Man on a high-rise

WORDS Nechama Brodie

Lees in Afrikaans.

Henning Rasmuss is a co-director with Anthony Orelowitz at Paragon Architects. They were part of the design team for the Cape Town stadium and the practice that designed 15 Alice Lane and the new Alexander Forbes building on 115 West Street (featured in VISI 66 The Office). Henning now has his aspirations set on Africa. He speaks to Nechama Brodie about some of the landscapes that have shaped his journey.

The 1970s: The last building boom

As a child, growing up in Johannesburg, Henning would accompany his father on trips into “town”, catching the bus from Melville.  

“I would go look at building sites while he completed his errands,” Henning says. “He would put me up against a hoarding – there would be viewing holes cut into the sides, at adult height and at kid height. He’d leave me there for hours. It left a deep impression. I grew up watching the last big building boom of Johannesburg.”

Henning remembers watching the completion of the old Standard Bank building – a “hanging building”, built from the top down – and the Carlton Centre.

“What I remember most is the smell,” he says, “the smell of concrete and welding. The sounds and smells. The size of the excavations…”  

At some point Henning asked his father: “What do all these people do?”

Henning’s father explained that the only person who knew what everyone was doing on site was the architect.  

The 1980s: Broken buildings

Henning says he was slightly drunk the night he decided to study architecture – it was during his national service and he had to complete his university application forms, deciding between law and architecture.

“I asked one of my friends [which course I should choose],” he says. “He said ‘you’re such an arsehole already, you’ll make a terrible lawyer.’ So I ticked architecture.”

At university Henning says he “ate, drank and slept architecture,” together with a close group of friends that included Thorsten Deckler of 26’10 Architects (also featured in VISI 66 The Office). His studies coincided with the marked decline of Johannesburg’s CBD when major tenants abandoned the city centre for Braamfontein or the nascent CBD of Sandton and the suburbs. 

“We got into the idea of broken buildings, old industrial buildings, imploded buildings – the brokenness of stuff and the skeletons of buildings. It was a 1980s thing,” he says, of the obsession with structure and deconstruction, “like working with photocopies and Letraset.” 

The 1990s: Resurrection

Henning says that when he was a young graduate “everyone was talking about how Jo’burg was dead. It irritated me a lot – [being] a young architect in a city everybody said was finished. I wanted to understand why.”

After 1994, Henning began encountering “all sorts of foreign architects who had an interest in Johannesburg.” He gave tours of the city, and says “I only got excited about Jo’burg architecture when I started taking [overseas visitors] around.”

It cued a new stage: where, Henning says, he began to understand the link between social history and architecture.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in history,” he says. “Generally I understand cities through history – every period, every decade is defined by the stuff that went down,” or, case in point, the buildings that went up.

“When I lived in Berlin I knew everything’s history,” Henning says. “I’d lived in Johannesburg my whole life, but realised I only understood a fraction of its story.”

Walking through the eastern inner city – the former “garment district”, now edged by the Maboneng Precinct – Henning saw “old industrial architecture that had become derelict because of apartheid, when the textile industry had been moved to the homelands. I saw how the government had broken the city. I started to understand why parts of a city rise and fall.”

Henning spent time in Hillbrow, Bellevue, Yeoville and Observatory, marking the cyclical nature of Jo’burg’s urban migration and signs of life in what many others had written off as dead spots. “You could still go to Café Zurich [in Hillbrow],” an iconic coffee and hangout spot where, Henning says, his father (an immigrant from Germany) had spent time in the 1950s, “and see new generations of immigrants”, now hailing from Africa instead of Europe. 

Transitional spaces

It was during the 1990s that Henning and Thorsten started “working in a reactive way.”

Henning says that that he and Thorsten “invited [themselves] to the Venice [Architecture] Biennale. We got drunk and sent in a submission.”

When they were invited to present, Henning says he realised they “had to tell a story about Johannesburg. We needed to know stuff – and give the story an attitude, and a flavour.”

As a result, he says, he developed a “strong opinion on just about anything to do with Jo’burg,” which in turn led to him becoming [together with Thorsten] one of the go-to urban thinkers about anything to do with the re-emerging city. The pair participated in a number of exhibitions and publications engaging with transitional spaces in South Africa, working together with Thorsten’s (now) business partner and wife Anne Graupner.  

While Thorsten and Anne “spun off into an activist practice,” Henning says he became “more mainstream”.

In 1997, after returning from working in Hong Kong for several months, Henning started what would become Paragon Architects, together with Anthony Orelowitz.

The building with the lift

“We started like everyone else,” Henning says, of Paragon, “doing bathroom renovations and patios and kitchens. We hunted for work.”

Now, Henning says, the only work they won’t take is private houses.

“We went where the money was,” he states, saying that he and Orelowitz actively began pursuing large developers and developments.

Their first major project was the renewal of the Peregrine Holdings head office in Sandton, which involved adding two extra floors and excavating the site for parking and landscaping.

In 2002 Paragon was awarded its “first building with a lift” – part of the development at Melrose Arch. The lift is now part of the firm’s history: Henning explains they had been courting property developer and investor Zenprop for some time; the director had told them he would consider giving Paragon work “when somebody else gave us a building with a lift,” says Henning.  

They called Zenprop the day they got the Melrose Arch job, and subsequently went on to do so much work for the company that Paragon almost became viewed as Zenprop’s in-house architects. (Zenprop is responsible for developing both the Norton Rose and Alexander Forbes buildings.)     

Raising the roof

Paragon was one of the partners responsible for creating the Cape Town Stadium in Green Point, in a joint venture through POINT Architects & Urban Designers, working on the structure between 2006 until it was handed over to the City of Cape Town in 2009.

“For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Henning, adding that “I chose the parts of the project that interested me, which was mainly the roof. The structure was incredible high-tech. It involved over 9 000 pieces of glass, of which only 6 800 were the same size. The roof also had to be able to lift up and down, to expand in the wind.”

The stadium – and the roof in particular – went on to win a number of international design and construction awards, but the project came at a high cost for Henning, who says that he “lost almost all of [his] Jo’burg clients” as a result of his time away in Cape Town. 

Growing a global practice

“Anthony and I have started a series of other businesses over the years, which now make up the Paragon Group,” Henning explains, including Hub Architects with Jean-Paul Zietsman, Paragon Interface Architects with Marilize van Dyk, Paragon Habitat Architects with Nadia Tromp, Aspire Architects with Rendani Netshilema, Paragon Arquitetura [in Brazil] with Leticia de Andrade, and Paragon Architects South Africa with Thulani Sibande. “This is the story of the journey with different partners,” Henning says.

Henning has been working in Africa for over a decade, and now only does African development work. “We decided one of the partners had to go after African work, and we’re now in 11 countries, with projects in six of these.

“People come to us because they want the kinds of buildings we do in Sandton,” Henning explains. “We don’t go to Ghana and design in a different way. The differences will emerge in the building processes, and become ‘local’ later.”

One of his jobs included building a brewery in Cabinda, Angola, where every single piece had to be imported, “right down to the screws, the nails, the hammers. I’m interested in buildings in logistically challenged locations.”  

Henning says a large proportion of his time in Africa is spent trying to build relationships. “We don’t have projects in all 11 countries, but we’re trying to take our net as wide as we can. We don’t even know where the dots are yet, and I’m trying to connect them.”

Henning says he “spends a lot of time looking out of windows”. He makes one-minute movies everywhere he goes, switching his phone’s camera on for exactly 60 seconds, creating a massive visual collage – of nightclubs, restaurants, building sites, even the food he eats. “I use the videos for briefings,” he explains, “and to map stuff. Then I go back and look at them again. I look at how people are building, at the plasterwork, at tiles.” The details, rather than the architecture, are what absorb him.

“We want to be the best commercial architecture practice on the continent. That’s a long journey. I’m off buildings. I’m designing the business now.”

Get the new VISI 66 The Office to read our feature about the new Alexander Forbes building in Sandton.

Read more of Nechama Brodie’s articles here