Art Deco – South Africa’s architectural gem

Art Deco – South Africa’s architectural gem

Flapper girls, fire-stations and the fantasy world of Hollywood – Art Deco was everywhere and still is. You’ll find stunning Art Deco in Prince Albert, a Karoo “dorpie” (small town) to skyscrapers in the big African metropolises. Afterall, Art Deco design was infinitely adaptable, giving free reign to the imagination, celebrating fantasies, fears and desires. Art Deco’s hay day was between 1925 and 1940, even though the term was coined only in 1966 and it arrived later in Africa than Europe, UK and States.

Like its forerunner Art Nouveau, Art Deco was eclectic and drew on many sources. It borrowed from European historic styles which lent itself well to South Africa whose architecture was eclectic, derivative and hybrid pre 1930s. Art Deco flourished amid an existing Beaux-Arts classicism (see St George’s Mall, Cape Town images below) and the emerging, radical International Modern style. It gave a “cloak of modernist form concealing a traditional structure and layout”, to quote heritage architect and consultant Dr André van Graan (pictured below), Cape Town’s Art Deco expert. Its geometric play of forms and other detailing actually helped Modernism to be accepted here after WWII.

Art Deco motifs were “Africanised”. Sometimes this is subtle and open to conjecture. The zigzag motif some say harks back to the chevron patterns on the ruins of the African Iron Age city, Great Zimbabwe.see They can be seen, for example on Gerard Moerdyk’s Merensky Library, 1933, Pretoria University. South Africa’s national flower, the King Protea lent itself well to geometric forms perfect for facades, especially entablatures and between arches (spandrels). Both the zigzag and protea can be seen on Cape Town’s Commercial Union offices (now Market House) in Greenmarket Sq by William (Billy) H Grant,1932. See image above. When this building opened a local journalist at the time wrote “Modernism in design almost “in excelsis” has come to Cape Town”.

Baboons, elephants and even tribal figures are integral to Old Mutual Building’s façade (see images below). It was inaugurated in 1940 and designed by two local architectural practices – Fred Glennie and Louw and Louw. A local material, Paarl granite, clads the whole building. This gives a sense of a national, rooted Art Deco.

While the likes of Billy Grant (1877 – 1957) had to use magazines and catalogues for his Art Deco inspiration and references, Old Mutual paid for Fred Glennie and the Louws to go to Europe and the States. No surprises that the Old Mutual Building looks like a smaller version of Empire State Building, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, built 1930 – 1931. Old Mutual wanted their new headquarters to impress and it still does, even the small details (eg banisters, light fittings and etched images by the lifts). Going inside gives the feeling of stepping back in time to a bygone era. So too, going into the small Art Deco optometrist, Mullers, opposite Mutual Heights. It was designed by Frank Spears (1906 – 1991) when he worked at shopfitters Brimble & Briggs (no relation to me, btw). While Old Mutual Building is now an apartment block renamed Mutual Heights, re-purposed like most other Art Deco buildings here, Mullers is still an optometrist and in fact where I go for my annual eye test.

Moving onto other city centres in South Africa, Johannesburg’s city centre has apparently the world’s third largest number of large Art Deco buildings, after (no less) New York and Miami. Near to Johannesburg, the small town of Springs has 34 small Art Deco buildings (Dr André van Graan did the survey), second only to Miami. Some call Durban South Africa’s Art Deco capital. It has an active Art Deco Society. Cape Town’s hosted the Art Deco World Congress in 2005. The society no longer exists – all the more reason for us to read, write and engage with Art Deco here. Sadly, but understandably, many owners rip out Art Deco features in their properties. I was speechless when a history teacher told me he did so for his Market House flat so it would do well on Airbnb, which it did!

There is the informative and active Facebook page, Art Deco Architecture in Cape Town. The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation ran a series of Art Deco lectures during ‘hard’ lockdown mid 2020 on Art Deco. Dr André van Graan gave a brilliant ‘virtual tour’ of Cape Town’s Art Deco heritage and did a similar one for the UCT Summer School, 14 Jan 2021. I plan to organise another tour sooinish; for the one on 11 Nov 2020 (images above), we finished with supper at Gorgeous George. The birds’ eye view includes the Art Deco Shell offices, converted in a hotel which I think has just closed, Onomo, Greenmarket Sq (pictured). And splendid Beaux-Arts buildings on St George’s Mall which was Art Deco’s predecessor and “competitor”.

Let me know if you would like your own Art Deco tour, or for me to organise another public open one.

Kate CB, or call/WhatsApp +27 (0)72 377 8014

Sources of info and recommended reading:

Art Deco 1910 – 1939 edited by Charlotte & Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood, V&A (R729 from Takealot)

Dr André van Graan’s PhD Negotiating modernism in Cape Town: 1918-1948

Prof Federico Freschi Big Business Beautility: The Old Mutual Building and The Business of Belonging: Volkskapitalisme (I have digital copies if you need them)

Cape Town in the twentieth century, by Vivian Bickford Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden (out of print R480 from Quagga Books); Frank Spears: The Painter by Melissa Sutherland; The Early Architects of Cape Town by Michael Walker,,, Pinterest

I also have a briefing on South African Art Deco I would be delighted to email you.

Ross Rayners (and I) are currently working on short video of André’s recent tour.