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Architecture: The new amidst the old
14 Jan 2010
Hans Fransen

As part of its efforts to make the people of Pietermaritzburg more aware of the quality of its built environment, the Pietermaritzburg Society in 1986 organized a competition in which the participants were asked to name what they thought was the 'ugliest building' in the city. It seemed a fine idea at the time, but if the results proved anything, it was that whatever awareness existed lacked, in most cases, a sound aesthetic basis.

The three 'highest' scorers were all modern buildings: the Capital Towers building in Commercial Road; Natalia; and the Cathederal Church of the Holy Nativity. Their 'ugliness' seemed to be little more than their unashamed modernity. Of the three buildings, perhaps only Capital Towers can be called 'ugly in that, in scale and texture it relates badly to its setting. Natalia with its twin towers, is a decidedly handsome building; though it, too, does not relate to the local colour of its Pietermaritzburg context. Yet its setting, isolated in its own block, hardly calls for this.

The Cathderal is quite simply one of the city's finest buildings of any period. Its red facebrick finish pays its respects to earlier Pietermaritzburg architecture, but with its bold geometric forms and spaces the building represents the best of today, as old St. Peter's did of the nineteenth century. In this way, the old and the new churches complement each other admirably.

An 1850s cottage.

The unadorned geometry of the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity.

Now why is it that a building of such undeniable qualities can be so generally disliked? It is known that as a church, the new cathedral has yet to gain the affection of its congregation that its older counterpart had acquired over the century or more of its existence. The Gothic Revival idea that true devotion is possible only amidst mock-medieval features such as pointed arches, exposed wooden rafters and stained glass still holds good for a large section of older churchgoers. But the respondents to the ugly-building competition did not consist solely of members of the cathedral's congregation, and the building's 'high' rating undoubtedly reflects a generally held feeling that anything in a bold, contemporary style had to be ugly - especially as regards ecclesiastical architecture.

Collegiate Gothic Revival Clark House Maritzburg College.

There are, of course, other views on this issue. Few architectural historians would hesitate to rate the best of today's architecture rather higher than most of the eclectic architecture of the nineteenth century. But there is no denying that in a city like Pietermaritzburg the unfortunate, misguided nineteenth century, vainly resisting the new age yet irretrievably cut off from the old, has produced a body of architecture of considerable character, of a genius loci greater than that Natalia or Capital Towers has to offer.

The Pietermaritzburg Society owes its initial existence to the nostalgic notions of conservationists. But it now acknowledges that what is old and venerable today was once modern; and that if, by the same token, that which goes up today should one day become vunerable too, this will only be by virtue of its once having been good modern work. If it is accepted that the built environment is, and always has been, a continuum, not a forced co-existence of two basically irreconcilable components: the good old and the bad new, then is there a way in which modern structures can be made to 'fit in' with the old - and should this be attempted?

The concept of new architecture 'matching' older work to create a harmonious totality is a fairly new phenomenon. No matter how homogeneous the architecture of a certain period and locality may have been, builders of different periods usually had no qualms about expressing their different materials, techniques, building forms and decorative details even in close proximity to older work. In Pietermaritzburg there is perhaps no better example of this than the old Government House, where the first shale-walled nucleus exists happily side-by-side with extensions differing radically in detail, material (red brick) and scale. To us this may seem a quaint hotch-potch of elements all possessing the charm of the past, but at the time they represented nothing more orless the modern extensions to an existing building, without any attempt at 'matching'.

In a wider sense, the Pietermaritzburg townscape represents a superimposition of a number of layers, each belonging to a specific period and often population group and each being in its own right fairly homogeneous - a picture made even more complex by the existence of distinctive building types such as shops, school complexes and public buildings. There is no doubt that the City possesses a large body of architecture of both character and charm that should be protected. But for modern developments to 'fit in' with this heritage of the past, it is essential first, that clarity should exist about precisely what the character is that should be respected; and second, that in the process the modern work should not be expected to sacrifice its own, contemporary character.

In his book The Character of Towns the British author Ray Worksett has provided a number of models to determine the character of existing urban environments, to which new developments could then try to adhere. He identified factors determining street elevations, such as boundary contours, plot widths, facade rythms, textures and fenestration, building heights in different areas, and so on. Such models are easier to identify and prescribe in densely built-up and fairly homogeneous European city centres, especially those with a high proportion of historical architecture, than in a city like Pietermaritzburg with its initially wide spacing of buildings allowing different 'characters' to be superimposed upon one another.

The first Pietermaritzburg style is associated with the Voortrekker period, although it persisted well into the British period, probably into the 1860s. It was basically similar to the style employed in Voortrekker towns in the Orange Free State (Bloemfontein, Winburg) and Transvaal (Potchefstroom, Pretoria) and indeed Cape colonial towns of the same period such as Worcester, Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage. Elongated houses (simple rows of rooms), sometimes with wings or lean-tos at the back, were erected on the street boundary of deep building blocks. Their walls of shale rubble or unburnt brick were plastered inside and out; their roofs were of thatch between simple gables, and a stoep ran in front along the entire length, raised slightly above the street level often between simple end-seats. Though none of these survives, unchanged, a dozen or more can still be found, the best group being that in Longmarket Street between Boshoff and Retief Streets.

Gradually houses of a different character started appearing from the 1860s onwards in between the widely spaced houses of this Voortrekker dorp. At first these, too, had plastered walls. They were generally set back from the street, surrounded by their gardens, perhaps reflecting the 'picturesque', romantic desire, especially strong in England, for architecture to merge into nature. A related feature which had started to come into prominence was the veranda, creating a transitional zone between inside and out by breaking down the sheer division between architecture and environment. The veranda style, of course, was also a concession to the subtropical climate and occurs in several other parts of the former British colonial Empire. The veranda, in Pietermaritzburg an almost universal feature between 1860 and 1940, was a strongly unifying element, being added to a variety of types of architecture including preexisting Voortrekker houses.

From the 1870s onwards the plastered finish of soft brick or rubble walls began to be superseded by the excellent locally made salmon-coloured facebrick, which remained the predominant building material until the exhaustion of the local clay deposits in the 1920s and 1930s. This splendid material, which the local architects and builders learnt to use with such exquisite skill and elegance - together with the veranda - is usually identified with the 'typical Pietermaritzburg character' that is so eagerly sought yet remains so difficult to define. For behind the decorative verandas, in wood or, in the then 'ultra-modern' material of cast iron, the architectural forms built of this Maritzburg red brick are as eclectic as the late nineteenth century taste for Revivals and the whimsical mixing of idioms would allow. Forward-projecting wings and bay-windows, sometimes symmetrical but more often asymmetrical, added to the demise of the facade; spiky bargeboard gables, corner turrets and roof ventilators enlivened the roof-line. For commercial buildings, fancy Flemish Renaissance gables and dormers breaking up roof  surfaces were in demand. Elsewhere, 'Collegiate' Gothic Revival forms or, for public buildings, the more sedate Italianate column-and-pediment style were preferred. Decorative effects were achieved - apart from 'brookielace' or timber fretwork veranda trimmings - by moulded brick details or reliefwork in plaster insets.

Is all of this 'typically Maritzburg'? Somehow all recognizably so, although common denominators are difficult to find. One has only to compare the five important public buildings near the Church Street/ Commercial Road intersection to see as many different faces of the City's older architecture. The old Presbyterian Church, plasterwalled with pointed windows and slender steeple, is in the pre-redbrick Gothic Revival style; the old Supreme Court next to it, one of the earliest buildings to use the local red brick, though with bands of different colour, is in a restrained, basically classicist Rundbogenstil with roundheaded windows repeating the shapes of the recessed arcades; the dignified Greek Revival temple fronts of the Parliament buildings face Longmarket Street; the City Hall across the street, with its horror vacui of surface ornament is the very opposite of classicism; while the Colonial Building has a pompous Second Empire treatment.

During Edwardian years, Victorian eclecticism persisted for a while, as did the veranda style, now much simplified with wooden posts or more often prefabricated concrete Doric columns, sometimes seen as late as the 1930s. During the 1920s, the quality of the local red brick diminished, as well as the skill and imagination with which it was used, and its use was often restricted to the lower plinths of walls, the rest being plastered, until the deposits ran out and the red-brick style ceased, in the 1930s, to characterize local architecture.

The General Post office and Victoria Club 1910 on a contemporary postcard.

It took relatively long for 'modern' architecture to make its appearance in Pietermaritzburg. Even during the 1930s and 1940s work that unashamedly made use of modern techniques and materials, expressing these honestly without eclectic use of features of past styles, remained rare. Bank buildings in Church Street such as Barclays (now First National Bank) and the South African Reserve Bank (now occupied by Boland Bank) are contemporary in the simple geometry of their masses and fenestration, but retain numerous historicizing features: the former its splayed corner 'shop entrance' under pediment and crowned by domed corner turret; the latter with its Italian Renaissance palazzo appearance, rustication and columns. Similarly, the new design of the Imperial Hotel in 1935 is still full of eclectic features such as colonnaded balconies, shuttered windows and rustication.

Buildings such as these, no longer belonging to any of the traditional Pietermaritzburg 'styles', nor having made a final break with the past, are familiar landmarks in the City and would cause an outcry if they were to be demolished. Yet do they 'fit into' the traditional townscape any more than, say, the Anglican Cathedral? Busy detailing and eclectic motifs do not in themselves ensure a sympathetic foil to an historical setting. A more genuinely contemporary style, related to the International 'Modern Movement', now completely free of historical echoes and relying for its aesthetic effect solely on functional design, sleek lines and well proportioned geometric elements, often in white plaster finish, made a very tentative appearance in the late 1930s and 1940s. Two of the earliest and finest examples still stand today: Strathallan, a three-storeyed apartment block in Killarney Terrace, with projecting slabs articulating the floor division and following the agitated outlines of rounded corners and cylindrical bays; and a business block on the corner of Longmarket and West Streets, with similarly rounded corner, projecting slab canopies and a slit bay-window curving back over the flat roof, with porthole windows in the attic. Similar features are found in the University's Science Block.

Two International Mordern Movement buildings in Killarney Terrace.

On the corner of Longmarket and West Street.

The University's Science Block

In much of the City's architecture of the last three decades this international flavour has persisted, though the Gropius-inspired, sparse geometry of white wall surfaces of these pioneering structures often tended to make way for the more weightless look of glazed curtain walls and metal framework structures, as seen at Natalia and the Trust Bank building. It was inevitable that with the acceptance - after a century or more of resistance - of the technological innovations, new materials and design concepts of the international machine age, much intimacy, local character and charm of the past would have to be sacrificed. In Pietermaritzburg this process has as yet had less effect than in cities like Cape Town and Durban. Are there, at this late stage, ways to reverse this process, or at least to minimize its effect?

A number of attempts have been made in the City to create structures that, while not denying their late twentieth century origin, display sensitivity to the character of their older architectural environment. This problem is of course not peculiar to Pietermaritzburg, and some of the best architectural minds in the world have failed to reach any kind of concensus on it. Nor is it likely that many of the participants in our local ugly-building competition would agree on suitable alternatives to the sort of modern buildings they decry.

In near-intact historical townscapes it may be justifiable to erect neutral 'infills' that continue the rhythm in scale and fenestration of the adjoining street elevations, as has been done in war-damaged Middelburg in the Netherlands. Not everyone is happy about such a solution which produces utterly boring structures which are neither genuine period pieces nor good contemporary design, although it does respect the integrity of the older architecture. In any event, Pietermaritzburg, despite its considerable character, does not possess such near-intact townscapes. Let us look at some alternatives as they have been attempted in the City.

The Municipal Buildings and Natalia

The notion that unity of materials would create architectural coherence is a fairly old one, and as the 'white-walled beauty of the Cape' has been translated, with varying degrees of success, into modern design, so too have several architects felt that in the Pietermaritzburg context, red brick would be a prerequisite for architectural harmony. The Municipal Building in Church Street is among the first important examples. As it happens, there are no original red-brick buildings in its immediate vicinity with which to 'fit in'; nor, for that matter does the brick quite match the original local red brick. It is a good building - though somewhat 'sheer' and without links to its setting - but might well have been as successful in a material other than brick. As it now happens, the red brick does establish an effective link with a later building adjoining it: the Supreme Court. Other than the material, neither building contains any formal references to local traditional architecture, the sweeping curves of the walls flanking the Court's parking ramp introduce a rather 'foreign' but nonetheless attractive note in the layout.

The Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, too, makes few concessions to the 'historical character' of the City. It is interesting to reflect why the building, with its sheer cylinder of red brick, nevertheless (in the opinion of many knowledgeable observers, many from elsewhere) works so well and combines so well with old St. Peter's Church facing the street. Perhaps it is precisely because, while standing well back to allow its older neighbour breathing space, it does not try to 'match' the material (shale) and style (Gothic Revival) of St. Peter's. In this way, its unadorned geometry and the even salmon-red of its walls provides the perfect foil for the smaller scale and more ornamented old church with its more broken, darker tones. The wavy brick wall on columns forming 'shop-signs' on the two street fronts are a stroke of genius; they also effectively relate the vast cylinder of the church to its environment, as it were to prepare the visitor for the indeed somewhat overwhelming impact of the building itself.

During the last decade or so the clinical and impersonal character of much of the International Style has led to a reaction, taking on varying forms conveniently labelled 'Post-Modernism'. Though not a style per se, this trend, while retaining contemporary techniques and materials, shows attempts to reintroduce stylistic references to earlier local architecture, often in the form of visual 'puns' or reinterpretation in modern materials: never a slavish copying. With its 'local colour', its sense of humour, human scale and its often irregular shapes it is capable of injecting a welcome note of light relief in the modern townscape. In contrast with the bigger centres in this country, Post-Modernism has not yet made much impact on the Pietermaritzburg scene, but one recent building that could be regarded as a local example seems to be well received. It is '69 Boshoff Street', a small shopping precinct which takes its cue from the local Victorian idiom, with verandas, hipped ventilator roofs with ridge lettering, red brick, while most of its details are soundly contemporary.

Sympathetic Post-Modern architecture.

Yet others might find that such direct references are not essential to a successful coexistence of buildings from different periods. One of the author's favourite 'juxtapositions', bringing out the best in both styles, is the City Hall and the neighbouring Natal Society Library as seen from the new Supreme Court side. It is a fascinating exercise in contrasts, between the fuzzy and fantastical, and the rectilinear and logical (though by no means sterile).

Architectural juxtapositions.

An attractive feature of central Pietermaritzburg is the intimacy and human scale created by the narrow lanes between Church and Longmarket Streets. Their future seems reasonably safe, and the pedestrianization of part of Church Street might complement this feature. But there is no reason why the erection of multi-storey buildings even in this area should necessarily clash with this character. One only has to see how successfully the modern shopping arcade of Shepstone's building blends with the lanes, thus minimizing the scale discrepancy of the building itself.

There is no doubt that the intimacy and charm, and ultimately the quality of life of a city like Pietermaritzburg can be irrevocably eroded by ill-considered modern developments. It is good that inhabitants sensitive to these qualities should try and guard against such influences. But equally important to the quality of life of a city is its harmonious growth, which demands that the present day makes its impact on the city fabric, like any healthy organism constantly renewing itself. The dangers to the city environment and character are not multi-storey office blocks per se, or the bold lines of a new church or courthouse (although these admittedly do call for sensitivity to setting, which is not always evident). The culprits are less easy to identify. Most of these are more insidious than the spectacular erection of the occasional stark modern building. They are the gradual stripping of the streetscene of greenery and other forms of 'texture': such as street furniture, gutter bridges, brick or cast-iron garden walls and the like. They are the infiltration into entire areas of drab, characterless workshops, filling stations and second-hand car lots. Which has done more harm to Pietermaritzburg: Capital Towers or the stretch of Commercial Road between it and the Dorpspruit? Even the controversial red-roofed furniture-store elsewhere in the same street is surely to be preferred to the City's 'Motor Town' nearby? Much irreversible harm has been done even to many of those old buildings which have escaped actual demolition, a process that still continues today, often under the guise of 'restoration'.

Motor town

The historical charm and character of a city like Pietermaritzburg is indeed a precious asset that calls for sensitivity both in its own preservation and in the planning of that which the present day puts next to it or - often inevitably - in its place. But these are tasks that can only be successfully achieved by complementing the best of the past with the best of today. Only then will the built environment which we hand on to another generation have any chance of receiving the same affection that we rightly bestow on our 'old City'.

Contrast in style and scale.

A VICTORIAN TRAVELLER from South Africa (1878) by Anthony Trollope

Pieter Maritzburg is a town covering a large area of ground but is nevertheless sufficiently built up and perfected to prevent that look of scattered failure which is so common to colonial embryo cities. I do not know that it contains anything that can be called a handsome building; - but the edifices whether public or private are neat, appropriate, and sufficient. The town is surrounded by hills, and is therefore, necessarily, pretty. The roadways of the street are good, and the shops have a look of established business. The first idea of Pieter Maritzburg on the mind of a visitor is that of success, and this idea remains with him to the last.

... I liked Pieter Maritzburg very much, - perhaps the best of all South African towns. But whenever I would express such an opinion to a Pieter Maritzburger he would never quite agree with me.

SOURCE: Pietermaritzburg 1838–1988: a new portrait of an African city, edited by John Laband and Robert Haswell (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press and Shuter & Shooter, 1988), pp. 53, 55–8.

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