It’s old yet ever new in Cape Town
Repurposing old buildings is not a new phenomenon in the country’s oldest city
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa marked a new milestone in the local art scene in September last year. Billed as the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world, it soon drew high volumes of visitors who queued for several hours at a time to catch a glimpse of its treasures.
A romantic part of the museum’s narrative is the tale of how it was created inside a collection of 1924 grain silos and how “adaptive reuse” – repurposing old buildings instead of demolishing them – is the best way forward for a city like Cape Town.
But this is not a new phenomenon in the country’s oldest city.
In and among the ancient and the modern, the Victorian broekie-lace and the bleak facades of apartheid architecture, are pockets of buildings that underwent “adaptive reuse” long before the Zeitz Mocaa came to tower over the arts scene.One example is an old Anglican church built in Woodstock in 1880. Its massive wooden doors and high curved ceilings whisper of its past, but with the adjoining school it is now a striking antique shop, home to an extensive collection ranging from grandiose chandeliers to hat stands.
“We have customers who are decorating their hotels,” said Delos manager Carmen Matthysen. “We have people coming from the winelands who are furnishing grand old farmhouses. We also have the very wealthy who are simply decorating their houses. We even have film companies hiring props from us.”Then there are older women who come to the store and reminisce about when they were pupils there before the school closed in 2001.
Larger adaptive reuse projects are not without their tensions, especially in a city where land is a highly contested issue. Oude Molen Eco Village, which used to be part of Valkenberg Hospital in Pinelands, is a case in point.For now, it is a collection of old buildings in various states of repair and disrepair. Some are being used as work spaces, a restaurant, a play zone and a theatre, but others look like they belong in a warzone.A history of conflicting interests and a breakdown in communication has haunted the land since the last so-called “non-white” Valkenberg patients were moved from the site on the eve of apartheid’s demise.
The Western Cape government wants to use Oude Molen as part of the proposed public-private Cape Health Technology Park. According to development plans, the site would ultimately re-emerge as part of a modern structure occupied by pharmaceutical company Biovac.
The plans include a three-storey hi-tech lab, a modern office building and a large innovation centre.
However, those already using the land are fighting the plan, calling the proposed development an “excessive building footprint” with a “profit-driven approach” that would “only benefit an exclusive shareholder investment group” and one which “does not recognise the immense heritage, social, cultural, environmental, and tourism value for the site”.Another old building stuck in limbo is the Werdmuller Centre in Claremont. When it was designed by Roelof Uytenbogaart in the 1960s, it was praised as a masterpiece of modernism inspired by the work of Le Corbusier.
Today it stands empty, its crumbling basement filled with water and its walls covered by iron sheets to prevent the homeless reusing it as a shelter.
Other than being used as a movie set from time to time, it has no purpose other than to spark tension between those who see it as an eyesore hogging a crucial nexus between Claremont’s shopping hub, public transport and major routes, and those who say it is an architectural gem.The building has escaped two demolition attempts, in 2007 and 2012 and, according to The Thought Company, an online learning resource, “adaptive reuse is a way to save a neglected building that might otherwise be demolished. The practice can also benefit the environment by conserving natural resources and minimising the need for new materials.”
Adaptive reuse began in the US in the mid-1960s, it said, and now “the idea of preservation is much more ingrained in society and reaches beyond commercial properties changing use”.