The grace and stature of the 110-year-old Union Buildings make it the perfect place to honour Madiba, writes George Devenish
Cape Town - On Monday in the grounds of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, President Jacob Zuma unveiled a statue of Nelson Mandela, our greatly esteemed and deceased leader and first president of the democratic South Africa.
This is part of the centenary celebrations of the magnificent buildings, designed by Sir Herbert Baker (1862-1946), one of the erstwhile British Empire’s outstanding architects.
As a public building, it is submitted, it ranks in beauty, panache and style with the Palace of Westminster in London, the Capitol building in Washington DC and the Secretariat building and Parliament House in New Delhi.
The latter were designed jointly by Baker and Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). It is a symbol of the authority of the state, epitomising the soul and essence of a great nation and its people. Work on the Union Buildings commenced in 1909 and was completed in 1913.
These buildings constitute an iconic landmark in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. The foundation stone was laid by the Duke of Connaught in November 1910. The construction involved 1 265 workers.
The total cost was £1 310 640 for the building and £350 000 for the site. Fourteen million bricks were used for the interior, half a million cubic feet of freestone, 74 cubic yards of concrete, 40 000 bags of concrete and 20 cubic feet of granite.
These governmental buildings were constructed from, inter alia, light Balmoral and reddish brown Buiskop sandstone, which are skilfully blended, in the English eclectic monumental style and are 285 metres long.
They have a semicircular shape, with two wings, each with a clock tower, which are symbolic and were intended to represent the union and conciliation of a deeply divided people, after the trauma and tragedy of the Anglo-Boer War.
This powerful symbolism still resonates even more so today in a new political context and they now can be perceived as reflecting the inclusion of all the diverse people of South Africa, into a new body politic by virtue of the kind of national reconciliation that Mandela epitomised and has bequeathed to us.
Baker was influenced by the artistic and architectural ideas of the legendary Sir Christopher Wren, an English Renaissance prince, who was both an astronomer and architect, of which St Paul’s Cathedral in London is his greatest and most glorious creation.
Baker, in relation to great public buildings, expounded the concept of a classical acropolis structure, found in Greece and Asia Minor, where he had studied Mediterranean architecture.
This required that a great public edifice should be a national ornament which establishes a nation, draws people and commerce and imbues its citizens with patriotism.
There are other interesting artistic features of the buildings, such as the twin statues on the domed towers which represent Atlas, holding up the world, and sculpted by Abraham Broadbent.
The statue on the domed rostrum in the amphitheatre between the wings is Mercury (Hermes), a mythical Roman messenger and god of trade, sculpted by George Ness.
The semi-circular colonnade which forms the backdrop for the rotunda and amphitheatre is terminated by two elegant clock towers.
The amphitheatre was intended, as was the position in Greek culture, for momentous gatherings of national and ceremonial significance.
Colossal and imposing columned pavilions protrude from the ends of the two sets of office blocks on the north and south elevations.
The design of each of the levels differs, requiring each stone to be individually cut. The architectural styles of the edifice range from at the lower level’s Edwardian monumental to the top levels, reflecting Cape Dutch, with the wooden shutters on the windows.
The windows from top to bottom are elongated and become progressively shorter towards the top floor. This skilfully creates the illusion of height.
As far as the overall design of the buildings, Baker chose the neoclassic architecture of the Italian Renaissance, combined with elements of the English Renaissance, as well as distinct features of Cape Dutch design, as reflected in the carved main doorways and fanlights, the wrought iron brass work and balustrades of the smaller area.
All of these features result in the building reflecting the majesty and grace that constitute the English Monumental style.
The interior of the buildings is in the Cape Dutch style, having such features as carved teak fanlights, heavy wooden doors, dark ceiling beams with white plaster walls and heavy wood furniture as well as the recurring motif of pomegranate in the swags and other decorations.
Despite the size of the buildings, Baker was meticulous in his attention to detail, which is evident throughout inside and outside the structure.
This is manifested in the grilles, the brass and light fittings, which are exquisite in their simplicity and elegance.
The buildings provide an ideal site for historic presidential inaugurations, the most famous being the inauguration of Mandela, in May 1994.
The official seat of the president is on the left hand side of the building, and the South African national flag is flown on the left hand side if the president is in his office.
Originally the complex was built to accommodate the entire public service for the erstwhile Union of South Africa.
At the time, it was the largest building in South Africa and possibly the largest building construction in the Southern Hemisphere.
The buildings, which have a breathtaking panoramic setting on Meintjies Kop, are surrounded by reflecting pools and beautiful terraced gardens, in which there are statues of other South African leaders such as generals Louis Botha, Barry James Hertzog and Jan Christian Smuts.
It is therefore fitting that the late Mandela, our profoundly eminent statesman, and one of the greatest persons of the present time and of the 20th century, should be honoured in the precincts of Sir Herbert Baker’s illustrious architectural masterpiece.
* George Devenish is Professor emeritus and senior research associate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and one of the scholars that assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers