Proposed Cape Town building creates a positive and engaging street interface in heritage zone

The site for this proposed residential apartment building is located in a significant Heritage Protection Zone in the heart of Cape Town, South Africa. The street is a mix of 19th Century Victorian houses and 1920s Art Deco apartment blocks, many of which are listed as protected buildings. It is interspersed with 1980s apartment buildings which are considered inappropriate to the surrounding architectural environment. The formation of the Heritage Protection Zone by the City of Cape Town, has meant that there are tighter mechanisms in place controlling development within this zone to make sure that the architectural character of new buildings is sensitive to the areas’ existing architectural environment.

Objek Architects were tasked with maximising the site’s bulk potential to address the City’s need for densification. “Given the sensitivity of the heritage graded buildings in the area, which are of generally a smaller grain, our approach was to respond to both the context, and the need for densification in Cape Town’s CPD,” explains director, Philip Brink.

The challenge was to design a taller building within the context of the smaller historic buildings immediately surrounding it, as well as to respond with urban and pedestrian sensitivity at ground level. To achieve this, Objek Architects broke up the building into a series of ‘houses’ with direct access from the street. Their approach was to look at, and reinterpret, a contemporary architectural expression of the typical New York style ‘Brownstone’ house – a building type that they feel positively contributes to the street in a way that was appropriate in this urban context. In this project, a series of ‘Brownstone’ houses are then used as a base or plinth, on which the taller portion of the building sits. The higher portion is then set back from the street edge so as not to dominate it.

Brink feels that Objek’s proposal is very different from the other taller, 70s and 80s era buildings in the area. The other inappropriately scaled buildings were the driving force behind the formation of the Heritage Protection Overlay Zone. “It is our firm belief that those other taller buildings’ failure to address context is not on account of their height;” Brink says.  “When viewed from a distance, the area is not unattractive and is not littered with tall buildings. The failure of those buildings’ contextual design response is how they address the street interface from a closer, pedestrian vantage point.” Objek Architects’ proposed building is not going to stick out like a sore thumb from a distance, as it forms part of a collection of buildings that are similar in scale. More importantly, though, their proposal addresses the shortcomings of those taller buildings by taking its scale from a closer vantage point into account. As experienced by a pedestrian on the sidewalk, on both Union and Weltevreden Streets, they believe that their proposal is appropriately scaled.

The main driving concept of 10 Union was to put the four ‘Brownstone’ type houses on the street edge and set back the taller bulk of the building. In doing so, Objek have sought to promote a more engaging and active street edge – an urban response which they feel is sorely missing in many of the newer big developments they see going up in the city today.

The project is currently undergoing a Town Planning Approval process and Heritage Impact Assessment.

ARTICLE by Gregg Cocking