WORDS Steve Smith IMAGES Dook PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes
Berthed among Keerom Street’s rows of stoic office buildings is a rather remarkable Deco-meets-Pomo-meets-ocean liner apartment block.
A striking new vessel has steamed into view and dropped anchor among the venerable advocates’ chambers that line Cape Town’s Keerom Street. Home to 43 small apartments, four mini-penthouse suites, and sporting a striking white visage, Tuynhuys makes a bold statement – both to anyone standing below it and to the plethora of boxy monoliths currently being Rubik’s-cubed across the city.
It’s also very obviously a long-awaited sibling for Holyrood, the Mother City’s iconic Art Deco apartment block located around the corner. And that’s no coincidence. Tuynhuys architect Robert Silke, of Robert Silke & Partners, lives in Holyrood and is a devotee of the architecture style popular during the 1920s and ’30s. Not that Tuynhuys is pure Deco – the design also folds ’70s and ’80s Postmodernism into Deco’s principles of futurism and its cost-effective way of creating decorative shape and form. As a result, instead of the ubiquitous glass and laser-cut alloy cladding, Tuynhuys employed the seldom-used technique of using plain old concrete, bricks and plaster to create its repeated curves, portholes and bisecting lines. “It was always going to be a critical part of the build,” says Robert. “There were no frills. All this building had was the plaster to create its shape and form, but contractors JLK Construction approached the whole thing with skill and love, often resolving the geometries for us.”
Somewhat more of a worry were the neighbours. Constructing a new building in an established neighbourhood inevitably draws legal objections, but when your neighbours all have the ability to bring an interdict free of charge – Tuynhuys is surrounded by advocates’ chambers and the Cape High Court – that possibility does ramp up. “Objections were indeed lodged,” says Robert, “but the strength of the design won out. Actually, the objectors all loved the building and it was more the disruption of the building process that was the problem.” And like that good ship whose passengers, once aboard, seldom give up their cabins, the Tuynhuys project attracted similarly inclined buyers. Rather than a big property developer, it was funded by a consortium of 14 investors who all proudly own a piece of this remarkable build.
Wisely retaining a piece or two of his project, Robert owns one of the small 25 m² apartments – “the worst one in the block” – and co-owns the penthouse suite showcased here, of which the opposite could be said. By overblown penthouse standards, it’s a relatively small 82 m² and does not have the requisite rooftop views. Yes, there’s a majestic vista of Table Mountain and Signal Hill from one corner, although this outlook is interrupted by other buildings.
Look out of the living room window and you’re confronted by the personality-free facade of the Huguenot Chambers, while altogether more quaint greened copper turrets belonging to the Keerom Street Chambers peer back at you from the balcony. Naturally, it’s even more of an issue for apartments on the lower floors. Or not. On the premise that even a poor view can have appeal if framed correctly, Tuynhuys’ capsule-shaped apertures do a remarkable job, even for apartments whose view is across the alley to the neighbouring building. By contrast, it’s impossible not to be impressed when you stand outside to take in the building’s full height from the street below, or inside this penthouse suite with highly original interiors that marry Art Deco to the Memphis Group. “There are no excuses for ugliness,” says Robert.
“We showed that on a fairly mediocre site, with a fairly mediocre budget, beauty can be achieved. It’s what they did with Holyrood.” He’s absolutely right. Tuynhuys, in contrast to the current host of dull, formulaic construction projects, demonstrates the basic Art Deco principle that you can cost-effectively create a beautiful building.