Building an Icon: Netherlands Bank

WORDS Joshua Montile PHOTOS Courtesy of UKZN Architecture Department Archives

Join architect Joshua Montile as he heads to the land of sun, sea and sexy architecture, continuing our series on South Africa’s most iconic buildings. This time, Durban’s marvellous Mid-century Netherlands Bank is the focus.

Tucked away in the heart of the Durban CBD, a stone’s throw from City Hall and dwarfed by its imposing neighbours, rests an architectural masterpiece by one of South Africa’s most celebrated and revered architects. I first stumbled across the Netherlands Bank building as an architecture student in my second year of studies (the true puberty phase of architectural education). “Stumbled” is the correct word, as the four-storey building is easily lost among its soaring Smith Street surroundings. I stood across the street, watching people steal a moment from the hustle and bustle, at peace among the trees and bubbling fountains around its base. That moment left an indelible impression, and as I learnt more about the building and its legendary designer Norman Eaton, my fascination only grew.

Building Society

The Netherlands Bank building is simple to describe at first glance: a delicate rectangular glass box, draped in a gravity-defying screen of glazed ceramic bricks, and crowned by a lush roof garden. However, the seemingly straightforward appearance belies a level of detail and complexity made possible only by the most skilled and gifted of architects. Born in Pretoria in 1902, Norman Eaton was an architect of immense artistic talent, singular vision and intense idealism (picture the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead). His work synthesised characteristics of modernism with regionalism, and as described by the late South African painter Alexis Preller, “Certain words were constantly on his lips… delicate, simple, sensitive and individual.” Evident throughout Eaton’s work was a deep appreciation for African design, and the inspiration contained in the architecture, objects and natural beauty to be found across the continent.

After the successful completion of the Netherlands Bank building in Pretoria in 1953, Eaton’s services were again called upon in 1961 to design a new building for the bank in Durban – “Something of great quality… A contribution to bank architecture.” The aim was to create an enduring symbol of prestige that would in time become synonymous with the identity of the bank. Initially conceptualised as a 15-storey office block, the scope was later reduced to a low cubic structure comprising a parking basement, the banking hall, two levels of offices and a roof garden. Raised upon a podium of off-white travertine and set back five metres from Smith Street, the trees and fountains around the entrance give welcome relief from the harsh surrounding environment. The respected architectural academic Barrie Biermann described it poetically as “a broad white plinth on which willows weep and fountains laugh, and the spirit of Omar Khayyam walks between the hot lung-cancer fumes of Smith Street and the icy gaze of tellers in their air-conditioned banking hall”.

Designing for Durbs and Birds

A key aspect of the brief was to create an open, flexible internal space uninterrupted by columns. To achieve this, Eaton created a “structural floor” of immense reinforced concrete beams spanning between a series of piers. The mezzanine and office levels were then suspended from the structural floor using high tensile steel, creating a hall below entirely free of any columns. In layman’s terms, the interior of the building quite literally hangs from the underside of the roof garden, and the resulting double- volume space is impressive and airy, filled with dappled light that filters in through the external solar screen.

The screen itself hangs like a curtain around the exterior and comprises specially manufactured hollow clay blocks, finished in an impervious ceramic glaze of mottled greens and browns typically associated with weathered copper. So great was his attention to detail that, when determining the size of the blocks, Eaton even consulted an ornithologist to ensure the openings were smaller than the turning circle of an Indian myna! Aesthetically, this delicate and graceful screen is without a doubt the defining element
of the building, but functionally it also represents Eaton’s consideration for regional factors such as climate. Shading the glazed facade from the direct intensity of the sun creates a naturally well-lit interior while simultaneously reducing the load on the building’s air-conditioning system, even on the hottest of Durban days.

In typical Norman Eaton fashion, the building is replete with gorgeous, singular details. From the patterns in the brick paving to the carved marble water features and coved travertine edge detail, every aspect has been considered and attentively crafted. As Professor AL Meiring wrote in Eaton’s obituary, “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 (which for him) were living things, to be dealt with as a composer does with the various instruments making up an orchestra.”

A Setback that Still Stands

At the time of the building’s completion in 1962, and among some public confusion regarding its setback from the street, the bank felt compelled to write the following in its publication: “As the bushes and trees mature… the success of the venture will be apparent. People will take pleasure in our ‘wasteful setback’, and will no longer ask, ‘What have fountains to do with banking?’ Those who do their banking with us will feel privileged to enter this oasis in Smith Street.” Although the depth of conviction regarding this at the time is unclear, the bank’s commitment to Eaton’s concept proved correct, and was an early step towards a more human-centred urban architecture in South Africa. While many of the surrounding buildings have decayed over the decades, the Netherlands Bank stands in stark contrast. Voted “Durban’s Best Building” in 2014 by the architects of KZN, it is considered by many to be Eaton’s finest work, and an invaluable contribution to South African architecture. It also proved to be Eaton’s final work of significance due to his sudden passing in a car accident four years after its completion.

Despite its age, it embodies characteristics of design that we consider critical to architecture today: the honest use of enduring materials, its response to the demanding Durban climate, the soft treatment of the street edge, and the uncompromising consideration for the comfort and enjoyment of the people that would inhabit it.

Perhaps the most important quality of great architecture is its ability to span time, allowing us to connect the past and the present, and thereby inspire an exhilaration and eagerness for the future. Beginning in 2020, the building became the home of the Durban Chambers Club, a prestigious members’ club in the heart of the professional quarter. By day, it provided dining, conference and meeting facilities for members, while at night and on weekends, it was open to the public. The revitalised roof garden of aloes and quinine trees played host to glamorously dressed people dining and sipping cocktails, while noise from the city below filtered upwards into the warm night sky. For a brief period, it felt as though Eaton’s final vision for the Netherlands Bank building had been realised, offering a beautiful glimpse of what a rejuvenated Durban can someday become. At the moment, the building is in good shape but only partially occupied and operational, which is a little sad. With any luck, a great new tenant who’ll love it as much as fans of good design do is just over the horizon.

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