Johannesburg - When Sir Herbert Baker finished constructing the iconic Union Buildings, his clients were in raptures. No less a person than the governor William Palmer, the second earl of Selborne, who oversaw the creation of the Union of South Africa, would declare: “People will come from all over the world to wonder at the beauty of the site and admire the forethought and courage of the men who selected it.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Baker drew up the plan in 1908 and building started five months after the union was formed on May 31, 1910. It was finished in three years by a veritable army of 1 265 artisans and labourers. They laid 14 million bricks and used an eye-watering amount of sandstone, granite and cement, and forests of Rhodesian teak and stinkwood for the trimmings indoors. It was the biggest public building in the southern hemisphere at the time – and one of the biggest public works projects too.
It was designed to house the entire civil service of the union. Today it often seems as if the public service has spread throughout the entire city that lies before the Union Buildings – if you include the parastatals, as far south as Centurion too – and that’s before you start considering the government sprawl in the nine provinces.
The Union Buildings sit on Meintjieskop, a ridge on the east of the city. They could well have been on Muckleneuk ridge on the western border of the city or even where the City Hall stands today, but Baker chose Meintjieskop, complete with its working quarry, which he craftily converted into an amphitheatre, flanked by its two 95m wings.
He was inspired by the acropolises he had seen in Greece and Turkey, where he studied classical architecture. It was an era of empire, of thinking big and Baker wanted his design to be just that and underscore the British architectural genius of Sir Christopher Wren’s dictum that a public building should be a national ornament and a focal point for the nation.
The two wings represented Afrikaans and English, joined by the amphitheatre for important national ceremonies. In 1913, racial harmony meant between Boer and Brit, in quintessential South African style, and the buildings are remembered across the world today for two separate and different reasons: the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president and his lying in state there 19 years later.
The landscaped terraces that lead down towards the city reflect South Africa’s chequered history. There are statues of the great Afrikaner statesman Louis Botha, and his Boer comrade JBM Hertzog; there’s one of only three Delville Wood memorials, exact replicas of the one in France and even one of the last remaining Long Tom cannons, standing sentinel over the city.
There’s a police memorial too, unveiled by former president PW Botha while the police were quelling the unrest in the townships and vainly trying to keep a lid on the total onslaught. After Mandela’s inauguration, another memorial was added, to the 20 000 women who marched there on August 9, 1956 to protest against the pass laws.
But the best monument of all is the 9m statue of Madiba that actually looks like the great reconciler, rather than the bloated face on coins and the bemused caricature in Sandton Square. He stands directly below the amphitheatre at the foot of the terrace, fittingly commanding the entire complex. His arms outstretched towards the city, he’s also welcoming the world to the Union Buildings, which, lest we forget, still house the offices of the president and his deputy.
The secret to the Union Buildings, though, lies in their continued relevance to the people of this country. The architecture is quintessentially colonial, a mix of Edwardian topped by Cape Dutch, yet the buildings keep on drawing tourists, both local and foreign every day.
Locals enjoy the gardens, picnicking there and even working out there, doing push-ups on the steps and circuits on the terraces, and brides have their wedding pictures taken against the backdrop. The creators of the cartoon strip Madame & Eve love it as a motif to their drawings, the mint honoured it in a R2 coin and the Pretoria News incorporated it as a key part of its front-page masthead. Lord Selborne had it spot on all those years ago.
As for Baker, he left for Delhi to design the government buildings, but like his idol Wren, his epitaph lies all around us – in the other buildings he designed, from schools to memorials and even private homes, all over the country over a 20 year period from Cape Town to Kimberley, Joburg, Grahamstown and even the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.