Arts and Culture

Love, hate and the most eccentric edifice in Cape Town

Sean O' Toole

The Mother City's delicious monster faces the threat of demolition. Who will help the historic Werdmuller Centre to save itself?

Dysfunctional: Despite the building’s ramps, the wheelchair-bound cannot get around. Photo: Gaelen Pinnock

Originating near the ­historic Grand Parade, Cape Town’s functionally named Main Road follows an arcing easterly route around the bulge of Devil’s Peak before composing itself and becoming a drunk’s version of a straight line as its heads south to ­Muizenberg.

A perennially congested traffic route, where the taxi crier’s voice is its own kind of urban birdsong, the road neatly bisects Claremont.

For at least four decades, commercial property owners in the area, a prim residential and business enclave in the southern suburbs, have used Main Road to delineate an intractable problem.

Here’s a scenario drawn from fact. Two internet cafés open on adjacent sides of Main Road. Where the owner of the business closer to the mountain pays R180/m2 rental, his competitor across the road forks out only R30.

But this long-standing anomaly doesn’t really account for why the Werdmuller Centre, an eccentric mixed-use shopping centre that opened in 1975 on the scuzzier side of the so-called San Andreas Fault, is boarded up.

Designed by Cape Town-born architect Roelof Uytenbogaardt for Old Mutual, which named its modernist showpiece after former chairperson George Werdmuller, there is in fact no single conclusive reason why this polarising building ­– it is loved and hated in equal measure – failed. There are only possibilities, a rich and interlinked set of possibilities that offer a way of better understanding some of the bunkered qualities of our local suburbia.

But first, let’s focus on the Werdmuller ­– or "Weirdmuller", as it is known to some. There are many people who have an opinion on why it failed, more so now that the building’s owner, New Property Ventures (NPV), is seeking the necessary state approval to demolish it so that it can replace the hobbled centre with a more commercially efficient design. These opinions could fill a book. Here’s a truncated ­summary:

  •  Old Mutual didn’t really know what it wanted when it originally approached Uytenbogaardt in the late 1960s, and it also kept shifting the goalposts by acquiring more land, which the architect had to incorporate into his original plan;
  • The building was essentially an experiment in mall-making at a time before the form and circulation dynamics of our current shopping cathedrals were set locally – and ­experiments do often fail;
  •  It was a hubristic example of high Euro-American architecture ­– raw concrete on stilts, softened by the odd delicious monster plant – grafted on to a deeply Anglicised community where broekie lace and roses are a kind of ideology;
  • The architect’s quixotic allocation of space, which included ­numerous entranceways, elevated ramps and dramatic light wells, didn’t maximise the potential of the 6 451m2 site and ultimately provided insufficient rental stock;
  • Informal traders, a key part of the original design rationale of this "democratic building", were never able to become stakeholders after Claremont was declared a whites-only area in the early 1970s and 19 000 people were forcibly removed from the suburb;
  • The building was visually intimidating, maze-like and fundamentally difficult to navigate on foot;
  • For suburbanites attuned to the logic of the car, the centre was an anomaly: it only had 15 parking bays, all of them reserved for tenants;
  • Its many nooks and crannies functioned as makeshift urinals and posed innumerable security headaches for the centre’s management;
  • It didn’t have a Pick n Pay or Checkers among its original 49 stores, only a Beares, with the furniture chain’s vacated floor space occupied by an evangelical church during the centre’s last years; and
  • Like so many signature pieces of avant-garde architecture globally, it leaked during the rainy season. In a way, this badge of merit settled the building’s status as an icon of awkwardness.

‘It was a bit creepy for people not familiar with the place," said Alistair Andrews. "It wasn’t the most beautiful space. I can’t imagine what the architect was thinking."

A well-known bassist whose releases include the gospel album Your Unconditional Love and newer world music offering Rainbow Music, Andrews worked at the Werdmuller for nearly a decade before his employer, Paul Bothner Music, vacated the now derelict building.

"What made that place really was Bothners," said Port Elizabeth-born Andrews. "Musicians gave it a vibe."

Having worked at the centre at the same time as the Church-on-Main occupied the upper reaches of the cylindrical retail precinct, he said the building became an eyesore in its latter years as Old Mutual "did nothing to ­maintain it".

I asked Andrews which song or album he thought musically evoked the dystopian building. Dark Side of the Moon, he replied. Like Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, the Werdmuller was ­– until Old Mutual boarded it up in 2010 – a moody refuge for curious late-adolescents.

Bridget Impey, who from 1983 to 2001 worked for David Philip Publishers, a long-term tenant of the Werdmuller, recalls encountering architectural students on pilgrimages to the building.

"It was a crazy building," said Impey. "All our warehouses had L-shaped entrances. It made it impossible to use forklifts. It was completely unusable. Despite all its ramps, if you were in a wheelchair, you couldn’t get from one side to another."

Impey’s workplace was situated in the business annexe at the rear of the building. She recalls Nicholas Combrinck, whose imprint was amalgamated with David Philip’s ­progressive publishing house, having an office that was furnished to look like an "avant-garde New York office".

"The building needed that sort of sensibility to make it work," said Impey.

More formally rectilinear, the rear offices were a late addition to the Werdmuller. An elevated bridge connected them to the ailing retail section that fronted on to Main Road.

"Safety was never a problem," she said. "The most dangerous thing about the Werdmuller was the taxi wars at the taxi rank, which was much more rough-and-ready and not as formalised as now. Taxi drivers would do wheelies and fire their guns. But our biggest security problem was the police: being a publisher, we would get knocks on the door from the Special Branch."

There is an opposing view to this fond remembrance. In an impact report submitted to Heritage Western Cape (HWC) by Ashley Lillie, a heritage specialist contracted by building owner NPV, security is routinely flagged as a problem.

"Designed as a permeable structure that allows access from all sides, this permeability led to security problems," reads one passage in the report, which was requested by HWC in 2011.

The report also quotes Bruce Ballard, a quantity surveyor who worked for Old Mutual and wrote his own report on the Werdmuller in 2007. "A successful retail centre must provide shoppers with a quality shopper experience: convenience, security, style, the right tenant mix and first-class management," declared Ballard. "Werdmuller Centre lacks all of these."

This view was forcefully reiterated at a public consultation meeting convened by NPV in November.

"We are here because of a strange anomaly in the Heritage Resources Act, which requires that any development that will change the character of a site exceeding 5 000m2 in extent requires what is called a notification of intent to the responsible resources authority," elaborated Lillie, a man with full head of grey hair and ­hawkish nose.

Seated next to Lillie was Mike Nixon, the British-born owner of NPV. A straight-talking businessman with a balding crown, Nixon made an unsuspensive offer for the Werdmuller and two other Old Mutual properties in a bundled purchase. He sees great potential in the site, currently an impermeable barrier to pedestrians heading to the adjacent bus, taxi and train termini.

"From a formal point of view, this building is unique," remarked Nixon after the public consultation with about two dozen architectural preservationists was concluded. He wore frameless glasses, sports coat, jeans and brown shoes capable of navigating both boardrooms and construction sites. "But," he qualified, "that does not give it the necessary significance to be a blight on the landscape. I think common sense will prevail and, hopefully, we will get the right answer and produce something that is meaningful to Claremont."

Nixon has many allies. They include Abdul Kerbelker, the executive manager of the Claremont Improvement District Company. Speaking during the consultation, he conceded that Claremont had done little to address memory and heritage. But the Werdmuller had to go.

"We hear the sentiments of architects and practitioners, but we also see 15 000 people blocked off from this building," said Kerbelker, whose organisation supports the demolition.

The mall, that strange cipher of modern culture, is a relatively recent invention. In the United States, where the car and an increasingly dispersed ­urbanism laid the foundation for new satellite shopping centres, malls were key markers of post-war plenty.

Uytenbogaardt, a star student who attained his bachelor of architecture degree at the University of Cape Town in 1956, enjoyed a close-up view of boom-era US prosperity when, in 1958, he enrolled for ­postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

By the time he returned to Cape Town in 1963, the mall concept had already taken root locally. According to Nigel Mandy in his book A City Divided (1984), one of the first developers to recognise the potential of this new urban form was Cecil Behrmann.

Born in 1908, a product of Parktown Boys’ High School and the University of the Witwatersrand, during the war years Behrmann served as a police reservist "doing guard duty by driving around the northern suburbs at night". These drives allowed Behrmann, who began his property dealings in the late 1920s, to map the tentative pathways of Johannesburg’s early northern sprawl. One site with retail potential that impressed him was Rosebank.

After Rosebank became the prime fashionable shopping district north of the city, Behrmann looked south. Completed in 1961 and comprising 15 shops supporting a Checkers store, Southdale is said to be South Africa’s first "true suburban shopping centre". Unlike the Werdmuller, which was never adapted during its lifetime, Southdale has been extended ­several times.

Behrmann’s most famous achievement, however, is Hyde Park Corner in Johannesburg. Opened in 1969 and paired with related townhouse developments, this patrician mall was the country’s first fully enclosed shopping centre. Aware of these trends, Old Mutual commissioned a similarly inward-looking shopping centre in close proximity to the Werdmuller. Opened in September 1973, Cavendish Square was Cape Town’s first shopping mall, and is now the rich and successful cousin to the ­destitute Werdmuller.

‘We are losing the historic ­perspective." Architect Heinrich Wolff is addressing a group of mostly white men seated inside the offices of the Cape Institute for Architecture (Cifa). "The first malls in South Africa happened in the 1960s. When Roelof [Uytenbogaardt] came to this, it was a new idea of rearranging shopping and taking it away from the road.

"There were all sorts of experiments, and Old Mutual engaged in these experiments. Why did they build Werdmuller and Cavendish at the same time? They didn’t know what worked. It was an experiment."

It was at Wolff’s suggestion that I began to track the story of the Werdmuller. A Roodepoort-born architect who trained under Uytenbogaardt at the University of Cape Town, Wolff has light-blue eyes and an unapologetic manner. A snatch of conversation from a December Cifa meeting convened to debate and respond to Lillie’s heritage impact report is instructive.

"As a piece of sculpture it is okay," remarked architect Simeon Peerutin, currently Cifa’s president. "But it never functioned effectively from the beginning. How do we as architects say that this piece of sculpture should be retained or reused when many people far more skilled than me have tried?"

"At the time it was developed, it was intended to be inventive and experimental," a female voice responded.

"It didn’t work," replied Peerutin.

"It is a prime example of how not to do an economic building," interjected a male voice from the floor. "It is a total and utter failure as a retail and economic model. It will never make money in its current form."

"Parts of it are significant," insisted Fabio Todeschini, an emeritus professor at the school of architecture, planning and geomatics at UCT, who also worked with Uytenbogaardt on the design of the Werdmuller.

Sensing an unproductive drift in the debate, the chair interjected: "The architectural profession might shoot itself in the foot by promoting the retention of a building that cannot be used."

‘Quite the contrary," countered Wolff angrily. "I think the architectural profession can prove its impotence by not staking a claim to this building. If the architectural profession says we cannot imagine this thing being used in a sensible way, it is our failure."

"I agree," responded Todeschini. (He would later angrily shout at Peerutin before storming out of the meeting: "I’m embarrassed by our president. Thank Christ I consider myself a defunct architect.")

"If we say there is nothing we can do, we are saying we are a fairly pathetic bunch of people who, when faced with any kind of a challenge, will give up," said Wolff. His comment prompted a guttural consensus from the floor.

It was an inconclusive consensus. No summary was offered. A request to view Cifa’s formal response to Lillie’s report went unanswered. Heritage Western Cape’s decision is still pending.

‘The Werdmuller is a story of a particular journey for us," said architect Mokena Makeka, an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York, when I met him recently at his Cape Town office.

The Werdmuller might well be a commercial failure, he agrees, but inability to generate sufficient rental income is not the only formula for assessing its value. Like Wolff and many others, he advocates adaptive reuse.

"Put up a glass box that goes however high, with its own circulation," he offered. "You allow the developer to realise value without necessarily having to demolish it."

It is one way to address the many opposing arguments. Makeka thinks it is the Werdmuller’s ability to draw attention to wider contextual problems in our society that makes it such a compelling building.

"It disrupts the traditional control model of commerce," said Makeka. "It breaks a lot of rules and is almost a political statement about the extent to which you allow capitalism unfettered control of the human body."

Artist Ângela Ferreira agrees. In 2010, she exhibited an interactive wood and steel sculpture portraying the Werdmuller. She was born in Maputo and, after her family relocated to Cape Town in her childhood, she found consolation in the eccentric planes and volumes of the building ­– it reminded her of home.

"I think this building is an ­incredible laboratory, and just for that it should be preserved," said Ferreira, who now lives in Lisbon. "The building has always been an attempt at a new society. The fact that it remains a failure runs parallel to the fact that in many ways South Africa’s reinvention of itself hasn’t always met the expectations of a new society. A lot of the achievements of the new South African social order are still hampered by the fact that South Africa has to be servile to autocratic Western capitalism."

Wolff was helpful in summarising Makeka and Ferreira. "Malls are a good way of making money, but they are not a good way to make a city," he told me one day in his Bo-Kaap studio. Uytenbogaardt wanted architecture to have an impact on the city, so his idealistic building reached outwards, but found few takers.

It is hard to know how much longer his inadvertent monument to experimental thinking will hold out given the determined economic logic that drives contemporary Claremont, a suburb with Sandton aspirations. A panel of heritage specialists will decide its future.

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