Architecture, History of in South Africa – an introduction


Barrie BIERMANN [in UIA 8, 1985: 57]

In Southern Africa, building traditions dating from prehistoric times survive in the shadow of high-tech structures. The patterns of building reflect complex cultural overlays and interactions.

The main periods are best differentiated by the characteristic building material of their time.

Small-scale rubblework, used in isolation or with grass and clay, composes the earliest known windbreak shelters, a type still used in the Kalahari. They date from the upper Pleistocene period, but recognizable settlements of this kind are only 1 500 years old. (The gaps in the record, the absence of an antiquity, are as yet unexplained.)

Thereafter, small corbelled domed structures with coursed rubble screen walls were built fairly densely on the high plateau until c1820, probably in response to deforestation.

Monumental coursed rubble is rare; perennial tribal warfare seems to have retarded the development of monumental building. While the stone tradition was established well before 1000 AD, and sporadic essays of some skill were made from time to time in response to defensive needs, the only impressive stone monument is Great Zimbabwe, presumably always a major religious centre. The Great Enclosure (the elliptical ‘temple') is the largest and best preserved of the ruins. With a 243m circumference, the wall containing 18 000m3 of stonework is the largest single structure surviving in Africa after the pyramids. The most intensive period of building occurred after 1400 AD, involving an estimated work force of 400 occupied for eight months. It typifies stone structures spread over an area the size of the British Isles.

If stone structures suggest dense population and an arable economy, the next phase, a pastoral lifestyle, reflects skilled use of a wide variety of grasses, leading to spectacular achievements like the Tembe Tonga ceiling. Grass and clay, the most perishable of materials, became the major building resources. In favourable contexts a grass technology evolved, yielding sophisticated domical [beehive] structures with high comfort standards, beautifully crafted and affording adequate shelter for the generation that built them. Where pastures declined in quality, greater use was made of withies and saplings, mainly for walling; and in the very dry climates, clay was used throughout, except for the conical roof. Hybrid forms of great ingenuity and beauty are found in the Drakensberg foothills in the Cape. As social order developed, for example under the military regime of Shaka Zulu, entire towns of grass domes, geometrically planned, could be erected (and razed) in short order. In the semi-desert regions sanitation is not a problem, and dense agglomerations of grass and clay structures function quite effectively. When peaceable conditions permitted, painted decoration of the clay walls developed in proportion to the affluence.

Lime and clay technology, with its superior waterproofing and lasting characteristics, was introduced by European settlers. The effect was to extend the capabilities of clay and rubble construction to erecting Palladian structures, some of which have survived in good order over three centuries. Of these the oldest is also the most monumental - The Castle, built in 1665 in Cape Town. The ease with which this type of structure could be altered and extended has left few intact: the old core is often contained behind facades of later periods.

Because of the small population, a single patron or a single built example exercised far-reaching influence. An autocratic governor, W A van der Stel, built an ambitious Palladian villa, Vergelegen (1701) in a Versailles-like setting; both the aristocratic building idiom and lifestyle were communicated to the local farming community who thenceforth built (and lived) like Venetian patricians. The Dutch burghers made the Palladian tradition serviceable to bourgeois needs, accommodating it to thatched roofs, with scrolled gables and large sash windows - as at Morgenster. The Dutch stoep was expanded from a mere landing to an ample terrace covered with a pergola or shaded by a colonnade of oaks. Handsome indigenous timbers promoted fine detailing and splendidly furnished interiors.

As a mercantile colony of Amsterdam, the Cape was subject to a culture lag; consequently the succession of styles is often curiously jumbled. The earlier city houses, modeled on the Dutch Palladian exemplars, proved a remarkably tough breed; they surfaced again (after an interval of late Baroque and Rococo) as neo-classic variants, like the Koopmans de Wet house of 1790 in Cape Town. They were the prototypes for many 19th-century buildings of the interior.

Just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, an Austrian sculptor arrived, Anton Anreith, and a French architect trained under Gabriel, Louis Michel THIBAULT. They often worked together to infuse a high quality of design during the building boom at the end of the century. A sculptured tympanum for the Wine Cellar at Groot Constantia in 1791 is one of their finest pediments.

Baked clay and sheet metal came with the British occupation, and a strong neo-classical influence. With the Great Trek to the interior, buildings became necessarily more austere, reflecting at the same time the trend to neo-classicism and Doric revival evident in the early Karoo town houses.

As the interior became more densely populated, monumental structures (mainly churches) in ashlar reflected greater affluence and increasing technological sophistication. Romanesque Revival St John's at Wynberg - vied with Gothic and led to a recognizably local architectural idiom. The commercial ports of East London and Port Elizabeth were graced by fine streets built between the 1860s and the later Edwardian Baroque. The development of local idioms was facilitated by manufactured materials: sheet materials in various forms, wrought and cast iron - witness St Patrick's Cathedral in Bloemfontein. The last quarter of the century saw Renaissance revivals in the old Durban City Hall of 1881. Contributions were made by German settlers on the West Coast and Indian immigrants on the East Coast.

Pacification of the traditionally warring tribes accelerated evolution of grass and clay structures. The Zulu grass domes developed a Baroque effulgence: the Sotho and Ndebele matched the increasing richness of their dress with mural backdrops of increasing sophistication and beauty. Missionary architects contributed solid craftsmanship in brick, or feats of improvisation in the new sheet materials.

The imposition of the Pax Brittanica brought with it an imperial architecture commissioned by the empire builder, Cecil Rhodes. His architect, Herbert BAKER, consciously married the by now indigenous Cape Dutch idiom to Hellenistic monumentalism and evolved a style which fulfilled the practical needs of his time while providing an adequate response to the challenge of the African landscape - seen in the Rhodes' Memorial (1908) below Devil's Peak in Cape Town. In the early 20th century, the country entered the ferment of its first industrial revolution: rising affluence and a building boom, a great influx of immigrants and the demands of an expanding infrastructure introduced a new scale to the architecture. High-rise commercial buildings and ever larger public building complexes posed challenges which traditional building methods could no longer meet. Herbert Baker's grasp of the situation was matched by design and organizational abilities. His contribution, most magnificently demonstrated in his Union Buildings in Pretoria dominated the scene for the next 30 years.