Review: Building Apartheid. On Architecture and Order in Imperial Cape Town

Author(s) Nicholas Coetzer
Publisher Ashgate
Year 2013

The urban development of South African cities as ethnically segregated settlements has generally focussed on the impact of post-1948 legislation that created the apartheid state enforced spatially through a plethora of laws and statutes. Coetzer’s book draws attention to the sometimes overlooked impact of Britain’s imperial vision of its empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in creating the foundations of Apartheid South Africa as seen in the development of Cape Town. In the nineteenth century, as the capital of the Cape Colony, occupied by Britain since the opening decade of the century, the British began to reinterpret the city and the rural architecture in terms of appropriation rather than difference.

Coetzer divides his narrative into three broad categories: Self, Other and Same. Using this as a tool for engaging with the attitudes of the British to the architecture of the colony he begins by probing the development of the Ruskinian notion of Englishness which developed strongly in the second half of the nineteenth century, exemplified by the City Beautiful, the development of the Garden City concept and the Arts and Crafts movement. In Britain during this time, the reaction to the post-industrial cities was posited in a return to a rural past anchored in a bucolic vision of medieval villages with their vernacular cottages as the essential quality of the English village. He identifies Herbert Baker as Cecil Rhodes’ architect — one of the agents of empire who was to bring the essence of Englishness to the architecture of Cape Town as a reflection of the English ideal. The interest of both Rhodes and Baker in the Cape Dutch farmsteads led to the appropriation of the aesthetic of Cape Dutch gabled buildings as a shared European heritage and the acquisition of numerous important farmhouses by the English plutocracy. This created a role, he argues, for Cape Dutch architecture as a bond for an English/ Afrikaner identity although the latter is arguably a subaltern text in this narrative dominated as it is by the role that the English played in the shaping of a white identity at the Cape and with the coming of the Union of South Africa as an element of a white South African identity. But it is the English appropriation of Cape architecture as an aesthetic that is explored in the architecture that the English architects at the Cape created.

The first section of the book, dealing with the creation of an appropriated identity by the English at the Cape, is also seen as the mechanism for taking possession of the land, and not merely being there as a foreign occupier but creating a ‘British South Africa’. He points out that the utopian English ideal of the Garden City was used to divide and create racially segregated areas so that the ‘Other’ could be identified and isolated, thus creating the apartheid city that remains to this day. Although probably not done intentionally by the architects and planners, the imperatives of the British Empire formed the basis on which apartheid was built.

Concerns about the aesthetic of cities informed the development of the town planning profession in Britain. Concerns about appearance dominated planning decisions in Cape Town. The notions of a picturesque urban landscape emanated out of the approach of Raymond Unwin and his development of the ideals of the Garden City as an aesthetic informed by the planning of the city. This attitude underscored concerns about the ‘slum’ areas of the city, particularly in District Six. There, Coetzer postulates, concerns about appearance informed decisions to demolish areas rather than a concern about the well-being of the residents. These areas formed the spaces of ‘Otherness’ and posed threats to the authorities and the white middle class. He describes in some detail the manner in which these spaces threatened the need for order that was deemed essential in the governing of the British Empire. Although the demands of the Imperial project certainly demanded the imposition of order, by the end of the First World War, the influence of Empire had waned and an independent approach to issues in South Africa emerged. Although many architects and planners were British born and trained, they were not the sole arbiters of order. Political will in South Africa, which was not dominated by British concerns, is silent in the text. Yet it was here that the structures of apartheid would ultimately develop.

He then goes on to explore the theme of ‘Same,’ looking at the housing projects of the city. Certainly, in the creation of areas such as Langa as a segregated African residential area, English town planning ideals were applied and English town planners involved in the design of these areas. Unwin’s Garden City formed the basis for both white residential areas such as Pinelands as well as segregated areas like Langa. However, in the latter case these had more to do with surveillance and control rather than mere visual attractiveness. In considering the manner in which housing in Langa was considered, it is clear that this approach focused on Africans as ‘Other’ and sought to bring them under control — an approach that was to be reflected in a slew of legislation that imposed ethnic segregation and established the groundwork for the apartheid project of segregation which was essentially spatial.

Nicolas Coetzer’s book, based on his doctoral thesis, deals with an overlooked aspect of the development of the segregated state. As such it makes an important contribution to an understanding development of Cape Town, which is, ironically, often measured in aesthetic terms. The role played by the British administration of the Cape as part of the British Empire is often overlooked. Likewise, the role of British trained architects and planners has also been largely ignored. This gap has been addressed here. Possibly, in its focus on the impact of Britain on the development of Cape Town, it plays down the role of the Afrikaners who were significant political role players. The political will in the development of segregationist planning cannot be overemphasised. Ultimately, it was here that the structure of apartheid was to be created, and the planners became the puppets of politics.


Professor Andre van Graan studied architecture at the University of KwaZulu Natal and completed his studies at the University of Westminster in London. He holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town and is currently the Acting Head of the Department of Architectural Technology and Interior Design at CPUT. His doctoral thesis and research focus on the introduction, adaptation and impact of architectural modernism in a colonial context. In addition to his academic work he is a Past President of the Cape Institute for Architecture, chairs the Heritage Committee and also serves on its Management Committee. He is a member of the South African branch of Docomomo which documents buildings of the Modern Movement, and a past chairman of the Vernacular Architecture Society of South Africa.

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