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Union Buildings

Like an ancient temple adorning over the city it governs, the Union Buildings are a modern day acropolis, built at the highest point of South Africa's capital city, Pretoria, it forms the official seat of South Africa's government and houses The Presidency.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1908, building began in 1909 and was completed in 1913. It took approximately 1265 artisans, workmen and labourers almost three years to construct, using 14 million bricks for the interior office walls, half a million cubic feet of freestone, 74 000 cubic yards of concrete, 40 000 bags of cement and 20 000 cubic feet of granite.

The buildings represent a decadent layer of South Africa's history. Originally built to house the entire Public Service for the Union of South Africa, it was then the largest building in the country and possibly the largest building work undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.

Several other sites were considered, including Muckleneuk Ridge, on the opposite side of the city and Pretorius Square, in the centre of Pretoria, where the City Hall now stands. However, Herbert Baker was strongly in favour of Meintjeskop, which was within a mile of the centre of Pretoria and reminded him strongly of some of the acropolises of Greece and Asia Minor, where he had studied Mediterranean architecture.

The concept of an acropolis and a building that agreed with renowned British Architect Sir Christopher Wren's theory that a public building should be a national ornament which establishes a nation, draws people and commerce and makes people love their country easily persuaded the then powers that be, who were at the time, preoccupied with the ideal of establishing a new and united nation.

The British high commissioner at the time, Lord Selborne, remarked, "People will come from all over the world to wonder at the beauty of the site and to admire the forethought and courage of the men who selected it".

The design of the buildings was largely determined by the nature of the site. Baker envisaged identical wings of rectangular office blocks, each representing one of the two official languages. They were to be linked by a semicircular wing, and the space in-between the two wings was levelled to form an amphitheatre as in the Greek fashion for gatherings of national and ceremonial importance.

Baker wanted the buildings to be built of imported granite, but any idea of using anything but South African stone for the most important government building of the new state was unthinkable to those who commissioned it, as a result, the terraces and retaining walls in the grounds are built predominantly of mountain stone quarried on site, the foundation of the building is of granite, while freestone was used for the exterior walls, the amphitheatre and major courtyards.

For the overall design of the building, Baker chose the neo-classic architecture of the Italian Renaissance, and also combined an idiom of the English Renaissance, as well as significant elements of Cape Dutch detail, such as in the carved main doorways and fanlights and in much of the wrought-iron brass work and balustrades of the smaller areas.

In 1994 the buildings were the scene of much jubilation as they played host to the inauguration of former President Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first democratically elected President, and heralded the beginning of a new era in South Africa's history.


Tuynhuys, the Cape Town office of The Presidency, has in various guises been associated with the seat of the highest political authority in the land for almost two and a half centuries. The building seemingly had modest beginnings with the earliest known reference to the site being in 1674 when the Dutch East India Company first built a "garden house" to store the tools for the Company's large garden first established by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. In about 1682, the toolshed was converted into a guesthouse to entertain foreign visitors of the Governor Simon van der Stel.

The building was renovated and enlarged numerous times until 1751 when it was first recorded that the building was being used as a summer residence by the Governor, a custom which the historical record seems to bear out for all the Dutch Governors that century. By 1790 the building was known as The Governor's House in the Company Gardens ('Het Governiurs Huys in de Compagnies Tuyn') and by this time - as reflected in the drawings of Josephus Jones circa 1790 - the gardens side of the building already had its rococo balusters with its stucco drapes and Greco-roman sculptures.

From a design perspective, the building, incorporating both Louis XVI-style Neo-classicism and Baroque elements, was influenced by 18th Century Dutch and Dutch East Indies architecture of the time. Similar facades, windows, doors and fanlights can be seen in Colonial buildings built in the same period in places such as Amsterdam and Batavia (modern-day Indonesia).

The plans for the building and the overall design are largely credited to the French architect Louis Michel Thibault (1750- 1815) who studied under Louis XVI's Architect-in-Chief. However, the artistic detail of the outside facades, including the sculptures of the infant Mercury and Poseidon drawn from Greek mythology holding the banner on which the VOC emblem of the Dutch East India Company was emblazoned, are variously attributed to a sculptor Jacobus Leeuwenberg, a Dutchman and sculptor Anton Anreith (1754- 1822), a German, both of whom are known to have worked extensively in the Cape in the last quarter of the 18th Century. Yet it is not as well known that much of the infrastructure of the Cape at this time was built by slaves, including the actual construction of buildings.

By the late 18th century slaves drawn from Madagascar, Angola, India, Java, Malaysia etc. outnumbered settlers in the colony. In more recent years historians have acknowledged the fact that certainly during the period around 1790 skilled slaves were the only artisans in the colony. Their artisan skills were to a great extent relied upon, a fact borne out by the recorded comments of many early travelers to the Cape, one of whom famously wrote that no settler would: "put his hand to any kind of handicraft". Skilled slaves often undertook building and artisanal work for wealthy farmers, businessmen and government. These slaves were so well-established that in the early 19th century visiting British royal commissioners recorded that recently arrived English and Irish settlers were often apprenticed to local slaves from whom they were learning trades.

Saddlery, masonry, cabinet-making, wood-work, carpentry work, and plastering, such as in gables and pediments, have long been skills associated with slave craftsmen - especially those of South East Asian descent - and their descendents in the Cape. The actual manufacture of the Tuynhuys door as well as the construction of the building is shrouded in the mists of time and history. Yet research on slave history in the Cape give insights from which it is possible to make an informed deduction. Historian Robert C.H. Shell has speculated on the provenance of a not dissimilar front door to be found at Genadendal, the President's Cape Town residence (previously known as Groote Schuur Estate). It is documented that the Genadendal door was bought in the early part of the 20th century from the demolished original farmhouse of the Elsenburg farm in Stellenbosch by Cecil John Rhodes for his estate.

According to Shell the original door might very well have been the work of a slave called Rangton van Bali, who was captured on the island of Bali and sold into slavery in Jakarta to Jacob de Jong, a well known Cape slave trader. He was brought to the Cape where he was in turn sold to Samuel Elsevier, the Fiscal of Governor Simon van der Stel, to whom Elsevier was related by marriage.

Rangton was a skilled carpenter who eventually bought his own freedom in 1712 and practiced as a successful artisan until his death in 1720. Shell speculates that it was Rangton who would have made the original majestic door of the farmhouse at Elsenburg farm which Simon van der Stel had granted Elsevier in Stellenbosch. This was the very door which was bought by Rhodes, a known collector of architectural artefacts, a hundred years later.

From what we now know about the role of skilled slaves in the construction of Cape buildings during the late 18th century, and the historical reconstruction of the life and occupations of slaves such as Rangton, it is reasonable to suggest that the original Tuynhuys building, its doors and windows, may very well have been executed by slaves.

After the second British occupation in 1806, the building, now called Government House, underwent a complete change of character. In accordance with the fashion of architectural simplification which swept the Cape at the time, the decorative façade and other baroque adornments from the Dutch period were plastered over and concealed, to create a Georgian-style building typical of the period. Governor Lord Charles Somerset extended the building on both sides to accommodate a ballroom, a magnificent staircase and fireplaces. It is said that he wanted the building to be suitable for a representative of the Monarchy. Indeed in 1947 the British Royal family stayed at Government House on their visit to South Africa.

In 1968, Cape Town architect Gabriel Fagan undertook the complex task of restoring the building to its former 18th century glory. The 1790 drawing by Josephus Jones and another by the French architect Thibault were used by Fagan to recreate the garden façade of the building. The Jones sketch shows a frieze and balustrade of 24m which was built over at the time of Lord Charles Somerset. After careful excavation it was discovered that the stucco garlands and other floral decorations and relief work, conforming to the Jones drawings, had remained reasonably intact.

The two Greco-roman sculptures had however not survived. Mr Fagan commissioned Sydney Hunter to recreate the entire balustrade while the wood carvings were executed by the Greek craftsman, Josef Vazirkianzikis. Fagan was mindful of the incremental additions and changes over the centuries, and these he sought to reflect sensitively in the restoration. Consequently, Tuynhuys, as it was named in 1972, was restored as authentically as was possible to its 18th century state, while incorporating the best features of later additions to the building. The result has been a harmonious synthesis.