Memory in Architecture: Chapter Two


September is Heritage Month and "the theme for this year…is ‘Reclaiming, restoring and celebrating our living heritage’. On the 10th of September an historic announcement was made of a hugely important fossil find at one of our World Heritage sites, the Cradle of Humankind. The unveiling of a newly discovered species, Homo Naledi extends our knowledge of humankind and highlights the importance of our heritage. It also reminds us that we need to respect and conserve our cultural heritage for the generations to come as it is a record of our achievements and contributions. In this second chapter on memory I will highlight the importance of appropriate architectural design responses to built heritage in South Africa.

Legislation and information

Some of our cultural landscapes, such as the recently proclaimed Cape Floral Region and built environments such as Robben Island, are universally protected by UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Locally, a statutory body, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), is responsible for the conservation of our cultural landscapes. Its scope ranges from Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage to the Built Environment. Powers are devolved to Provincial Heritage Resources Agencies (PHRA) (for example in Gauteng - PHRAG) and Local Authority units, but many of these structures have, either not been set up or are non-functioning. It is therefore paramount that we, as designers in the built environment, be vigilant about important artefacts that may be under threat. At this juncture, legislation only protects buildings older than 60 years but any artefact that has meaning and significance can be protected through various processes. In architectural terms significance refers to both tangible and intangible cultural landscapes (events), buildings, spaces, and even examples produced by seminal architects. There are a number of international charters dealing with cultural landscapes that can be used to understand the value of heritage and then how to respond to it. These include, amongst others, the Burra Charter and the Ename Charter1.

Attitudes and approaches

Architectural heritage is not only about protecting extant artefacts. It is also about how we respond with new interventions in existing cultural landscapes. I believe that in terms of form making we can operate on a scale of approaches. On the conservative end of the scale, we can mimic what is there as Gawie Fagan did with the Dolphin Pool and associated building in the Castle in Cape Town or we can contrast such as his interventions at the Infectious Diseases building at UCT in Cape Town in 2007 and the alterations and additions to the Newlands Brewery in 1993. A middle ground approach would interpret the old to create new - this is the idea of familiarity and strangeness I alluded to in the first chapter on memory. An example is, the architect, Bert Pepler's own house in Observatory, Cape Town where a clever interpretation of extant Victorian fabric brings the suburb into the twentieth century. In line with ideas of sustainability and regeneration adaptive reuse of existing buildings is also a very valid architectural response. Here old buildings are given new life through insertions and adaptations.

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Top left: Fagan's recreation of the Dolphin Pool and associated building at the Cape Town Castle. Top right: Fagan's 2007  glazed insertion into the old fabric of UCT medical buildings to create a new Infectious Diseases precinct (Fagan archive, undated). Middle: Fagan's 1993 glazed insertions at the Newlands Brewery in Cape Town. © Barker, 2009. Bottom left: Bert Pepler Architect's own house in Observatory, Cape Town, with extant fabric alongside © Barker, 2004.

Industrial Heritage

The cultural landscape of South Africa is littered with the remnants of the industrial past such as defunct power stations, derelict mining compounds and unused agricultural storage buildings. Fortunately, many of these structures have been given a new lease on life through adaptive reuse. The Orlando cooling towers in Johannesburg have become an adrenalin junkies haven. The Knysna Thesen Island power station was turned the Turbine Hotel & Spa in 2010 while Johannesburg’s 1927 Jeppe Street Power Station was reconfigured into a conference centre -Turbine Hall. Similar attention is currently being given to the abandoned grain silos in the Cape Town Waterfront.

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Top: Orlando Towers, Top right: Turbine Hall Johannesburg and bottom: Turbine Hotel and Spa in Kynsna

The Silo project

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) is currently under construction in the old Grain Silo complex of the Cape Town Waterfront and is scheduled for completion in late 2016. Under the guidance of the international architectural practice of Thomas Heatherwick three local firms, Van der Merwe Miszewski (VDMMA), Rick Brown Associates (RBA) and Jacobs Parker, are executing the vision to turn the 1920s 42 concrete tubes silos (33m high  and 5.5m diameter) into a cultural precinct. An adaptive reuse strategy is being used with the exposure of the belly of the silos and the addition of a new gallery above. Some machinery that was used till the 1990s is also being kept.

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The Silo Project vision by Heatherwick Studio 

Mark Coetzee, Executive Director and Curator of Zeitz MOCAA, [notes that], "by repurposing our architectural heritage through an evocative juxtaposition of industrial design and contemporary art, we are creating a culturally significant institution of a scale that truly recognizes the creative talents of Africa”. (

But there has also been criticism of the proposal. An iol news website explains that the character of the working harbour and the original intentions of the Waterfront precinct are being eroded, and that the scale and importance of the silo buildings is being lost due to new surrounding buildings.

So how do we define value and significance in the Waterfront and elsewhere? What was the meaning of an artefact and what can it mean now? How do we respect what was, but allow a new life to ensue? Do we pathologically preserve, progressively conserve or do we reach a middle ground where history is respected and contemporariness celebrated? Perhaps the answer lies in shifting the perception of heritage as a fixed entity toward a fluid one that holds potential for future generations to tap into.


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The Silo project currently under construction © Lourens Smit, 2015



  1. 1. Others are the Kimberley declaration on intangible heritage, Xi’an declaration on the conservation of the setting of heritage structures, sites and areas and the International Cultural Tourism charter for Managing Tourism at Places of Heritage Significance.



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