Demolition of 10 buildings gets go ahead

Clegg House, to fall under the
demolishers hammer

By Lucille Davie

THE new precinct for the Gauteng provincial government (GPG), situated in Joburg's CBD, is now a step closer.

Approval has been given to demolish 10 inner city buildings - part of a plan to develop a large public space in the centre of the precinct. This will be an extension of Beyers Naude Square and create a space double the size of the present square.
The South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) has given the go-ahead for the demolition of the buildings to make way for the New Heritage Square, part of the broader Kopanong Precinct.

The agency had to give permission because five of the 10 buildings concerned are more than 60 years old.

The buildings are: the RSA building,the New Library Hotel, the second Rand Water Board building, Custom House, the People's Bank Building, Volkskas building, the FNB building, the Thusanong building, Clegg House and the South African Reserve Bank building.

Two of the 10 buildings are in the Art Deco style.

"The decision was taken after a long process which involved a heritage impact study, a socio-economic benefit study as well as inputs by members of the public," says Thabo Kgomommu, the manager of Sahra's Gauteng office.
The project was originally proposed in January 2004.

Plans proposed that the square contain an amphitheatre, a replica Tswana homestead, a 13-storey obelix, an orientation wall, an artists' corner and an urban forest. The precinct would encompass a street underpass, four skywalks joining buildings and underground parking.

This design has been slightly revised by the architect, Fanuel Motsepe, since the release of the final HIA report, incorporating elements acknowledging the history of the buildings.

At present the province has an impressive presence in the inner city: it occupies 12 buildings (of a total of 22 buildings) within the immediate vicinity of Beyers Naude Square.

Various opinions Opinions about the project have differed greatly.
Sahra believes it will help regenerate the inner city. "Of note is the fact that Sahra believes that there are [other] important heritage resources which will be better appreciated and therefore better conserved."

Kgomommu explains that this means that once the 10 buildings are demolished, other important buildings, in some cases Art Deco buildings, will be more visible.

The buildings set for demolition, he says, are not necessarily the best examples of Art Deco in the city.

Motsepe "welcomed the decision" taken by Sahra. However, he stressed that the decision was not taken lightly. "We did apply our minds to the memoralisation of buildings," he says, adding that he would like to achieve an "amicable and satisfying solution for all parties".

Architect and author of a major book on the architecture of the city, Clive Chipkin, who supported the precinct plans, was not prepared to comment on Sahra's approval, except to say that there would be "pain whatever happens - whether there is approval or not, that is the essence of urban contradiction".
Heritage champion and chairperson of the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, Flo Bird, however, described the decision as "absolutely outrageous". "They [Sahra] are a bunch of cowards for bowing to what province wants."

In her submission Bird offered an alternative to the proposal, which would result in the demolition of only one building, creating a series of interlinking open spaces connected to Beyers Naude Square and providing open space for the workers in City Hall.

More importantly, according to Bird, it would also create space for the increasing numbers of residents who live north of the square. A square south of the present one did not draw in those residents, Bird added.

If any demolitions were to take place, they should have been the buildings north of the square, which were of little significance, she said.

Bird described the Rand Water building in Fraser Street as "a great building" and said there was "nothing like [the People's Bank in Commissioner Street]".

She is considering appealing the decision and feels so strongly about the issue she would take it to the Constitutional Court, finance permitting.

Conservation architect Henry Paine is equally shocked. "This is shattering, a travesty. Johann Bruwer's [the consultant architect who did the HIA] report has been trashed. The proposal is a bad design, wasteful of heritage resources."

Paine said he believed that the private sector would not undertake such a project, as it was too costly. "It is not economically viable." He estimated that the underpass alone would cost more than R100-million, with the possibility that the entire project could cost over R1-billion.

It was not a case, said Paine, of knocking down some buildings so that others could be more appreciated, but more a case of each building having its unique value, and standing as an example of the architect's interpretation of a particular architectural style, done at a particular time.

"You can't say there are other examples of Art Deco in the city; each one must be seen in its context, and if we demolish them, we have no idea what that section of Joburg looked like."

Collectively the buildings represent 67 years of the city's history.

Paine was concerned about the lack of inclusivity in the project. Old Mutual and Anglo American, both property owners in the area, should have been consulted. "The project needs to be debated openly, we need to look at what's best for the city."

He argued that it was a big project and very few architects would have the experience to deal with it.
Sahra's statement ends by saying that "certain conditions will be imposed on the developer so that the development does not completely wipe out the memory of the affected area". Kgomommu would not indicate what these conditions would be.

When asked what the next step was, Motsepe said it was up to the province.

Representations to the minister However, representation has been made to Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan to relook at the decision. Conservation architect Herbert Prins, representing a group of 10 concerned citizens and architects, wrote to Jordan on Monday, expressing disapproval of the demolitions.
"These nine buildings [one building has little heritage value] are among the most important buildings in the city," he says, "This decision creates a precedent that is extremely bad. Where will this stop?"

The public had until 26 September to submit suggestions and comments to the final Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) report. The report was requested by Sahra and undertaken by independent architects on behalf of the province.

Some 60 comments were received, most just one or two lines stating that the project would be a waste of money, Kgomommu says.
In addition, five or six architects also responded before the cut-off date, indicating that they were against the project, according to Kgomommu.
The HIA, done prior to the public consultations, also recommended that the proposal to demolish the buildings be abandoned and the buildings be adapted for re-use. The demolition of nine of the buildings (it was felt that the RSA building could be demolished) would represent the loss of a valuable heritage resource, according to the report.
Prins is particularly surprised at the decision as a group of three independent architects - one a respected Cape Town conservation architect, the other two professors of architecture - were asked to give an assessment of the proposal, and all echoed the feelings of Prins and his colleagues.

"There are absolutely no grounds for this decision."

One of the conditions under which the demolition permit was granted is that the public has the right to appeal against the demolition decision. Submissions must be made before 10 November to the Sahra provincial manager, Thabo Kgomommu.

This can be done in several ways: email to tkhomommu@jhb.sahra.org.za; by mail to PO Box 87552, Houghton, 2041; or by fax on 011 482 8196.

This article published courtesy of the Johannesburg News Agency: www.joburg.org.za

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