FEBRUARY 2015 TALK

TOPIC:  Wood and iron architecture- an industrial vernacular
SPEAKER: Prof. André van Graan
DATE: Tuesday, 17 February 2015
TIME: 19h45 for 20h00
VENUE: The Athenaeum, Boundary Terraces, Newlands, at the intersection of Mariendahl and Campground Roads

‘When considering the development of prefabrication in the 1840s and 1850s, one can hardly overstate the importance of corrugated iron’.
This quote from Gilbert Herbert’s book Pioneers of Prefabrication, opens Prof. Brian Kearney’s book Stern Utility. The wood and iron architecture of Natal (2014). He goes on to recount that when James Walton visited Durban in 1987, he saw a number of surviving wood and iron houses in Clairwood and declared it to be a whole new ‘industrial vernacular’ desperately awaiting careful recording and acknowledgement.

Wood and iron was the material of choice for rapid, economical construction. It characterised the architecture of South Africa’s nineteenth century mining boom both in Kimberley as well as Johannesburg and the host of mining villages that sprang up at the time. It was used by all classes of society, so that Kearney cites the fact that Jan Smuts’ house, Doornkloof near Irene as well as Mahatma Ghandi’s humble house at Phoenix in Natal, were both wood and iron structures.
Both liked and vilified in equal measure, corrugated iron buildings were, by their nature, temporary and many of them have been demolished to make way for more permanent structures. Those that remain have reached a point where they are in danger of collapse if not repaired. In Cape Town a number of wood and iron structures remain, mostly in a rather parlous state. There are a number of wood and iron houses in Athlone that were built in the early 20th century by the city council for their workers and which are now threatened with demolition.
In his talk, André will look at the worldwide occurrence of wood and iron architecture and acknowledge some our local industrial vernacular, drawing attention to its plight as heritage. As the material of our informal settlements this remains a significant post-colonial vernacular building material.