Butchering buildings across SA


South Africa is an architectural jewellery box of delights.

Architecture changes, that much we know.

Buildings come and buildings go: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian preceded Art Nouveau, then Art Deco, Modernism and Brutalism followed.

So where on earth does Sandton Italianate and Benoni Neo-Grecian fit into the canon?

Here we are in post-modern 2017, and South Africa is the most curious place, buildings-wise. We still have structures you cannot ignore, from the Herbert Baker stone darlings to painted Ndebele huts to Ponte punctuating the skyline like a middle finger.

We have hidden Streamline Moderne treasures – recognised as such by aficionados across the world – and Cape Dutch homesteads and colonial Randlord mansions.

We even boast some truly thoughtful green buildings.

South Africa is an architectural jewel-box of delights. Or should be. Yet I drive down the main street of my hometown and the glorious sandstone Barclays building, with its imposing facade and bullet holes from the 1922 miners’ strike, is now bright blue.

The old Art Deco cinema has been “renovated” into a bland church, beyond redemption, and then there are the buildings we have lost completely, and the buildings we are losing every day.

Each time I look it seems another stretch of early- and mid-century architecture has been flattened to make way for something new, be it a Tuscan-kitsch complex of overpriced townhouses, or a Riviera-lite palace, or another insipid, colonnaded office park.

My old neighbourhood was once all 1930s single-storey houses, with corrugated roofs, verandas, pressed ceilings and wooden floors.

Now block after block is transformed into something that is a bit of everything, and yet nothing at all.

We have Romanesque palaces, French villas, triple-storeys, porticoed driveways, and flashy Fort Knox fortifications.

An Uber-trip through Johannesburg shows much the same: a hillside once replete with the sort of post-war modernist houses the rest of the world is going gaga for – anything with parquet floors and wide, airy spaces is worth celebrating – is now refashioned into mansions the size of boutique hotels, or replaced by townhouses in shades of greige.

It doesn’t try to embrace a new African aesthetic. You could call it progress, but is it really, when diamonds are crushed and replaced with forgery?

Jennie Ridyard

Jennie Ridyard

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