THEN & NOW: Durban’s ‘best building’ revived

By Illa Thompson Time of article published Feb 28, 2020

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Durban's "Best Building" - the former Nedbank building - has been given a new lease of life.

Chambers Club, in the heart of Durban’s professional quarter, may be one of South Africa’s newest members’ clubs, but its home has a remarkable history.

In August 2014, as part of the 25th International Union of Architects World Congress, Durban’s top 31 landmark buildings were chosen for their design and history by KwaZulu-Natal architects.

The distinctive former Netherlands Bank head office in 303 Anton Lembede (Smith) Street in the city centre emerged as top of the list - and was named “Durban’s Best Building”.

The original four-storey building for The Netherlands Bank designed by Norman Eaton.

British architect-planner Lord Holford said: “This cube-like building, deemed one of the most charming modern buildings of the world, is the only one in Durban by Norman Eaton. It is distinguished by the travertine podium to the pavement, water fountains and vegetation, its diminutive scale, the suspended filigree screen shielding the interior from the inclement effects of the sun, and a roof garden.”

Eaton is probably best known for his bank buildings, and the four-storey Nedbank building in Durban is one of his finest. It was the last building he created before he died and is considered his masterpiece.

Norman Eaton (1902-1966) was applauded at the time as being “the finest architect in the country”.

Professor AL Meiring, in Eaton’s obituary in The Pretoria News, wrote: “He stood head and shoulders above the body of architects in our country in two respects.

“The first was his ability to give each of his buildings its own distinctive character, painstakingly but beautifully developed. The second was his use of materials. Eaton would integrate them from the very beginning. Materials were for him living things to be dealt with as the composer does with the various instruments making up an orchestra.”

The 20-storey tower, formerly Nedbank’s head office, was added on to the original four-storey cube building in 1972. Picture: Illa Thompson
The building on 303 Anton Lembede (Smith) Street is now the home of Durban Club Chambers. To the right of it is the portrait of Anton Lembede by Sakhile Mhlongo. Picture: Illa Thompson

The adjacent 20-storey tower block, formerly Nedbank’s head office, was added on to the original Eaton building in 1972.

Now it has been transformed into Durban Club Chambers building - the epicentre of the professional quarter for the legal fraternity, business community, entrepreneurs and creatives.

This is part of an extensive city-wide project by Urban Lime, specialists in re- imagining commercial property, and breathing new life into office, commercial, retail and business nodes throughout South Africa.

Occupying the roof garden level and the floor above is the new two-storey Chambers Club - a recently launched members’ club for Africa’s business and professional community.

A stone’s throw away from the law courts in Durban, the Durban Club Chambers building, is distinguished by its iconic grass-green ceramic tiled frontage. The building is slightly set back from street level and has been a distinctive part of the city’s signature geography since 1966. The instantly recognisable green tile motif is included in the design of the club throughout on its wallpaper and interior glass windows.

The building has been repurposed and conserved and has been rejuvenated by a team led by world-class designer, Cape Town-based Robert Sherwood.

It has been beautifully designed with dining, meeting and conference facilities. By day it is a private members-only club, and at night and over weekends, it is open to the public.

The refurbishment comprises meeting rooms, board rooms, a 100-seater restaurant, a cocktail bar, lounge, parking facilities and a cloakroom. It is perfect for professionals and those looking for an elegant, safe, quiet place to meet, work and dine in the middle of town.

One of the special features of the new Chambers Club is a beautiful rooftop garden which overlooks the city. It boasts 2400 plant species, commissioned sculptures, quinine trees, indigenous grasses and aloes. This carefully created space is an eventual realisation of what Norman Eaton originally wished for. It is ideal for an after-work alfresco sundowner to meet colleagues and friends before heading home.

The professional quarter will further be enhanced in soon through the partial pedestrianisation of Durban Club Place.

The ground floor will have an array of carefully selected retailers. There are long-term and short-term office working spaces upstairs. Nedbank still operates downstairs.

The precinct is known for its permanent public art, depicting the late Anton Lembede, titled Anton, Bachelor of Law, by Durban artist Sakhile Mhlongo, which is the largest privately-funded public art piece in KwaZulu-­Natal and one of the largest in the country, covering just less than 600m2.

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