Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan and Alain Proust
Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan and Alain Proust
Panorama: One of the frescoes in the Old Mutual Building's Assembly Room. At the top of the picture note the Union Castle ship, the City Hall and Groote Kerk spires.
Panorama: One of the frescoes in the Old Mutual Building's Assembly Room. At the top of the picture note the Union Castle ship, the City Hall and Groote Kerk spires.

Cape Town - Capetonians are often smug about the glories of our natural environment: mountains, vineyards, beaches, harbours and wild winter seas. But it seems we have a great deal more to offer.

Glancing through the pictures in this magnificent book you might be forgiven for thinking you were looking at interiors in London or Paris or Vienna, but they’re all here in our city.

Going about our everyday business we take many of the grand buildings we pass for granted – the art deco Old Mutual Building in Darling Street, the City Hall, various churches, mosques and synagogues, the Centre for the Book, Somerset Hospital, even Muller’s Optometrist.

But take a look inside and you’ll be astonished at the glories that are tucked away.

The 30 buildings selected for this book are, in general, public buildings, not private houses, and most are in the centre of town, although Groote Schuur – the house – features, as does Welgelegen, UCT’s communications centre which is in a Sir Herbert Baker-designed Cape Dutch house tucked away behind Mostert’s Mill.

Paul Duncan, former editor of Condé Nast House & Garden (South Africa) is admiring, much of the time, but is not afraid to criticise when he deems it necessary.

Referring to Welgelegen, he says: “The interiors showed Baker at his arts and crafts best. They survived until 1979 when the university took over the property… Now, unfortunately, they no longer exist.”

You can get an idea of what they were like by looking at three paintings done around 1934 by the English painter James Durden and which still hang in the house: “these are a record of their time and they’re worth examining – if only to establish in your mind’s eye what should never have been allowed to happen”.

 

Duncan is equally scathing about the people in the secretary to Parliament’s office who, after much to-ing and fro-ing of e-mails, declined to allow Alain Proust to take pictures there.

This means you won’t get to see the utterly gorgeous Library of Parliament, which I was allowed to visit for research purposes and nearly swooned at its beauty. It’s all double-volume bookcases, tall narrow windows and oak desks.

But we should not concentrate on what is not here – there is plenty that is.

Much of it is astonishing – the glittering interior of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, for example, is utterly exotic; a teacher’s attic study at Founder’s House at Bishops, is a glorious collection of cushions and books and glass; the elegance of the Mayor’s Parlour in the City Hall, not to mention that building’s floor mosaics; the austere loveliness of the domed Ceremonial Hall in the Centre for the Book; the glowing colours of the Irma Stern Museum, the artist’s old home in Rosebank; and of course the wonder of the interior of the Old Mutual Building, which Duncan describes as an international art deco icon.

Proust’s camera seeks out the beauty in a spiral staircase, the quirky detail, the severity of an NG Kerk window, and he helps you to see the familiar in a wholly new way.

The lighting in most of these pictures is rich and mellow, bringing out the deep colour of old wood, or it can coolly highlight an architectural flourish.

Hidden Cape Town celebrates the unashamedly Eurocentric yearning of old Cape Town, but for all that the beauty is to be found here, right on the southern tip of Africa. This is an utterly gorgeous book. - Weekend Argus