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Architecture in the inner city of Port Elizabeth South Africa and their impact on urban renewal

urban renewal, Port Elizabeth South Africa, architecture,

Pe’s built environment comes full circle

South African coastal city Port Elizabeth (PE) has suffered from a lack of real estate development in the past, which has worked in the city’s favour up until now. The beautiful colonial buildings were protected when in other cities many architectural landmarks were bulldozed to make way for ugly high-rises without soul. Now, communities are beginning to understand that our building spaces can and should be beautiful. Communities must have places to gather, and these places must reflect the spirit of the people gathering there.

Architect Timothy Hewitt-Coleman of NOH Architects in PE, points to the cluster of historical buildings around the Market Square in the city that have particular resonance for him. He refers to the town hall, the Reserve Bank building, the library, the Feather Market Centre and the oldest opera house in Africa as examples of buildings that reflect a bygone era before motor vehicles, when people still gathered on foot, such as on market day.

“Buildings erected at the turn of the century reflect the community – they focused on pedestrians by creating spaces such as squares, parks, picturesque avenues and vistas. For example, the City Hall erected at the end of the main road in the inner city provides a vista for all who walk down this street. Creating a pedestrian mall in this space now is acknowledging the importance of the community having a beautiful place to meet and walk.

“Turn-of-the-century structures were erected a time when people were more focused on public life. If we consider that during the 70’s, 80s and 90s, people in South Africa had other priorities and intellectual thought was focused on apartheid – the buildings reflect that – they are institutional, militarized and restrictive without much focus on the aesthetics.

“Now, however, we are coming full circle, we are more aware of the role that buildings play in community life. We are gaining the confidence to express ourselves through our buildings; to bring in aspects of what we think is beautiful into the design yet at the same time remembering the functionality of the space.

An example is PE’s new International Convention Centre, which is at planning stage. “Obviously, this building has a specific use and must be large enough to be practical, but it is also built to frame the surrounding land- and seascapes and contains spans of light sheet metal that allow for open spaces, rather than columns, which look crowded.
“This form of design isn’t new – sheet metal was used in the Victorian railway station building in Strand Street in PE, it’s essentially the same stuff we are using now (with technological improvements).

"Reinforced concrete has been around since Roman times. What we have now that we never had before is glazed glass and architects are begin to feel comfortable in that medium and play with ideas,” he says.
Hewitt-Coleman was part to a team that traveled to Australia to garner ideas from International Convention Centres (ICC) there – he says that earlier convention centers in Melbourne and Adelaide were quite ugly, but those erected in recent years have maintained their functionality while adding to, rather than detracting from, the spaces around them.
He hopes that the ICC in PE will be the best of them all.

“As communities mature there is an awareness of and a debate around, the built environment. Political leaders who have this vision and make bold decisions with regards to new buildings should be lauded as they are setting the tone for building spaces within the whole community. Community members see these aesthetic structures and become inspired by them when they make changes to their own homes; it filters down from large-scale community buildings.

Pierre Voges, CEO of the Mandela Bay Development Agency MBDA says, “One of the key strengths of the Port Elizabeth inner city is the beauty of the architecture still found here. The Art Deco buildings are known throughout the country and they deserve to be revived.Similarly, the new projects that are part of the mandate of the MBDA are designed to be sensitive to the need to create special public places while at the same time protecting our natural and cultural heritages. New buildings don’t have to create negative spaces; they are essentially walls to an outside room. Older buildings don't have to be knocked down, they will add to the inner city's beauty if they are preserved and revitalised for future generations.”

Voges says it is very common for cities to go through the cycle that PE is now experiencing – the inner city becomes neglected in favor of nodes around the city as people move out and fill spaces elsewhere. Then these nodes become so successful that it pushes development back into the inner city and this becomes developed again. This is the model for urban development all over the world.

“Port Elizabeth," he says, "has now begun to evolve into truly dynamic African city with spaces that reflect its community spirit,” he adds.
Published: 2008-07-15
Author: Angela Graham

About the author or the publisher
Angela Graham has more than 15 years experience in the PR industry. Most of that experience has been centred around business pr – she has worked at HSBC Investment Services as their media manager and at a Grant Thornton as their communications manager – both these roles involved growing the brand through PR, identifying key spokespeople and gaining positive coverage for the firms. Angela has also written for the technical, trade, business, tourism, education, sport, retail and property sectors.

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