Building An Icon: Disa Park

WORDS Robert Silke PHOTOS Mickey Hoyle, Supplied, Adele van Heerden (Disa Park Artworks)

In the second of our new series, which celebrates classic South African buildings, architect Robert Silke plays sleuth on a triptych of controversial Cape Town high-rises – the Disa Park Towers. Prepare to be fascinated…

One night at an Observatory dive bar, back in the late 1990s when I was still an architecture student, an old queen in latex trousers suggested that the architects of “those tampon towers” should be run out of Cape Town by a mob armed with torches and pitchforks. It’s a rather Catholic vision of what may yet be in store for me as an architect of equally above-average (sized) buildings…

The basics

As architects to the Archdiocese of Cape Town in the 1960s and ’70s, Bergamasco, Duncan & James designed most of the Cape’s modern Catholic churches. Perhaps their most accomplished work was the fabulously rotund St Charles Borromeo (the “lemon squeezer”) in Johannesburg, but the fortunes of the firm reached a crescendo in the late 1960s with their appointment for Disa Park Towers. That’s the more formal name of their magnum opus, which rose to 55 metres or 18 storeys above street level, but (more controversially) topped out at 209 metres above sea level in a city built mostly at 10 metres above the sea.

Building An Icon: Disa Park
The trio of spool-like Disa Park Towers in Vredehoek protrude above the Mother City, making a (sometimes controversial) statement at the foot of Table Mountain.

The developers were a consortium of “out-of-towners”, one of whom was said to be the son of the then-finance minister (and later state president) Dr Nico Diederichs – who had studied in Nazi Germany, and was also known as “Dr Gold” for his connection to Swiss bank accounts. How the city fathers came to grant planning permission at the foot of the Table Mountain National Park remains the stuff of conjecture and conspiracy theory.

The zeitgeist

In the 1960s and ’70s, Cape Town suffered a “white housing crisis” (an actual thing, apparently), which resulted in several bold planning interventions on the part of the Nationalist government. These measures would, by the 1970s, come to collide with the city’s Victorian self-image as “little” Cape Town; they’d also result in the suspension of the city’s zoning scheme, so as to allow unlimited height and bulk to any developer prepared to build apartments in the white group areas. Think Gardens Centre tower, Blouberg Heights and the Twin Towers in Sea Point.

While Disa Park predates all of this, the government was already involved in Cape Town, with plans for a monolithic new Civic Centre. Disa Park Towers must be seen in the context of high-rise Nationalist interventions to drag our reluctant fishing village into the 20th century.

READ MORE: Building an Icon: The Carlton Centre

The Nationalist vision for Cape Town in the 1970s was stunningly illustrated in SABC’s cult sci-fi, Afrikaans- language Thunderbirds knock-off, Interster. It conjured a world in which South Africa had mastered space travel, aliens spoke Afrikaans, and a Hong Kong vision of Cape Town had become the capital of the galaxy. Disa Park Towers would have looked far better in this context.

Indeed, UCT’s emeritus professor of architecture Jo Noero believes that the towers would fit in had they been part of a greater context of residential high-rises ringing the base of the mountain.

Not many people know that…

Paul Duncan, author of Hidden Johannesburg and Hidden Cape Town, is also the son of the late Kenneth Shaw Duncan, one of the towers’ principal architects – a dubious provenance that Paul rightly wears as a badge of honour. Although Paul had a strained relationship with his remote and devout father (and although Duncan senior destroyed all of his drawings and models of the towers), Paul recalls that the unrealised grand scheme would’ve seen up to 17 identical towers, all intended to line the planned Table Mountain highway that would run across the top of Vredehoek. Paul believes his father played some redemptive role in limiting the number of totems to a trinity – quaintly named Blinkwater, Platteklip and Silverstroom by the developers.

Why the buildings matter

It may today be difficult to imagine, but Disa Park Towers represented a more organic, human-centred and environmentally sensitive architecture than the international-style glass- box consensus of the 1960s and ’70s. The cylinders were, ironically, part of a family of world architecture that was spiritually more aligned to the flower-power movement and socialist modernism than to the purely commercial utilitarianism of their developers.

The world’s first and most beautiful set of cylindrical residential towers was Chicago’s Marina City (1963), which distinguishes itself from Disa Park by being four times the height (and thus more elegant) as well as having been cast out of curvaceous in situ concrete, rather than the flat, faceted pre-cast panels used to build Disa Park faster and more cheaply. Marina City’s architect, Bertrand Goldberg, fled Nazi Germany for the US in the 1930s while studying architecture at the ill-fated Bauhaus in Weimar – at just about the same time that Diederichs was studying at the University of Leiden.

We love them because

The towers were designed to offer a wonderful, affordable quality of life to their intended thousand residents. They boasted jaw-dropping views of the city and the mountain, with social facilities such as tennis courts, crèches and a private nature reserve covering more than 80% of the site. The circular footprint was chosen to minimise impact from the southeaster, and the exposed aggregate concrete panels were intended to “blend in” with the mountain.

READ MORE: House of Legends: Creating Coromandel

Despite the architects’ best intentions, the towers were almost immediately reviled by locals as a foreign and alien imposition – which is understandable, given the context. But they have often served as home-of-first-resort to newcomers to Cape Town who hadn’t yet heard that they weren’t supposed to live there. That said, Disa Park apartments are extremely well-held, with an impressive proportion of residents-for-life who genuinely do love living there. While the financial, political and administrative background to the towers may have been mired in ethical controversy, there remains a resonant morality to their design. In 2004, UK design magazine Wallpaper listed the towers as some of the best buildings in Cape Town.

The state of play today

Unlike Ponte, their circular sibling in Joburg’s Berea, the Disa Park Towers have never gone through an awkward period or any kind of social turmoil, nor have they suffered from capital flight (or white fright) – which perhaps makes them more Capetonian than previously thought.

South African fashion designer Marianne Fassler has called it home, and so has Alexander Geh, one of my partners in architecture, whose gigantic one-bedroom flat (converted from a two-bedroom) featured in artist Adele van Heerden’s Disa Park series of sketches. And as you will have read in his ed’s letter, VISI editor Steve Smith also lived there when he first moved to Cape Town with his mother.

READ MORE: Tiny Vredehoek Apartment

The towers went sectional title in the 1980s, and so their aesthetic maintenance is overseen by a pragmatic body corporate. While creatives in the know are alive to just how special the towers are, a fresh coat of white paint (with gloss-black on the window frames) would serve to make the remarkable design beautiful and accessible to the majority of Cape Town’s residents.

What happened to the architects

The three towers were completed by late 1969, with the final tower erected in just 63 working days, in what must have been a financial windfall for the young architects. Facing bitter public backlash and rumours of scandal and corruption, Ugo Bergamasco emigrated shortly thereafter to Italy, where he ultimately retired to a villa in San Gimignano, the famous Tuscan city of great towers. It is unknown whether the San Gimignano city fathers ever requested Bergamasco to contribute a tower to their own skyline.

Kenneth Shaw Duncan, on the other hand, returned to more traditional ecclesiastical work for the remainder of his professional career – but not before using his Disa Park “winnings” to take his wife and three sons on a pilgrimage to the Vatican, where they procured an audience with Pope Paul VI (after whom his youngest was named). It remains unclear whether confession was taken…

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