Stop praying at the altar of the past
Encouraging new architecture will strengthen the heritage and authenticity of our city, writes Rashiq Fataar
THE PROPOSED redevelopment of the city block adjacent to the Fan Walk, which includes the 18th-century Lutheran church complex, has catapulted design to the forefront of debate in Cape Town. And what started as a debate over heritage has rapidly evolved into a broader civic debate on the future of design in Cape Town.
The City of Cape Town recently refused the application for the development of the city block, stating that the SA Heritage Resources Agency hadn’t graded it correctly.
However, it is clear to some that blocking the development merely pacifies the parties who were outraged by the mere thought that old and new architecture can co-exist.
The proposal in its current form includes the construction of a fourstorey building (labelled by some a “high-rise structure”) on top of the existing heritage structure, in the process significantly enhancing its structural integrity, which has been allowed to deteriorate.
But perhaps it’s time we examine where we’ve come from and where we’re going in terms of design in Cape Town. Perhaps it’s an opportunity for Cape Town to become a leading design city, worthy of competing with the 54 other cities bidding to become the 2014 World Design Capital.
The article by Guy Lundy and Mokena Makeka (“Cape Town, it’s time for some iconic architecture”) on the need for a bolder approach to architecture, along with a recent talk about iconic architectural ideas, presented by Jakupa Architects, have sought to challenge traditional and conservative design views. They have cracked open the debate on what Cape Town should look like in the future, and challenged the idea of maintaining the status quo.
Over the past few weeks, through engaging with friends, colleagues, travellers, tourism officials and design fundis, one question has become dominant: “Why can’t we be more like Berlin and mix the old and new?” It is apparent that the juxtaposition of old and new architecture, structures and styles plays a crucial role in strengthening the heritage, authenticity, visual diversity and brand of progressive design cities.
This is of course contrary to the prevailing thought in Cape Town: that the city should not allow any building with heritage characteristics to be developed.
Berlin’s Olympiastadion provides us with an appropriate case study, with a history that dates back to the 1916 Summer Olympic Games. It has been built, demolished and rebuilt, modified, upgraded and finally completely revamped, resulting in the spectacular venue presented to the world during the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany.
As part of its World Cup upgrade, large parts of the interior of the stadium were effectively rebuilt; the first tier was replaced, a new floating roof was added, and the reinforced concrete and stone constructions were completely restored.
“Berlin is the personification of a city where politicians, architects and urban planners worked together to shape the destiny of a city,” says Skye Grove, communications manager of Cape Town Tourism.
“Berlin almost had to compete with its own past in this process, a past which has become both an ‘obstacle’ and a ‘facilitator’ in repositioning the city in a national and global arena”.
The Olympiastadion is, then, a stellar example of this projection of a bold new Berlin through the ambitious and modern development of a heritage site. Can Cape Town not use design in a similar way?
There are hundreds of other examples across the world. What would Lords Cricket ground be these days without its quirky and spaceship-like media centre designed by architects Future Systems? At the time it was a controversial structure, but today an icon in sporting and architecture circles. One can only imagine the outrage and devastation if a similar structure was proposed for Sahara Park in Newlands.
The very fact that the Lutheran block redevelopment proposal is located adjacent to the very new, very popular Fan Walk presents a great opportunity to make a showcase of this building. But how do we get there?
Perhaps it’s time somebody asked some contentious questions. After all, what is heritage? What were the vocal heritage parties doing or saying to make the case for the Lutheran Church block building and other buildings during their long structural deterioration?
Where were they when centuryold mosques in and around Bo-Kaap struggled to raise funds for maintenance? Why are they supine today while the Grand Parade, one of our most important historical spaces, is allowed to decay?
Will these parties vanish after this debate, like the masses of “environmentalists” initially opposed to the Cape Town Stadium?
The timing for this debate is perfect as Cape Town recently submitted its bid to become the 2014 World Design Capital. It is an opportunity to question, challenge and debate its future as a design capital.
I recently browsed through the 450 pages of the candidature file, a document of superb quality. It presented and projected a bold new design future for Cape Town, through its many design projects, designers and thinkers from various walks of life and parts of the world. This was not the Cape Town which aims “to make sure Sir Herbert Baker is never surpassed… freezing our city in a time warp and convey- ing a fear of tomorrow” as Guy Lundy succinctly stated.
Instead it was a collection of ideas, plans and projects geared to “transforming” rather than only “conserving”.
If Cape Town is really to become a design city, it’s time to look forward, to respect our history and heritage, but not be burdened by it, obsessed by maintaining and conserving the status quo.
We need to start asking the right people the right questions if we are to advance. There will surely be mistakes along the way, but with strong leadership from the public and private sectors, and a strong but challenging voice from the public, becoming a design capital is truly achievable.
As Future Cape Town we are calling on all Capetonians to step forward and contribute their ideas. Which spaces would you like to see changed? Should your suburb get its own version of a Fan Walk to the nearest railway station?
What is your vision for City Hall? Should OR Tambo Hall in Khayelitsha be converted into a Convention Centre?
It has taken us a while to get to this point, a point where all Capetonians are given a platform to positively contribute and start asking questions of this kind.
The real threat posed by the redevelopment proposal for a portion of the Lutheran block may be to conservative mindsets, rather than our heritage.
In 2011 we find ourselves at a crossroads between a brave new Cape Town and the status quo. Which Cape Town will we choose?
Visit Future Cape Town at www.futurecapetown.com, via email at email@example.com or follow us as futurecapetown on twitter.
Rashiq Fataar is the founder of Future Cape Town, a website and social media platform which aims to stimulate debate about the future of the city.