Architecture Influencers: Robert Silke

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Supplied, Jac de Villiers, Stefan Zander, Mike Wesson, David Southwood

Ever wondered who inspires our current generation of architects? Cape Town architect Robert Silke cites the buildings of the late Louis Karol as the reason he pursued a career in architecture… and an internship at his practice that ended up lasting 18 years.

Robert Silke didn’t have the childhood of your average ’80s white suburban kid in South Africa. “The Great White Lifestyle of the time was braaiing in the back yard,”he says on Zoom from the office of Robert Silke & Partners in Cape Town’s Wale Street. “I didn’t really come from that kind of a family. My mother, Eris, was this glamorous artist. She never learnt to drive – so she used to pick me up from school in Newlands, and then we would get on a bus and head into town. Nobody else’s mother did that at the time.”

Once at the Cape Town bus terminus, mother and son would access town via the subterranean walkways of the Golden Acre Shopping Centre on the corner of Adderley and Strand streets. “At the time, the Golden Acre was this futuristic underground world. There was no sun, only neon lights. It was like Starship’s We Built This City.”

Robert Silke
One of the most recognisable Karol buildings in Cape Town, the Golden Acre Shopping Centre has longed served as a link between Cape Town station and the centre of town, via a network of neon-lit underground shopping concourses.

Designed by the late Louis Karol and completed in 1979, the Golden Acre represents to Robert one of the first architectural projects of the era that aimed to reconnect a city that had been fundamentally fractured by the forced removals and segregated town planning of apartheid. “By the 1970s, the centre of town was a brutal place, socially and spatially,” says Robert. “The Foreshore had been reclaimed from the sea, and freeways had been cut not only around the city, but also through its centre. Louis effectively tied Cape Town back together again. The Golden Acre served as a crossing of the divide between the train station and the rest of town under the Strand Street highway. It had so many connections into town. You could arrive on a train, or on a bus. It was a completely egalitarian space because anybody could access it.”

Robert Silke
The Louis Karol-designed Mobil Court in Thibault Square, where Robert’s father used to work.

After their shopping stints, Robert and Eris would often head to another Louis Karol-designed building, the Cape Sun, where they’d meet up with one of Eris’s friends for a cocktail at the glitzy bar, or hang out in the Palm Court lounge to wait for Robert’s father to finish work at Mobil Court on Thibault Square – another Karol building.

“The Cape Sun plugged into the Golden Acre, so you could literally walk underground from a neon-lit mall into a five-star hotel that was dripping in granite and marble,” says Robert. “It was like an episode of Dynasty!”

Thirty-three storeys high, with a dramatic glass-walled observation elevator shaft on the corner of the building, the late-modernist, futuristic Cape Sun was built by the late hospitality mogul Sol Kerzner in the 1980s, becoming an architectural exclamation point in a cityscape that, at the time, was punctuated by Brutalist full stops. “Louis’s buildings were Baroque, opulent, optimistic and futuristic,” says Robert. “I cannot imagine any better reason to get involved in building a building that is not apologetic, but that makes the most of the resources available to it, and that believes it’s creating a better world. It made me want to become an architect.”

And so it transpired that, as a fresh-faced, 17-year-old, first-year architecture student at the University of Cape Town, Robert indentured himself to Louis’s architectural firm, starting out by making photo-realistic 3D renderings – a skill that got him facetime with Louis from the get-go. Robert ended up working at Louis Karol Architects for 18 years, before launching his own practice in 2015.

Robert Silke
Completed in 2020, Tuynhuys (featured in VISI 106) sits comfortably in a row of Victorian and Cape Dutch commercial buildings opposite the Cape High Court.

During this time, he pioneered the conversion of the iconic Art Deco Mutual Heights building in the CBD into an apartment block, designed the luxurious copper-glass- clad Society House high-rise in Lusaka, and brought the futuristic Citadel building in Claremont to life. In its first six years, Robert Silke & Partners has designed and completed nearly 500 apartments and more than 200 hotel rooms, perhaps the most famous of which is the beautiful Art Deco-homage Tuynhuys apartment block that overlooks Cape Town’s historic Company’s Garden.

“Louis, ultimately, was about creating public buildings in cities,” says Robert. “He wanted corporations to spend their money in a way that benefited the whole of society. That’s what I believe in as well. Our projects are about building in the city, with a level of detail, craftsmanship and sculptural exuberance.”

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Sign up to our weekly newsletter, here, or take a look at Tuynhuys designed by Robert.