In 1975 an avant-garde shopping mall in Cape Town’s affluent southern suburbs opened and marketed itself as “the place for people”. Now derelict, the building’s failure and possible demolition is being fiercely debated

Words by Sean O'Toole | 20 May, 2014

He would have failed his first-year studies with that building,” says Marie Philip. She laughs. The retired publisher is seated in her Kenilworth apartment recalling her two decades as a tenant of Cape Town’s famously polarising Werdmuller Centre, an eccentric mixed-use shopping mall designed in the high modernist style and opened in 1975. Currently abandoned, its entrances boarded up, the mall’s new owner is in the process of securing state approval to demolish the building, a fact that has prompted a fierce critical backlash by architectural enthusiasts and heritage activists. Philip does not form part of this motley group of activists, whose statements and opinions draw attention to a particular moment in the history of South African cities. This is largely why I sought her out, to retrieve an embedded user narrative. “There wasn’t the remotest consideration for people using the building,” offers Philip. “It was an anti-people building.”

Philip, together with her husband David, a former Oxford University Press employee who lent his name to the new imprint, David Philip Publishers, initially only rented warehouse space in the Werdmuller. In 1978, the publishing pair, together with two staff, moved into an office situated in the business annex at the rear of the building. One of a handful of committed anti-apartheid publishers, Philip effortlessly, without malice, enumerates some of the building’s many faults: its dramatic walkways, which often confused visitors, were deathly slippery in the rain; like so many signature pieces of avant-garde architecture globally, it leaked during the rainy season and its warehouses were prone to flooding; its split-level office spaces were traversed with an awkward spiral staircase; it alienated shoppers; and so on. “It didn’t fail on all counts,” concedes Philip. “The office spaces had high ceilings, good views of the Hottentots Holland mountain range and a lovely terrace.”

As part of their stake in the building, David Philip Publishers opened a retail bookshop. “It didn’t work,” says Philip. The reason: a lack of foot traffic between Main Road and the railway station behind the office block. “It was a hostile building and people didn’t feel welcome.” Philip remembers an early tenant: Roelof Uytenbogaardt, a well-known Cape Town architect and the building’s designer. Her only transaction with him was via an angry letter Uytenbogaardt left on her car windscreen when Philip parked in the architect’s bay. This highlights another fault: celebrated by some as an early experiment in mall-making, the Werdmuller only offered 15 parking bays, all of them reserved for tenants. For suburbanites attuned to the logic of the car, the centre’s reserved parking bays acted like an injunction: shop elsewhere, where they have a parkade preferably.

Commissioned by the blue chip insurer Old Mutual, who named its modernist showpiece after former chairman George Werdmuller, there is no single conclusive reason why this adjective-inspiring building in the prim southern suburb of Claremont failed. Rather, and this is key, there is only a series of possibilities, a rich and interlinked set of possibilities that, in their totality, offer one way to account for the bunkered qualities of South Africa’s urban areas, notably in Cape Town and Johannesburg. But let me focus on the Werdmuller first. There are many people who have an opinion on why this dramatically sculptural building failed, more so now that its current owner, New Property Ventures, is looking to demolish it. Here’s a truncated summary, which I have loosely ordered chronologically:

1) Old Mutual didn’t really know what they wanted when, in the late 1960s, they approached Uytenbogaardt, a star student who attained his Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1956 and later studied under architects Robert Venturi and Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania;

2) The mall’s commissioner, Old Mutual, also kept shifting the goalposts by acquiring more land, which they unfairly forced the architect to incorporate into his original plan, rather than allowing him to start it afresh with the revised allocation;

3) Uytenbogaardt also didn’t quite know how to proceed as the building represented an emerging urban typology from a time before the form and circulation dynamics of these secular cathedrals was set, especially locally;

4) it was a hubristic example of high Euro-American architecture—raw concrete on stilts softened by the odd delicious monster—grafted onto a deeply Anglicised community where decorative embellishments like cast iron broekie-lace and neatly trimmed roses still function as a kind of ersatz ideology;

5) the architect’s quixotic allocation of space, which included numerous entranceways, elevated ramps and dramatic light wells, didn’t adequately maximise the potential of the 6451m2 site and ultimately provided insufficient rental stock for its owner;

6) it didn’t have the draw of a name brand retailer amongst its 49 retail stores, no Pick n Pay, neither a Checkers, only a Bears, the furniture chain’s vacated floor space occupied by an evangelical church during the Werdmuller’s last inglorious years;

7) its many nooks and crannies functioned as makeshift urinals, and also posed security headaches for the centre’s management, especially during the 1990s, as rivalries between taxi associations using an adjoining plot of land spilled over into public violence; and

8) perhaps decisively, local history was at odds with sound and efficient urban design principles, with informal traders—a key part of the original design rationale of this notionally “democratic” building—unable to become stakeholders in the Werdmuller after Claremont was declared a whites-only area in the early 1970s and its non-white residents forcibly evicted.

Malls are purpose-defined objects, often ruthlessly so: they promote buying and selling. It is the sine qua non of their existence

Having never visited the Werdmuller during its operating lifetime—I arrived in Cape Town in 2008, by which time Old Mutual were seeking permission to demolish the scrappily occupied building—it is hard to know how much emphasis to place on the various reasons cited for the building’s failure. So, as a way of contextualising the often-instrumental views of architects, developers and academics, I decided to try and sketch a character profile of this inanimate object, ungraciously dubbed by some as the “Weirdmuller”. What did its users experience? It is a question central to approaching the city as an open and generative field of encounter, rather than as an obstacle course of pre-defined problems.

“It was a bit creepy for people not familiar with the place,” says Alistair Andrews. “It wasn’t the most beautiful space, you know. I can’t imagine what the architect was thinking when he designed that place.” A well-known bassist whose releases include the gospel album Your Unconditional Love (2000) and newer world music offering Rainbow Music(2009), 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,” thinks PE-born Andrews, who is also a member of the Oyama Bonsai Club. “A lot of musicians used to come there and make it a vibe.” A worker at the centre at the same time as Andrews and Fiona Thomson’s Church-on-Main occupied the upper reaches of the cylindrical retail precinct, Andrew says the building became “a sight for sore eyes” in its latter years as Old Mutual did “nothing to maintain it”. I asked Andrews which song or album he thinks musically evokes this dystopian building. “Dark Side of the Moon,” he replied.

Like Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, the Werdmuller was—until Old Mutual boarded it up—a moody refuge for curious late adolescents. Bridget Impey, the Johannesburg publisher who from 1983 to 2001 worked for David Philip Publishers, recalls encountering architectural students on their routine pilgrimages to building. “It was a crazy building,” says Impey. “All our warehouses had L-shaped entrances. It made it impossible to use forklifts in them. It was completely unusable. Despite all its ramps, if you were in a wheelchair you couldn’t get from one side to another.” Impey recalls Nicholas Combrinck, whose imprint was acquired by David Philip, 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,” offers Impey.

More formally rectilinear, the rear offices were a late addition to the Werdmuller. An elevated bridge connected them to the ailing retail section. “Safety was never a problem,” says Impey, challenging an often-repeated reason for the building’s failure. “The most dangerous thing about the Werdmuller were 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 progressive 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 authored by Ashley Lillie, a heritage specialist contracted by New Property Ventures, and submitted to Heritage Western Cape (HWC), security is routinely flagged as a problem. “Designed as a permeable structure that allowed 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 published a 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,” wrote Ballard. “The Werdmuller Centre is lacking all of these.”

This view was forcefully reiterated at a public consultation meeting convened by NPV in November 2013, held in the gutted interior of the Werdmuller’s retail precinct. A red interior wall displayed a lone piece of graffiti. “We will miss you” it read. The meeting, a legal requirement when seeking heritage approval for a demolition, was by Sadia Chand, of Chand Environmental Consultants, offering a full range of environmental, sustainability and risk management services. Chand, who wore a slim-fitting black evening dress, also specialises in public participation processes. “Tonight we’re going Ally McBeal style: unisex toilets,” she offered, her speaking voice exhibiting marked American inflections.

There wasn’t the remotest consideration for people using the building ... It was an anti-people building

After detailing the “terms of engagement”, she introduced Lillie, a man with a full head of grey hair and hawkish nose.

“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 5000m2 in extent requires what is called a notification of intent to the responsible resources authority,” he elaborated. Seated next to Lillie was Mike Nixon, the British-born owner of NPV. Nixon is the straight talking businessman with balding crown who made an un-suspensive offer for the Werdmuller and two other Old Mutual properties in a bundled purchase. For his audience with some two-dozen members of the public he wore frameless glasses, sport coat, jeans and brown shoes made for navigating boardrooms and construction sites.

“From a formal point of view this building is unique,” remarked Nixon after the stage-managed public interaction had been concluded. “But that does not give it the necessary significance to be a blight on the landscape. I don’t believe it does. I think common sense will prevail and hopefully we will get the right answer and produce something that is meaningful to Claremont.” Nixon has a strategic ally in Abdul Kerbelker. Near the end of the public consultation, Kerbelker, executive manager of the Claremont Improvement District Company—a management company representing local property owners’ interests—emphasised the interruption posed by the building that sits in the middle of a busy transport interchange. “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 US, where the automobile and dispersed urbanism laid the foundations for new satellite shopping centres, malls were key markers of postwar plenty. Uytenbogaardt enjoyed a close-up view of boom-era US prosperity when, in 1958, he enrolled in his postgraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Louis Kahn once told me that Roelof was the best student ever to have graduated from Penn,” remarked Glen Gallagher, a founding member of Johannesburg practice GAPP Architects and Urban Designers, in 2005. By the time Uytenbogaardt 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 and Wits University, during the war years Behrmann served as a police reservist “doing guard duty by driving around the northern suburbs at night”. These drives allowed him to map the tentative pathways of Johannesburg’s early northern sprawl. One site particularly impressed him: it was located at the southwestern corner of Oxford Road and Tyrwhitt Avenue in Rosebank, an upscale residential enclave that has been transformed into bustling mixed-use neighbourhood, albeit retaining its patrician character. 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, 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 to account for new growth and lessons drawn from consumer behaviour. Behrmann’s most famous achievement is however Hyde Park Corner. Opened in 1969 and built in tandem with related townhouses, this upper-class mall was the country’s first fully enclosed shopping centre. Aware of these up-country trends, Old Mutual, a bastion of Cape Town’s seemingly unshakable Anglophile manners, commissioned a similarly inward-looking shopping centre in close proximity to Werdmuller. Opened in September 1973, Cavendish Square was Cape Town’s first shopping mall. It is now also the rich and successful cousin to the destitute Werdmuller opposite Main Road—or the San Andreas Fault, as commercial property owners disparagingly refer to this road, which originates near the historic Grand Parade in central Cape Town.

“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 SA happened in the 1960s. When Roelof 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 do they build Werdmuller and Cavendish at the same time? They didn’t know what worked. It is an experiment.”

It was at Wolff’s suggestion that I began to track the story of the Werdmuller. Born in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg, and trained as an architect by Uytenbogaardt in Cape Town, Wolff has light blue eyes. He speaks with unapologetic directness and intelligence. A snatch of conversation from a December 2013 CiFA meeting convened to debate and respond to Lillie’s heritage impact report helps to contextualise Wolff’s opinions within a larger matrix of practitioners devoted to the built form in Cape Town. “As a piece of sculpture it is okay,” remarked architect Simeon Peerutin, currently also 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,” insisted 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 worked with Uytenbogaardt on the design of the Werdmuller.

Sensing unproductive drift in the debate, the chair interjected: “The architectural profession might shoot itself in the foot by promoting the retention of a building, which 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,” added Wolff. His comment prompted a guttural consensus from the floor. It was an inconclusive consensus. No summary was offered at the end. A subsequent request to view CiFA’s formal response to Lillie’s report went unanswered, as did enquiries directed at Lillie. The HWC decision to this report is still pending. Late one evening, a heritage specialist working for the City of Cape Town government, remarked on an earlier version of this article, which appeared in a national newspaper. It had put a lot noses out of place, he smiled. “But you failed to address one key point, a point almost everyone involved in this debate has sidestepped: Whose heritage are we talking about?” Definitely not the majority of black citizens, he implied. In the township, the mall is a post-apartheid phenomenon, a visible if unequal marker of change and possibility.

“Being an architect is the most difficult profession in the world,” says Iain Low, a professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at UCT. “You have to be a poet, scientist, lawyer, economist, material specialist, engineer and administrator. Roelof Uytenbogaardt was a poet but failed on all the rest.” Uytenbogaardt’s biography is one of high promise and visible failure. Aside from his controversial Werdmuller Centre, Uytenbogaardt designed UCT’s Sports Centre, which nowadays resembles a plucked chicken after its elegant black stone cladding, which had been poorly installed, was removed and never replaced. In a sense, poor materials and inferior workmanship scuppered Uytenbogaardt’s ambitions. “Unfortunately Uytenbogaardt’s buildings, including the UCT Sports Centre, suffer from poor construction and those magnificent curves and forms rapidly eroded into ugliness,” offers Marilyn Martin, who while still director of the South African National Gallery, helped oversee an exhibition of the architect’s work.

Poor quality materials and labour notwithstanding, Uytenbogaardt’s legacy remains one of widespread failure. Architect Jo Noero is due to embark on a large project overwriting Uytenbogaardt’s sports complex and stadium at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). The incomplete community hall project he worked on in Steinkopf in the Northern Cape, once a pilgrimage site for architects, has also fallen into ruin.

Ironically, these cumulative failures underscore the value of his failed shopping mall in Claremont. “It is one of the few remaining, if not the only remaining intact example of this key architect’s work, one of the few South African architects listed around the world with Herbert Baker,” says Noëleen Murray, an architect and lecturer at UWC whose doctoral thesis focussed on Uytenbogaardt. But a building is more than just an expression of its designer, of architectural passion and designer whimsy; like cities, it is how a building gets adopted and used that is important, if not decisive. Meaning: there is a need to not only understand architectural projection and fantasy, but also to disentangle it from the narrative of how buildings are experienced and used.

“I think the Werdmuller is a story of a particular journey for us,” says Mokena Makeka, a prominent city architect whose work at the central train station in Cape Town has been important in lodging ideas about the various, often conflicting publics for architecture in South Africa. While he concedes that the Werdmuller might well be a commercial failure, Makeka, who is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York, says that its inability to generate sufficient rental income is not the only formula for assessing its value. Like Wolff and many others he is an advocate of adaptive reuse. “Put up a glass box that goes however high, with its own circulation,” he offers. “You allow the developer to realise their value, without necessarily having to demolish it.”

This approach, while speculative, attempts to address the many opposing arguments that are both microscopic and contextual. Similar to Wolff, Makeka thinks it is the Werdmuller’s ability to flag wider contextual problems that makes it such a compelling building. “I think it disrupts the traditional control model of commerce,” says Makeka. “It is actually quite tongue in cheek. 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. I think its design was really meant to enable other forms of occupation, and other forms of agency.” It is a line of reasoning that Wolff is similarly keen to explore, and why he is adamant the Werdmuller needs to be preserved—not as a museum piece, but in some adapted form that retains vestiges of the inconclusive experimentation that underpinned its construction.

Of course, malls are purpose-defined objects, often ruthlessly so: they promote buying and selling. It is the sine qua non of their existence. Failure is not something that is simply adapted to. But this line of reasoning also presumes that their function is discrete, localised and strictly internal. Increasingly, this isn’t the case. As their typologies have been refined, driven by a host of contradictory imperatives—ranging from a culture of consumption founded on cheap fossil fuel and endless land for urban sprawl to the increasing securitisation of daily life and carnivalesque nature of consumer capitalism—so the impact of malls on cities is growing, often with profound consequences. Wolff is more succinct about this: “Malls are a good way of making money, but they are not a good way to make a city.”*

Sean O'Toole is an author and arts journalist. He is co-editor of Cityscapes Magazine