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Architects' choice: Best Cape Town inner-city buildings

by CCID 30 Sep 2022

Downtown Cape Town’s impressive architecture reflects the history and evolution of the city and its CBD. We asked prominent architects and heritage experts to pick the buildings that impress them the most.

Buildings are living things. Structures full of secrets. They have stories to share with those that take the time to listen. The Cape Town CBD is a treasure trove of spectacular and unique architectural gems.

Says Tasso Evangelinos, CEO of the Cape Town Central City Improvement District (CCID): “From beautiful Heritage buildings to sleek skyscrapers, downtown Cape Town’s buildings represent the wide array of architectural styles and how they have interpreted urban living trends over various decades. Capetonians are privileged to have access to this ever-evolving environment.”

Here, some of Cape Town’s foremost architects and heritage experts – John Wilson-Harris, Robert Silke, Pierre Swanepoel and Laura Robinson – share their favourite buildings in the CBD and their vision for the city centre’s future.

JOHN WILSON-HARRIS, director of Gabriël Fagan Architects and head of the Cape Institute for Architecture

Famous for designing: The Barracks (yet to be constructed), 50 Bree St
Favourite building: Mutual Heights, 14 Darling St

“In 1940, Louw & Louw put a building together which spoke to the street. There was public access into the building, which energised the area around it. It has a grand entrance, which was meant to signal power and wealth, but it also doesn’t turn its back on the street – it interacts with it in style. You can see the architects were proud of living in Africa; they were trying to make an African building, though they still followed the art deco style that was prevalent at the time. The building has African heads and animals adorning it, in Cape granite – so the materials are from here as well.”

Holyrood, one of the best-known art decor residential blocks in town.

ROBERT SILKE, founder of Robert Silke & Partners

Famous for designing: Tuynhuys Apartments (54 Keerom St) and The Onyx (57 Heerengracht)
Favourite building: Holyrood, 80 Queen Victoria St

“Holyrood, which is situated in Queen Victoria St opposite the Company’s Garden, is a tall, spindly art deco apartment tower from the 1930s that is  100 years ahead of its time and would sit comfortably in the centre of Tokyo. It comprises 40 of Cape Town's first-ever micro-studios (30 m² in size) and was built with virtually no parking bays. It is sculpturally futuristic and resembles the lovechild born of a space rocket and a vacuum cleaner. If there were heritage authorities in the 1930s, Holyrood would never have been approved because, at 11 storeys, it towers over its Victorian neighbours. Only now, in the 2020s, is the rest of Cape Town starting to catch up with similar kinds of new buildings.”

PIERRE SWANEPOEL, director of dhk Architects

Famous for designing: 35 Lower Long, 35 Lower Long St
Favourite BuildingMutual Heights, 14 Darling St

 “I have chosen the Old Mutual Tower, which dates back to 1940 and which was once the tallest building in South Africa. It typifies the art deco/modern period movement with its stepped massing and façade articulation. The architects were Louw & Louw, working together with Fred Glennie.

The stand-out architectural elements are:

  • The protruding prismoid (triangular) vertical window bays, which allow for solar shading.
  • The granite cladding, with sculpted animals at high-level corners, and the series of sculpted figures on the Parliament St façade. 
  • The 118-metre long frieze along the three sides of the building, which was carved by Italian prisoners of War (albeit problematic as the focus is on depicting scenes from South Africa's colonial history).
  • The spectacular interior spaces – the entrance hall (with black, gold-veined onyx, gold leaf and stainless steel); the banking hall (with marble clad columns); the assembly rooms with frescoes depicting the history of South Africa; and the etchings of animals on the lift doors – are unparalleled in Cape Town.”
35 Lower Long Street
The sleek skyscraper on the Foreshore, 35 Lower Long.

LAURA ROBINSON, independent consultant and former Cape Town Heritage Trust CEO

Favourite building(s): The Grand Parade and City Hall, Central Methodist Mission, Old Town House, Mutual Heights and Mullers Optometrists

 “I don’t have a favourite, but there are certain parts of the city that 'talk' to me. I have a special love for the historic public squares in the city – and, by implication, the buildings that surround them. The Grand Parade and the City Hall are certainly iconic, as is Greenmarket Square and its historic buildings that include the fine Central Methodist Mission church, several art deco buildings and, of course, the Old Town House. I am looking forward to this being restored and reopened for public enjoyment. Being an art deco fan, I have to add Mutual Heights and Mullers Optometrists in Plein St – both are fabulous, and the interior foyers of Mutual Heights remain a top hit.”


The Central City has many architectural treasures. John Wilson-Harris gives some insight into its history and heritage:

Cape Town as a colonial city moved from the first modest four-pointed mud fort of 1652 to a settlement requiring sumptuary laws to keep extravagance and luxurious living in check in 1755. Josephus Jones’s panorama of 1808 shows a Cape Town which some consider its golden age, with a consistent architectural language of flat-roofed buildings of two to three storeys high, all with vertically proportioned window openings, and many with symmetrical elevations … But not all white with heritage green windows as some would like to believe.

Many of the earliest buildings in the city were homes. The idea of having separate precincts for living, working, manufacturing etc., is a recent concept. The early Cape Town streets therefore had buildings of differing uses. Of course, the oldest post-colonial building in the CBD is the Castle of Good Hope, but even that had a dual purpose of housing, protecting, and providing for its inhabitants. 

Apart from the very limited number of buildings that have survived which could be considered Cape Dutch, nearly all the remaining older buildings in the historic core of the CBD have European influences, which can be classified as Georgian, Victorian etc., and many are built with elements made in Europe. For instance, much of the cast iron post and filigree work on buildings, or “broekie lace” (which is a nice South African colloquialism), comes from a foundry in Scotland, while the entire terracotta façade of 34 Long St (dated 1896) was imported for piecing together on-site during construction. 

Like all cities, Cape Town has developed. This meant that the coherent townscape of the early settlement soon came under threat from the ability to build bigger, higher buildings to house new uses associated with a changing world. As the city expands and develops, identifiable precincts are emerging more clearly, all of which are defined by the buildings in them and the streetscapes that the buildings make.


Cities and buildings shape each other. Robert Silke shares how he sees this dynamic playing out:

Cities like Cape Town are woven from some pretty ancient and heterogenous fabric, and new buildings can only achieve lasting beauty when designed for their complex context. Everyone gets excited by a new building, but it's no use simply designing for "newness" or fashion, if that fashionable new building makes its neighbours look dowdy, or if it looks bad as soon as the gloss of newness wears off. One must design buildings with good bone structure so that there is some merit remaining once the fashion fades. Good, new buildings need to be good neighbours. 

I'm convinced that Cape Town remains one of the most exciting cities in the world to be an architect or a developer. The natural setting, as well as the compact scale, means that just one good new building (at a meaningful scale) can have a ripple effect with the potential to transform the entire city. 

I'd like to see a Hong-Kong-inspired future Cape Town – similar to that depicted in the SABC's 1982 sci-fi series, “Interster”. There's a lot of work to be done to make the city centre home to, and accessible to, more people.


To achieve an inclusive, sustainable, future-fit city centre, new buildings must be created with future design principles in mind, believes Pierre Swanepoel, which include:

  • Greater use of Parametric Computer Modelling to allow efficient design of any chosen form;
  • Zero Carbon Energy Usage (embodied and operational);
  • Prefabrication to improve the speed and quality of construction, using CLT timber structure, walls and floors, 3D-printed building components, increased use of pre-cast elements;
  • Smart building technology – building management systems to optimise energy use and user-friendliness;
  • Minimised on-site parking in buildings (once public transport is improved).


Laura Robinson, who is a CCID board member, says that protecting the CBD’s buildings is top of mind for the CCID, which plays an invaluable role in keeping the central city crime and "grime" free:

The CCID understands the value that these richly layered historic buildings bring to the Central City. The historic built environment adds a fascinating layer to the experience of this vibrant city centre area and the CCID has frequently promoted heritage within its boundaries by writing about and promoting buildings and architecture and monitoring new property developments. Part of my portfolio on the CCID Board includes that of architecture and heritage.

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IMAGES: Robert Silke & Partners, CCID