only 34. Douglas McGavin Calderwood had joined the NBRI in 1952 was to become Chief Research Officer and later Head of the Architectural Division. Engaged there as young researchers on the Bantu Housing project were the young newly graduated Barrie Biermann and Betty Spence. When Connel became Head of Natal he had Barrie Biermann join the lecturing staff there. In 1967 Calderwood was invited by the University of the Witwatersrand to manage the new building science course. The presence of these researchers in academia lent an impetus and direction which was far-reaching and determined the educational character and concerns located there. Connel had invited to Natal, Buckminster Fuller, who in 1958 together with students, carried out a geodesic research project inspired by the indigenous Zulu indlu or behive hut. Hence it can be deduced that the research focus of allied institutions helm direct research interest to local practice as an academic endeavour.

Which closes the circle of where this essay started, and reminds us to find the threads that connect current academic endeavour to previous established past traditions, and which still concern our current academic enterprise as how to locate these within our own context but still place these in the universalities of the discipline of architecture as academic endeavour and profession.

1. MOMA, November 11, 1964 11 11–February 7-1965 02 07 published as Rudofsky, Bernard. Architecture without architects, an introduction to non-pedigreed architecture. New York: Doubleday for the Museum of Modern Art (1964).
2. See, for instance Frescura, Franco. Rural Shelter in Southern Africa: A Survey of the Architecture, House Forms, and Constructional Methods of the Black Rural Peoples of Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1981 and his most recent offering: Frescura, Franco & Myeza, Joyce. The Illustrated Glossary of Southern African Architectural Terms. Durban: UKZN Press (2016).
3. This was a wood-and-iron temporary buildings erected in about 1903 for municipal affairs before the present city hall was built and served the fledgling School of Mines as home.