Book Review Type: 
Standard Book Review

I first encountered the work of Nic Coetzer when searching for information about the South African presence at the series of Empire exhibitions held in Britain before the Second World War. I was intrigued by his analysis as to why the South African pavilion, for example at the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924/25 and again the Glasgow exhibition of 1938 at Bellahouston Park, should have been designed in Cape Dutch architectural style.

Coetzer’s book is an ambitious amalgam of three areas of Cape Town’s architectural history. Part 1 is a critical relook at meaning and political expression in Cape Dutch homesteads and manor houses.  The countryside brought to the city is presented as Self. Part 2 is about finding what he defines as “the other” in the poorer areas and slums of the city, while Part 3 is about Suburban Cape Town and the Garden City movement. This he calls “the same”.  Each part actually warrants and merits an independent book and the author’s research for what was originally a PhD reveals his considerable command over different types of city histories. At the same time, he draws on the earlier theorists and pioneers of architecture beautiful, town planning and the garden city movement to give theoretical ballast. The underlying objective seems to be to juxtapose the arguments for the ideal and the improving impulses against the messy reality of a spreading city where poverty, and growing under classes also had to be accommodated somewhere. Wealth, older immigration and upper-class values infused by Englishness were uneasy bedfellows alongside poorer recent white and black immigration to the Mother City. How was the 20th century city to manage modern realities?


Book Cover


It is a rather big jump to attribute all of the problems in town planning, municipal local politics, segregated suburbs, the growth of slums, the visible evidence of poverty to either Empire and its agents or to what is presented as a “prequel“ to apartheid. Building Apartheid is a good title but Apartheid was not a term used in 1900 or 1910. The historical realities of what was possible both in thinking about issues and in the economy of the city need to be examined from the perspective of a specific era or decade. While history may precede later events and explain causes, it can’t be read as a prequel as this amounts to projecting present day values onto the past.  Nonetheless, I found Coetzer’s arguments stimulating because at times I found myself in disagreement and at other times puzzled by certain attributions. For example, what is the meaning of the sentence that starts:  “Empire needed to replicate itself in a recognizable form around the globe….” (p83).  

It is never an easy task to convert an academic monograph into a readable book; the bibliography, chapter end notes and list of primary archival sources shows that the author laboured long and hard. I found attaching the words, self, other and same, to what is a wide-ranging coverage of Cape Countryside, City and Suburb superfluous and unnecessarily mystifying. But the originality of so many ideas and insights kept me intrigued and turning the pages.

Why had Cape Dutch architectural design become an export product not only abroad within the British Empire but also within South Africa and most particularly a design lovingly replicated in the burgeoning financially prosperous Transvaal? Here is an architectural historian with critical perspective and insight that architecture is always political, while rooted in historical antecedents. The challenge is to explain whose politics, what were the objectives. This book is an important study in the history of architectural ideas and leadership. His take on Herbert Baker is far less hagiographic than past adoring acolytes of and scholars of Baker. Coetzer sees the Cape Dutch colonial style as an appropriated history adopted as a South African national style. In the face of fractured and multiple cultural identities it was the Cape Dutch revival architecture that drew upon a nostalgic strand from the past and projected it into the future to promote a common new post Union national identity bringing English and Afrikaans speaking a common architectural language through this adopted common Dutch heritage and admired architectural language.

The first part of Coetzer’s book is all about hidden and patent meaning in the Cape Dutch architecture to be sought and so greatly treasured in Cape Town. Two hundred and fifty-year-old farmhouses and Cape Dutch homesteads previous thought old fashioned and in decay were rediscovered circa 1910 to be the focus of a building preservation movement in Cape Town while copies, imitations, pastiches were built anew in a revivalist style whether as gracious homes or government buildings. Coetzer argues cogently that it was a form of nationalist rhetoric that meshed with an imperial vision for South Africa. I found this first part of the book, addressing the complex issues of architectural roots, restorations and revival beautifully and critically researched. He shows how clients such as Florence Phillips at Vergelegen and Rhodes at Groote Schuur together with architects such as Francis Masey, and Frank Kendall, photographers such as Arthur Eliott, historians such as Graham Botha and writers such as Dorothea Fairbridge and Alys Trotter worked if not in unison then certainly in parallel converging paths to identify, document and promote Cape Dutch vernacular architecture as the favoured national style.  Coetzer’s critique is scathing and judgmental. Words and phrases such as appropriation, spurious, wilful, slavish copyists, dubious lineages, “romantic portrayals”, ” invented possession” reveal that the author has little to praise or admire.   The wealth of researched detail fails to engender empathetic appreciation. But it is an analysis that stimulates thinking and this work is a radical departure from earlier histories of Cape architecture and Herbert Baker. What the author misses is the economics behind land ownership by the affluent in the Cape, in other words, the making as well as the spending of money. Architectural forms are also an expression of financial and business achievement and invariably make a loud statement about status, class and positioning in a society.

The second section of the book, under the puzzling heading “Other/City” concentrates on the Town Planners and organized architectural profession to eliminate disorder and to plan in the central city to create beautiful vistas and eliminate the slums, unsightliness and eyesores of places like District Six. He tells an interesting story of the exclusion of social and racial Other via legitimising and promoting town planning principles. It was the Slums Act of 1934 that gave the impetus to clearing parts of Old Cape Town. Coetzer sees the “Other” as offensive to the agents of Empire and middle class English values. The aesthetic considerations defined by those in power drove the improvement impulse. The Cape Institute of Architects and the Cape Publicity Association together shaped an agenda to make Cape Town the orderly and picturesque tourist town. As a result, the town planners set about razing old neighbours and what were regarded as unsightly slums. Appearance and cosmetics mattered more than structural soundness. Buildings had to be realigned to fit the desired visual vista.  Legislation gave the city the authority and power to declare spaces and places unsightly, ugly, or an eyesore and ready for demolition. Corrugated iron was considered to be an offensive material; brick and stone were preferred over wood and iron in dwellings. The story is one of the remaking of Cape Town eschewing the city as an expression of industrial capitalism. The city had to be structured as a “scenography” to fit an image of the City Beautiful. The link though between the theme of the imprint of the ideas of the architects and planners on the city scene and the building of apartheid prior to 1948 is not carried as a convincing argument. What is lacking is an analysis of the economics of the city’s evolution. How did property investment, the finances behind ownership, affect demographic patterns of residence and business purpose. A city’s evolution over 200 years is the product of ideals and ideas, but also of the harsh realities of income, affordability, finance and what was economically possible. Segregation and divisions in function could be driven by economics rather than what the author sees as a nascent apartheid ideology. The author’s sense of moral outrage about the shaping of a dominant white identity, white civilization anxious about miscegenation, class positions under threat as evidenced in views and actions in slum clearance, ensures that he writes passionate history.

The third major component of this study is titled, “Same/Suburb” and pursues the argument that apartheid preceded its official introduction by at least fifty years in Cape Town, in the creation of suburbs and planned residential areas influenced by the Garden City ideals imported by the “agents of Empire”. While the author sees the Garden City movement as the epitome of Arts and Crafts romantic architecture, he also has the original insight that there was a darker side with what he calls “its panoptic logic and totalitarian potential” as revealed in the development of Langa Township, contrasted with the Whites-only counterpart, Pinelands. Here his theme of apartheid simply being a next logical step to segregationist town planning is elaborated upon and given further weight and substance. The Garden City movement was popular and fashionable in the UK and the USA where there were other antecedents in the concept of the factory village and Robert Owen utopianism.   The author sees the “agents of empire” behaving in an anti-urban, paternalistic and hierarchical manner orchestrating instrumentalist housing projects that were excessively English. Despite the dismissive judgemental style of history, the research into garden suburb model houses and schemes is enormously informative. A book that that had it been known about and read by Coetzer may have brought a more nuanced position to his study, is surely Saul Dubow’s A Commonwealth of Knowledge, Science Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2006) as this is a book that explores what it means to be South African and how key independent Cape institutions emerged in the 19th century. Dubow shows how the development of colonial knowledge underpinned white political ascendency but Cape opinion and professional practice did not simply parrot the Empire line.

This is a book that has much to recommend it - the research and the scholarship of specific aspects of Cape Town 20th century housing and town planning history adds to the literature on the city. The breadth of scholarship and the evidence of archival delving is impressive. The problem lies in the particularity and single focus of Coetzer’s interpretation. He is so determined to see all his historical material through the prism of pre-apartheid scheming that the complexities and nuances of Cape Town’s 300 years of city settlement, and urban history becomes hidden. He sticks firmly to his argument that the so-called agents of Empire planned and implemented many of the key social-spatial strategies associated with apartheid some 20 years before the National Party came to power.  He should have allowed his evidence to speak for itself and allowed his reader to draw their own conclusions rather than pushing for a sledge hammer judgemental approach in the doing and writing of architectural history. Demography, patterns of immigration and migration, economics, local politics, the influence and views of key players are all downplayed or ignored in this study.

The book is copiously illustrated with “figures“ - this actually means a combination of plans, diagrams and black and white photos. The quality of the reproduction is mediocre. A book on architectural history should serve the author with far finer reproductions. The subject matter also requires maps of Cape Town - and there are none.  Perhaps it is not the fault of the author but rather the publisher who offers us the Ashgate Studies in Architecture Series. This is an important book and deserved better and tighter editing. The problem with this sort of monograph is that the price and the look of the book consigns it to a specialist readership or makes it accessible only as an e-book or as a library copy. This is a book that could be republished by a commercial publisher and with more attention to the making of a book would have much wider appeal.

Kathy Munro is an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She enjoyed a long career as an academic and in management at Wits University. She trained as an economic historian. She is an enthusiastic book person and has built her own somewhat eclectic book collection over 40 years. Her interests cover Africana, Johannesburg history, history, art history, travel, business and banking histories.  She researches and writes on historical architecture and heritage matters. She is a member of the Board of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation and is a docent at the Wits Arts Museum. She is currently working on a couple of projects on Johannesburg architects and is researching South African architects, war cemeteries and memorials. Kathy is a member of the online book community the Library thing and recommends this cataloging website and worldwide network as a book lover's haven.

Sunday, February 5, 2017 - 15:47