The architecture of Cape Town
Cape Town is truly one of the most eclectic cities in the world when it comes to architectural design. Along a single street, its inhabitants experience everything from traditional Dutch gables to striking art deco facades. It is here, among other locations around the country, that we at DesignScape Architects have made ourselves a home. This city boasts an amalgamation of every architectural style – making it a true melting-pot of design thought and culture. In just a few minutes of reading, check out our first installment of the fascinating architecture of Cape Town.
A deep dive into the Cape’s architecture
If the architecture of the Cape could be summed up in one term, the appropriate word would be ‘unique’. Unlike the structures found in other major cities such as Rome, London, and New York – there is nothing homogenous about the buildings in Cape Town. In many cases, care has been taken to create a sense of uniformity between the old and new buildings. Nevertheless, in many of these instances, the striking natural landscape of the region creates even more design challenges that undoubtedly affect the architecture of the city.
Between the sheer variety of traditional architectural ideas, hybrids of these ideas, as well as ideas belonging exclusively to the Western Province, it is no wonder that Cape Town’s architectural identity can only be described as ‘unique’. From a design point of view, Cape Town is an ever-evolving puzzle that architects must continually attempt to solve. However, it is this puzzling nature itself that creates moments of architectural significance experienced all across the city. To further understand exactly how these magical moments work, we first have to understand the very roots of the city – many of which were formed in the midst of South Africa’s dark colonial past.
Before the first colonial settlement was erected under the Dutch occupation in 1652, there was of course an architectural fabric already established across the Western Cape. This fabric took the form of the built environment of the Khoi and San people. Even though the Khoi were nomadic, their architectural identity was still highly distinctive – characterised by a beautifully systematic approach to portable housing. Food and water resources were never guaranteed to be long-lasting, so houses had to be easy to collapse and re-erect. To do so, young, flexible trees – known as saplings – were used to construct simple dome-like structures which were then wrapped with woven reed mats.
These mats were developed to allow for shade and adequate ventilation during the hottest of summer days, as well as sufficient insulation and shelter during cold and windy evenings. Rain would also cause these reeds to naturally swell – automatically sealing gaps that would otherwise allow water inside. For extra insulation, the skins of livestock were used to line the dome’s interior – which is directly comparable to the use of synthetic insulation in our homes today. In each Khoi-Khoi village there were enough of these structures to house approximately 100 people – meaning that wherever a village settled, there would be a beautiful complex of dome-like structures scattered across an otherwise untouched South African landscape.
At a larger scale, the San and Khoi- Khoi had a clear hierarchical structure to their society, which would manifest itself physically into their architecture. The hierarchical position was often determined by the number of cattle one owned. A significant amount of cattle owned would result in larger home structures and animal enclosures built in a particular section of the greater village circle – affecting the overall morphology of the development. As a result, spatial provisions were made to accommodate those considered to be of greater importance. The architecture of the Khoi-Khoi was layered, considered, and significant to the development of the architecture seen in Cape Town today.
Cape Dutch architecture
It wasn’t long after the arrival of the Dutch that the pure European architectural expression had to evolve to meet the environmental demands of the Western Cape region. The European School of Thought concerning architecture, such as ideas promoting the efficiency of rectilinear building plans, would eventually begin to adopt characteristics of surrounding areas and local building methods. This would soon give rise to the very first iterations of ‘Cape Dutch’ architecture. The Cape Dutch typology is beautifully uncomplicated in its design.
It is, at its very core, comparable to a simple country house. Where the rationale was, in the past, governed by a more urban context, the Dutch architectural designs were no longer constrained by tight site boundaries, and could instead ‘loosen up’ as they spread out into the open South African landscape. With that being said – Cape Dutch buildings still typically employed rudimentary ‘T’, ‘H’, or ‘U-shaped’ plan layouts for ease of construction and simplicity of interior planning. When it came to materials, usable wood for construction was often scarce in the Western Cape.
Architects had to adapt and turn to local building techniques to solve the looming demands of the harsh Cape climate. Thatch Roofing, similar to the woven reed mats employed in Khoi architecture, was found to be the perfect solution. Thatch was well-adapted to the climate which saw sunshine all-year-round, with little rainfall except during the winter months. As previously mentioned, thatch provided shade and breathability, as well as sufficient insulation and protection. The thatch would be set at an incline of at least 50° to ensure swift water run-off, leaving no time for liquids to seep into the roof. As a by-product, this steep angle would contribute greatly to the overall verticality of Cape Dutch architecture and its elaborately designed gables.
This brings us to the most stand-out feature of the Cape Dutch home which cannot go unmentioned – the central gable. The term ‘gable’ usually refers to the bookend-type walls found on the two shorter ends of a rectilinear building. These gables appear on the very front of the facade, in the middle of the rectangle’s length – directly above the door. They have a purely decorative function. The designs of these gables vary significantly, from the rare “stepped gable” (where the edge of the gable rises in orthogonal increments), to the more common elaborate scrolled designs.
Most Cape Dutch gables followed the original design principles of architects from the Netherlands and Belgium – with the exception of the building’s finish. The vast majority of buildings found in the Netherlands and Belgium feature exposed brick facades, whereas Cape Dutch buildings are covered with a white lime-washed plaster – creating an entirely new aesthetic and overall architectural identity. They also feature far simpler gables on the shorter sides of the rectangular plan – serving as ‘bookends’ to the thatch roof.
Furthermore, these buildings almost always feature a central front door, which serves as the centrepiece of the design and is often decorated by elaborate wood carving. On either side of this centrepiece, one can usually find adjacent windows that are exactly half the size of the other flanking windows on the facade. These doors varied between large, single-leaf doors and ‘stable’ doors which were divided in the middle to allow the top half to open up during hot summer days. In addition, these doors would, in many cases, feature a fanlight directly above them, with a further full-size window situated directly above that.
Another noteworthy aspect of Cape Dutch architecture is its clear horizontality. In almost every case, buildings adhering to this style feature a width that visibly exceeds its height. This gives the impression that the building is a part of the landscape in which it finds itself, and will remain that way for a very long time. In front of these large, wide buildings often lies a ‘stoop’, which runs the full length of the facade, raising the structure above the natural ground level as it does so. On either end of this stoop, seating can be found as an extension of the end-gables, and in the centre of it – a brief staircase leads down from the main entrance of the building.
The Cape Dutch architectural identity has become inextricably associated with Winelands, farm culture – and of course, colonisation. It can be hard to look past the charming designs of the grandiose gables with the knowledge that in the past, they were used to represent slave-owning families. This opens a larger discourse surrounding architecture and its meaning and begs questions such as: is architecture and spatial design independent of its history? Should we still enjoy the quaint Cape Dutch farm stalls once we recognise their oppressive history? These are the problems that today’s Capetonian architects must endeavour to address and solve – so that architectural interventions designed today might be an appropriate bridge to the future.
The influence of Sir Herbert Baker
By the late 19th century, after the arrival of the British, Cape Dutch architecture had become somewhat of a neglected vernacular. One architect, however, saw its potential to (in his mind) help unify South Africa’s built environment under a single architectural identity. The architect in question was Sir Herbert Baker. Baker arrived in South Africa in 1892 and quickly became acquainted with the Cape’s high society – including members such as Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes would go on to commission Baker remodel the Groote Schuur estate – which would be Baker’s first real experience designing Cape Dutch architecture. The style would continue to serve as a major informant to his later work.
Baker grew to love the country, taking a particular fancy to the Cape Dutch homes of the Western Province. This was one contributing reason that led to his decision to stay in South Africa and establish his own architectural practice. From then on, he undertook work in widespread parts of the country including Durban, Grahamstown, King William’s Town, Bloemfontein, George and Oudtshoorn, and even in Rhodesia. Rhodes had a significant influence on Baker’s work – as a result of financial incentive and societal standing.
This made Baker a proponent of Rhode’s ideas. Rhodes considered classicism as a means of expressing imperialism, and he employed it to represent the British Empire’s strength. Traces of this classicism can be seen in many of Baker’s South African buildings, from St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town to the Union Buildings in Pretoria. However, this is perhaps best demonstrated in the design of The Rhodes Memorial. This building ultimately represents the paradigm shift that occurred in the mind of Baker, showcasing his true penchant for imperialism in a design that would serve as the standard for all his monumental architecture to come, and the reason the architecture of Cape Town is overtly colonial.
The story so far
The aforementioned architectural developments serve as a starting point for understanding the basis of contemporary Capetonian architecture and how Cape Town evolved into the city it is today. South Africa’s indigenous architecture influenced the construction of Cape Dutch buildings, and these buildings would later influence the designs of Sir Herbert Baker, one of the most prominent colonial architects in the history of our country. The Cape Dutch vernacular massively influenced the built environment of Cape Town, from the overall aesthetic of the suburban areas on the outskirts of the city bowl to the entire urban morphology of Cape Town in cases such as the Castle of Good Hope. Look out for the second installment of this blog, in which we’ll delve into even more topics in our journey to investigate the architecture of Cape Town.
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