Kate’s Favourite Public Art & Buildings

With September being Heritage Month in South Africa, take a look at Kate Crane Briggs’ list of must-see historical buildings in central Cape Town.

Image credit: Janek Szymanowski (Wikipedia)

Tuynhuys – A beautiful facade showing what 18th century Cape Town would have looked like. This building was originally used as a tool shed for the Company’s Gardens, hence its name which means garden house. But for over two centuries its been part of the highest political authority of the land (it is next to Parliament). It is now part of the President’s office and extremely hard to get access to. Situated alongside Parliament, the main facade is visible from Government Ave. Its restoration was based on old records, a hidden balustrade and the expert judgment of the conservation consultants and client. (One of the team felt so strongly that the cherubs were too large, he resigned from the appointed architectural practice!).

The old shul, now part of the South African Jewish Museum, Hatfield St, I like the quality of displays, simplicity and the way it is so well maintained. It tells the story of how Cape Town developed from the point of view of Jewish immigrants from overseas – there is a ramp leading from one part of the museum to another, reminiscent of a ship’s gangplank.  As a European immigrant myself, albeit Christian, this has a resonance for me. Its small portico is Art Deco ‘Egyptian’ in style. It can be seen from Company’s Garden, next to the much grander, newer synagogue.

Company Garden’s Visitor Centre – a small heritage building, on the Queen Victoria Rd side of the Garden. It has a very good exhibition about the Garden’s history. Home to Cape Town Heritage Trust, there is a small ‘heritage’ shop and you can book fynbos tea tastings and info sessions (it is easy to forget the Cape’s hugely important and unique natural heritage, fynbos.)

The Hanafee Mosque at the corner of Dorp and Long Street. I like its size, proportions, exterior’s details, colours and the way they occasionally use outside for praying. I’ve been allowed in, without asking in advance, which I really appreciate.

Wagenaar reservoir ruins and model underground in Golden Acre – an unexpected location and a good reminder about water being so precious and why Cape Town developed. It also reminds me of how the sea used to be so much closer to the centre of town pre the massive land reclamation, starting in the 1940s.

Grand Central, Darling Street – the former main post office. This enormous building is a good reminder of how important the mail ship and post were. Its tall, modern ‘Art Deco’ style caused quite a stir when it opened. The original 1940s stone carvings and old Post Office counters are still in situ and a huge contrast to its current use as market stalls selling all sorts from hair braiding to fried food!

Koopmans-de Wet House, Strand St, the exterior is Cape Neo-Classical as its finest (but it does need some maintenance work!). It helps me imagine what Cape Town would have looked like in the 19th century. I like the sound of its last owner, Maria Koopmans-de Wet – she was a heritage activist! She campaigned to stop the Castle of Good Hope being knocked down about 100 years ago.

Prestwich Memorial, corner of Buitengracht Street and Somerset Road – like the Company Garden’s Visitor Centre, it has a really good small heritage exhibition. Off to one side is the ossuary with over 2 500 boxes of bones from nearby unmarked graves, probably slaves, sailors, poor people, and the Khoi. There is a really sad side to Cape Town’s heritage that shouldn’t be ignored.

Turning now to art – it can be a brilliant way to convey the invisible past, in a contemporary and sometimes surprising way:

Image Credit: AndyB (Wikimedia Commons)

Artists’ Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge The Memorial To The Slaves – 11 granite blocks laid out across Church Square – silent, poignant reminders of who really built Cape Town.

Jacques Coetzee’s Open House, a bright, large and fun artwork referencing the colonial style buildings on Long St where it is, and RDP houses built by the government in townships. Its hard to depict 20 years of democracy, but this works for me.

For a reminder of how Africa used to be seen with a colonial lens of the mid 20th century, the frieze around Mutual Heights – South Africa’s first skyscraper (I recommend popping into the lobby on Darling Street to see the high gold ceiling and marble walls – it is like stepping back in time and the Empire State Building in New York)

Homecoming Centre’s gates, District 6, Buitenkant Street based on an artwork by the late Peter Clarke. One of the most beautiful burglar bars in town! And a lovely way to enter this renovated heritage building which I always enjoy visiting for events and exhibitions.

Artist Roderick Sauls’ apartheid-era benches outside the High Court Annex on Queen Victoria Street one for whites only, the other not. It seems bizarre that during Apartheid, people were sent to this court to see if a pencil would stay in their hair – if it did, they were classified as black.

Joburg based artist, Ruth Sach’s Cissie Gool Memorial (Longmarket at the Buitenkant Street end) – often used to sit on by smokers, unaware that it is an artwork or memorial!

Conrad Botes’ Purple Shall Govern commemorating the End Conscription Campaign’s commandeering the Police’s dye spraying in 1989 (Burg and Church Streets).

Tours of these and more hidden gems available by kate@cultureconnectsa.com