Claremont's ugly duckling flirts once more with the wrecking ball

06 November 2017 - 12:35
By Tanya Farber
Werdmüller Centre
Image: Facebook/Werdmüller Centre Werdmüller Centre

Water has filled its crumbling basement‚ Matthew McConaughey has paced its curved corridors for a Hollywood blockbuster — but for most‚ it is remembered as a shopping haunt of old.

Now‚ yet again‚ one of Cape Town’s most controversial buildings — the Werdmuller Centre in Claremont — has escaped the iron thud of the wrecking ball.

Last week‚ its fate hung in the balance once again. Heritage Western Cape was finally due to decide on demolition‚ but according to CEO Mxolisi Dlamuka‚ “there has been a delay in issuing a committee decision”.

The building‚ designed by Roelof Uytenbogaart in the 1960s‚ was praised as a masterpiece of modernism inspired by the work of Le Corbusier‚ a Swiss architect seen as the father of modernism in building design.

It hogs a crucial nexus between Claremont’s shopping district‚ public transport hub and major routes‚ but it was never an inviting space‚ and it has withered in the shadow of the “posher” west side of Claremont’s main road‚ where development is reaching fever pitch.

It survived demolition threats in 2007 and again in 2012‚ when architect Ilze Wolff said it had been a “contentious building more or less since its completion in the late 1970s”.

She said that the then-owners‚ Old Mutual‚ had “struggled to attract their desired upmarket tenants‚ which was exacerbated by the fact that [Old Mutual] developed Cavendish Square at the same time — an antithesis to the Werdmuller Centre”.

Tapie Hendricks‚ 77‚ forcibly removed by apartheid authorities from his Claremont house in the 1980s‚ is the eyes and ears of Werdmuller‚ and he has seen the building rise‚ crumble‚ peel‚ and get boarded up.

For 57 years he has hawked fruit and vegetables on a side-road next to the building‚ and as he heard the loud thuds of the nearby Shoprite being razed in recent weeks‚ he wondered if the same fate awaits Werdmuller.

“What we need here in this building are shops — cheap shops like in Wynberg‚” he said. “But sometimes we worry that the owners are happy to get money from the movie people‚ so they won’t ever fix the building and open shops here.”

Drayfus Ntsikoubaka‚ a Congolese street hairdresser‚ plies her trade on the other side of the building. “I have been here one year now‚” she says‚ while weaving a client’s hair‚ “and they tell me it is going to be demolished and there will be new shops instead — but we don’t know.

“We would like that. Right now‚ we don’t get many customers‚ but if there were shops we would. We used to get some of the customers from Shoprite‚ but now that building is gone.”

Anel Bridges of New Property Ventures‚ which bought the building from Old Mutual‚ confirmed it was under consideration for demolition‚ but denied that revenue from international movies‚ such as The Dark Tower starring McConaughey and Idris Elba‚ meant it would live in limbo as something half-living and half-dead.

“That is definitely not a sustainable option for Werdmuller‚” she said.