Architectural Heritage of Cape Town – A Stroll Through History

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Wandering through the streets of Cape Town will send you on a sojourn back in time through the annals of architectural history.  From the winding, cobblestone streets of the colourful Bo-Kaap to the pentagonal-shaped Castle of Good Hope and the Renaissance-styled City Hall, each corner of the city has its own architectural story and contributes to the complex, multi-cultural and richly diverse society that makes up this cosmopolitan city.

As the oldest city in South Africa, Cape Town boasts a number of historical buildings, many of which are still in use today and open to visitors. The city’s architecture is a testament to the many and varied influences on South Africa’s unique history.

The Bo-Kaap
Resting on the slopes of Signal Hill, the winding cobblestone streets and brightly coloured houses of the Bo-Kaap reflect the vibrant and traditional Muslim community that lives here.  

Descended from slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries, the people of this rich, multi-cultural community are known as ‘Cape Malays’ (even though they are not entirely of Malaysian descent) and have played a major role in the development of language, culture and cuisine in the city.

Warmly known as the ‘Cape Malay Quarter’, this rich culture shines through in the architecture of this area which started to emerge between 1790 and 1840. Cosy semi-detached Georgian houses donning brightly coloured facades sit closely together to reflect the tight-knit community and beautiful mosques and Muslim ‘kramats’ are dotted throughout the area.

A visit to the Bo-Kaap Museum is an ideal way to learn more about this dynamic community. Dating back to the 1760s, it is one of the oldest buildings in the area and maintains its original form as built by early Muslim settlers.

The Castle of Good Hope
Built between 1966 and 1679 by Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch East India Company, the Castle of Good Hope is the oldest building in South Africa and has been at the centre of life in the Cape since inception. Built by both soldiers and slaves from local stone quarried on Lion’s Head, the fort acted as the replenishment station of the Dutch East India Company to protect its logistical and financial interests along the famous spice route.

Designed as a ‘star fort’ in the shape of a pentagon, the building consists of five bastions named after titles of Prince William of Orange – Oranje, Nassau, Leerdam, Catzenellenbogen and Buure. The gateway to the castle, which was built in 1682 to replace the original entrance which faced the sea, reflects elements of 17th century Dutch classicism in its ornate pilasters, detailed entablature and bold pediments. Originally used as prisons and storerooms, the bastions today are home to the Western Cape Military headquarters and the South African Military Museum.

The interior of the castle houses beautifully restored 18th century décor in the William Fehr Collection, which includes furniture, oil paintings and antique china that reflect the lifestyle of the early Cape colonists.

Castle of Good Hope: used to be a five-pointed star fort and the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa.

Castle of Good Hope: used to be a five-pointed star fort and the oldest surviving colonial building in South Africa.

Central Cape Town
The central business district of the city showcases a wonderful variety of architectural flavours from the stark, geometric lines of the Modernist Movement to the ornate, organic forms of Art Nouveau.  Beautiful structures found on every corner throughout the city reflect eras past.

The Mutual Heights building on the corner of Darling and Parliament streets is a superb example of Art Deco architecture and design, with its dramatic ziggurat structure, prismoid windows and decorative friezes. Wrapped around three sides of the building is one of the world’s longest stone friezes (118m) depicting scenes from the colonial history of South Africa. Built in the 1930s as the corporate headquarters of Old Mutual, today the beautiful building is home to highly sought-after privately-owned apartments.

Opposite the Mutual Heights building is the old Cape Town Post Office, a grand granite edifice that is also worth a visit. Completed in 1940 on the site of the old Opera House, the exterior of the building showcases six exquisite panels created by leading contemporary artists of the time.

Fine examples of Neo-Classical works by the influential Sir Herbert Baker can be seen in the First National Bank Building and the Standard Bank Buildings in Adderley Street. Reflecting the bold, Palladian architecture of the Greeks, strong pediments, pilastered columns and ornate central domes contributed toward the reformation of the area. 

Basking in the dappled shade at the entrance to the Company Gardens lays the magnificent St George’s Cathedral (The Cathedral Church of St George the Martyr). Designed by Sir Herbert Baker in the style of St Pancras Church in London, the foundation stone was laid in 1901 and is the oldest cathedral in South Africa today.

City Hall
Overlooking the cobblestoned Grande Parade in the heart of the city, Cape Town’s City Hall is a beautiful example of Edwardian architecture. Designed and built in 1905 as a result of a public competition, the neo-classical building is made from honey-coloured oolitic sandstone that was imported from Europe and features 39 bells used for festivals and celebrations that echo a classical Renaissance style. Today the Cape Town Municipal Library is housed in the City Hall.

Houses of Parliament
Situated on Government Avenue in the Company Gardens, the Houses of Parliament reflect the exquisite Baroque design of the Victorian age with ornate Corinthian columns, huge pilasters, ornate entablatures and intricate cornices. Designed by Charles Freeman and Sir Herbert Baker, the magnificent façade that echoes classic revivalism is best seen from Plein Street, where the opening of Parliament provides a colourful spectacle for spectators. 

Cape Dutch Influence in the Winelands
While the Cape Winelands are best known for their picturesque rolling vineyards and production of world-class vintages, the beautiful architecture of these areas play an important role in Cape’s cultural heritage. Influenced by the early Dutch farmers who settled in the area in the 1600s to 1700s, elegantly ornate gables, whitewashed walls and neat thatch roofing are distinct and prominent features of this genre.

Resting on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, Groot Constantia is a superb example of Cape Dutch architecture and one of Cape Town’s most popular tourist attractions. Dating back to 1685, the exquisite gabled manor house is located on a working wine farm and has been converted into a museum, housing a beautiful collection of artefacts, furniture and art that showcase the rich traditional culture of the Cape at the time.

Located on an authentic working wine farm, the beautifully gabled manor house has been converted to a museum and a visit to the restored homestead will give one perspective on early South African life. Don’t forget to visit the impressive wine cellar where world-class wines have been produced since 1709.

Other examples of fine Cape Dutch architecture can be seen at Vergelegen and Zevenwacht wine farms near Somerset West.

This article was written by MIA RUSSELL

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