Monday, March 31, 2008

Prince Albert: Unique Dorp or Blikkiesdorp?

- Derek Thomas -

The sudden appearance of a new form of structure and architectural aesthetic in an historic area of Prince Albert has raised some questions, and understandably, some hackles. The innovative building system used to construct a new dwelling in De Queekvalleij, next to buildings which have observed the traditional vernacular associated with the town, is an insensitive intervention. The neighbours would be justified in their objections to it. At worst, if this form of system–building is permitted to proliferate throughout the historic core of the town, the integrity of Prince Albert’s renowned heritage will be seriously impaired.

The De Queekvalleij developers were sensitive to the historic importance of the site and prepared guidelines for development on the Estate “which reaches back 230 odd years to the earliest origins of the village of Prince Albert. De Queekvalleij was the name of the original land grant by Cape Governor Ryk Tulbagh to ‘den landbouwer Zacharias de Beer’ in February 1762. He established a flourishing farm and within 100 years, a church had been built with a tiny town emerging at its feet.” Regrettably the visionary guidelines issued to the buyers of the plots on the Estate have been overlooked by the developers of the new building, but also by the municipal authority.
The design team responsible for this building method, and its inevitable dubious aesthetic, justify their decision to use this building system on economic, historic precedents (not in Prince Albert) and a ‘shortage of skilled artisans’. They forgot to mention expediency. They claim that “‘Karoo’ style is as much a state of mind as it is a style of building”. In support they cite “the rural nature of the property's surroundings and town of Prince Albert”, “the aesthetic properties of the material and being true to the material”, and “speed of construction”. It is doubtful whether any of the adjoining owners would find those supporting arguments actually lessen the visual intrusion into their neighbourhood.
The effect on the capital depreciation of adjoining properties, no matter where in the town they are situated, is a factor which, so far, no one has addressed. If the municipal authority, whose duty it is to protect the interests of all rate paying property owners in the town, wishes to avoid enraged property owners in the future, it is of prime importance that a proclaimed policy with guidelines is formulated without delay. My suggestion is that the authority could well adopt the following procedural and aesthetic guidelines as a matter of official policy:

All plans using these alternative building methods should require adjoining owner approval prior to being processed or passed by the Council. To achieve this it is proposed that the architect/designer be required to obtain the relevant signatures on the plans, from which the Council will be relieved of the onus of acting unilaterally in a potentially controversial situation. Adjoining owner endorsement should not supersede Council approval.
Certain sectors of the town are more important heritage areas than others. With the resources available to it (Pistorius Survey 1995), the Building and Heritage Committee is in a position to identify the heritage significance of the various areas.

In the design of the architecture, alternating the metal cladding with plastered walls could be used to aesthetic advantage. Opportunities such as the plastered brick external chimney, and stone plinths will help to reconcile the innovative construction with the traditional/conventional of neighbouring buildings. A minimum external area of say 25% in plaster on all elevations should be the rule of thumb applied for all system–built domestic structures. The cladding should have a painted finish in a colour in keeping with the immediate context.
Under no circumstances should system–built structures exceed one storey and the roof design should follow Victorian examples found in Prince Albert. Gables and parapets are just not acceptable using this form of construction.

[Derek Thomas is an architect resident in Prince Albert and has been involved with various initiatives to draw attention to the need for development guidelines and the heritage significance of the town’s unique architectural and cultural legacy.]

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