Parliament of South Africa – architectural history

Parliament of South Africa – architectural history

With the 2 Jan 2022 fire that lasted until midnight the following day, Parliament’s buildings have been in the spot light. The fire started in the Old Assembly and spread to the new General Assembly.

The architecture, like its art collection of 13 731 items, can be divided into four periods:

  1. British – Cape Colonial Parliament – Queen Victoria granted the Cape its own constitution and legislature building; portraits by top British artists eg Major Sir William Orpen and Philip de Laslo
  2. Union – Sir Herbert Baker and colleagues’ extension; Sir Sydney Mendelssohn’s gift of 300 artworks – including by Thomas Bowler, George Angas and Francois Le Vaillant
  3. Apartheid – General Assembly built, portraits of White leaders – men (exception of Helen Suzman’s portrait which was in DA offices in the Parliamentary precinct)
  4. Democracy – changes in uses eg offices for ANC, then upgrades for new technology like cabling. Art acquired, lent or donated showing indigenous knowledge systems and traditional arts, such as basket weaving, beadwork, textile art- notably Keiskamma Tapestry

But going back further and in more detail:

Tuynhuys was an official residence for most of the Dutch, Batavian and British Cape governors. (Initially it was the tool shed for the Company’s Garden which it is next to!) During the British rule, it was expanded (including a ball room) and became the Governor’s residence. The architect Gawie Fagan and his practice in 1968 were commissioned to renovate, taking the facade back to Cape Dutch style, having found remnants of the old building, such as the balustrade. His wife, Gwen Fagan, designed the parterre garden in front.

Many years later it was here that FW de Klerk announced in 1992 that South Africa had “closed the book on Apartheid”. Today it is used as offices for the Presidency and administered in Pretoria, unlike the rest of the Parliamentary precinct.

Good Hope Building’s banqueting hall was the House of Assembly 1854 – 1884 Queen Victoria granted to the Cape of Good Hope in 1853 a parliament and constitution. It was the Good Hope Masonic Lodge’s banqueting hall until a fire in 1892. It was rebuilt as a music hall and theatre circa 1900. The State purchased it in 1916 for staff offices for the Governor at Tuynhuys.

A new façade was built in 1925 in Cape Revival style. It was the State President’s Office and the seat of the President’s Council in the 1980s. Inkatha Freedom Party Parliamentary members used it; now it’s for MPs and the Presidency. In 1985 the SA Architects Institute gave it an award for its restoration by Munnik Visser Black Fish & Partners.

National Council of Provinces (NCOP) was built  This was with two Houses of Parliament: an elected Legislative Assembly (Lower House), and a legislative Council (Upper House). Previously there had only been the Legislative Council, established in 1834. Construction began in 1875. The original design by architect Charles Freeman, was costly, flawed and complicated by groundwater. He was replaced by Henry Greaves, also of Public Works, who simplified the design (eg removing the towers and parapets). It took ten years to complete, costing £220 000 (the budget was £40 000). In 1910 Sir Herbert Baker (and team) designed an extension after the union of South Africa, including a new House of Assembly. It is this Old Assembly that was severely damaged by the fire.

The old Assembly became the Parliamentary Dining Room. It was here British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, made his famous colonies independence speech in 1960:

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

NCOP was recently renovated by New Urban Architects; the main architect was Reinier Visser.

Marks Building was named after businessman, Sammy Marks, who bought the land in 1895. In 1902 he commissioned Sir Herbert Baker and his business partner Francis Masey to design a seven-story office block. Originally it was only three bays wide. It was considered very modern with electric light, “speaking tubes” for people in different offices to talk to each other, and electric bells.

From 1904 it was rented to the State, and a few years later sold to Public Works. The building housed State departments until they moved to 120 Plein St (where the current visitor entrance is). The House of Delegates’ debating chamber was here until their new building was completed in 1987; the chamber is now a committee room (well it was pre-fire).

Africa House is the sandstone building next to 120 Plein Street. It was the British High Commissioner’s Office. Built in 1937, it is by Perry & Lightfoot and won a design award from the Cape Provincial Institute of Architects.

Despite pressure for many years, the British government only sold it to Public Works in 2003. A British Ambassador used to joke it was there way of keeping an eye on the South African government, during Apartheid!

It was renovated in 2008 – 9 and renamed Africa House. The Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) and the Protocol Office of Parliament are/were here.

National Assembly Building was built 1983 – 1985, for a large new assembly chamber for joint meetings of the Tricameral Parliament’s three Houses. The south side of the building was extended in the same neo-classical style. Today this chamber is for National Assembly’s plenary sittings, joint sittings of the two Houses, the President’s State of the Nation Address and speeches by international heads of state. The architects were Jack van der Lecq who is still alive (recently on television re the fire) and Hannes Meiring who died in 2010.

Stalplein’s name derives from the Governor’s horse stables, as it used to be the back of the building – the main entrance was on Government Ave until 1913 when it was closed to vehicles. In 1978 the State bought Stalplein from the city council, and it stopped being a public square. Parliament St was closed to traffic. Louis Botha’s statue was moved to the entrance. A memorial garden with the grave of the Unknown Soldier and an Eternal Flame was created, opening in 1986.

To conclude, it will be quite a task rebuilding the Assemblies and other fire damaged areas. I hope that it will provide an opportunity not to create a pastiche of what was there before, but something new, confident and beautiful. I am reminded of the seat of the German parliament, the Reichstag. The old building was enhanced with obviously new, contemporary features, designed by British architect, Sir Norman Foster; its glass dome is one of the most frequently visited sights in Berlin.

Kate Crane Briggs; 6 Jan 2022