Art deco walking tour through the eyes of Craig Barrowman

By Craig Barrowman

For the 3rd time I found myself in the privileged position of joining a walking tour led by the great architect and doyenne of art deco, Dr Andre van Graan. The first was one of Kate Crane Briggs’ Culture Connect outings – look out for it, she repeats it from time to time as you’ll notice if you sign up to her informative newsletter. The second was for a group of locals celebrating a birthday during the pandemic, and this one was in response to a request from my group of hiking friends who occasionally arrange other kinds of outings, so I was very chuffed to know exactly who to ask to lead it!

Art Deco is a decorative and architectural style of the period from about 1925 to 1940. The word was only actually coined in 1966 from the French art décoratif, literally “decorative art”, whose origins can be traced back to the highly influential L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925. More than a singular architectural style, it is a playful experiment, a movement away from the establishment, an expression of colour, exuberance and flamboyance in the years following the gloom of the 1st World War, which influenced not only the design of buildings but also other forms of artistic expression ranging from the fine and decorative arts and fashion, to machines, motor cars and ships.

What a delight to gaze up at some of our wonderful buildings from a bygone era, and interpret their form, lines and flow, take in their fanciful, playful features, follow their vertical elements leading the eye up to the top, accentuating and even exaggerating their height. Then to spot the sunbursts and the zigzags, and even the corporate logos, and consider how their original purpose influenced their style – who said corporate branding was a new thing? Several buildings around the art deco hotspot of Greenmarket Square have their branding subtly or not so subtly built into their original design. The shell motifs on what is now the Inn on the Square, remind us that it was originally built for the Shell company as a smaller copy of Shell Mex House in London, while the building commissioned for Sun Insurance (later Protea Assurance) across the square was also appropriately branded.

Market House sports prominent lines of repeated, intricately formed protea flower heads, while Diamond House is decorated with a multitude of glittering diamond motifs referencing our diamond industry.

Whereas banks chose solid, conservative styles to demonstrate the security of wealth already invested in the past, insurance companies looked to the future with hope, and decorated their buildings with new styles in keeping with that, art deco perfectly answering the call.

As we admired the grand entrance to the magnificent Mutual Heights just off the Grand Parade in Darling Street, with its gleaming chrome features, we found ourselves drawn up the stairs with a sense of occasion, as if arriving at the ball, and contrasted that with how it could feel to trudge up the stairs of an average urban staircase lacking any design features.

Other memorable buildings include the pink Holyrood flats which wouldn’t look out of place in South Beach, Miami, Muller’s Optometrist shop which is as good as a museum of art deco in itself, and the quirky art deco-inspired 2019 apartment block, Tuynhuys – a tall order for a contemporary Cape Town building to be named that, perhaps? But with the presence and proportion to carry it off with aplomb!

The older guests loved the nostalgia of remembering which department stores and businesses used to occupy which buildings – a trip down memory lane, especially for some suburbanites who don’t venture into the city very often these days, but they were reminded that they really should, as there is so much to explore!

Each group I accompanied were filled with gratitude to Andre van Graan for opening our minds and eyes to so much knowledge and beauty, and for teaching us how to observe and appreciate buildings in a whole new light.