Peter Buchanan and Piet Claassen stress the importance of economic viability in preserving historic buildings. (05/07/11 Cape Argus)
CITY VISION: Preserving the historic fabric of precincts such as the Lutheran Church block bounded by Strand and Bree streets depends on sustaining the economic viability of the buildings and their setting, the writers argue.
Owners of the Bree Street site on the historic Lutheran Church precinct in the heart of the city have submitted their appeal against the rejection of their development proposal by the spatial planning, environment and land use management committee in April.The development proposal by restoration architect Gawie Fagan incorporates remnants of the 18th-century Martin Melck warehouse that runs the length of the block along Bree Street. Vigorous public debate between supporters and critics of the scheme has highlighted the difficulties of sustaining, and paying for, historic architectural fabric in modern, growing cities, as well as maintaining the trust between city officials and the investors that the city depends on.
I am in support of the Gawie Fagan proposal for the old warehouse site adjacent to the Lutheran Church Complex. On the site stands a building that houses industrial works and other small commercial enterprises in Bree Street, Cape Town. The proposal by Fagan architects is to restore the building, which was a warehouse of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), to its former glory, and, to make the project financially viable, to add above it a multistoreyed office building (which is the developers’ right in that area according to the zoning scheme).
The proposal is to set back and elevate this addition in a way that the historic building appears to be self-contained (as it would historically have looked), with the modern building seeming to lie behind it. I have seen a similar solution to the problem of historic conservationin Mitropoulos Street, Athens, near the Athens Cathedral and the historic Plaka, where a multistoreyed building straddles a small Byzantine Church. In Chicago the opposite approach was taken, where architects added a Gothic-styled church on top of a high office block.
This kind of compromise simply has to be made when churches and other historically sensitive buildings are situated on land that in the course of centuries has become so valuable that the most economic option would have been to raze the building and put up a skyscraper, and where restoration costs are so high that the indulgence of unalloyed restoration has become totally unaffordable.
As an urban planner who has been active in heritage conservation since the early 1970s, when I served on the Stellenbosch committee of the Simon van der Stel Foundation (now the Heritage Foundation), I wish to applaud this creative solution to an otherwise intractableproblem. I have seen many such cases where the solution offered has not been so aesthetically pleasing or economically viable. This was while I served on the committee of the Stellenbosch Interest Group, and, in particular, when I was a member of the Built Environment and Landscape Permit Committee of Heritage Western Cape, for six years, from its inception until July last year. I studied the proposals for the restoration of the warehouse and simultaneous development of the site at the time when they were submitted to Heritage Western Cape. As a result I have professional knowledge of the heritage value of the buildings in the area, and am able to judge the merits of the proposal and its implications for our heritage. I can therefore wholeheartedly support a proposal that is simultaneously elegant and true to the spirit of heritage conservation. It is in my opinion unfortunate that the polemic regarding this restoration proposal has been reduced, in certain cases, to almost violent ad hominem attacks on the architects, but also on the integrity of the members of the Built Environment and Landscape Permit Committee of Heritage Western Cape.
The integrity of the members of the committee is beyond reproach. In particular the heritage architects and heritage practitioners, who are in the majority on the committee, are highly regarded, of the best in the country.If they did err, it was because of their strong leaning towards heritage conservation rather than development. They turned down, or insisted on significant amendments, to the majority of the proposals submitted to the committee. That this committee approved the development is a very strong indication that it is indeed a highly suitable proposal for the site.
Dr Pieter E Claassen is a town and regional planner who has specialised in spatial planning, environmental management and heritage conservation.