Howard College & MTB 2015
A visit to the Howard Davis Memorial College building (1929-1931), and the Memorial Tower Building (1947) on the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, conducted by Professor Franco Frescura on Sunday 28th June, 2015:
Howard College and the Memorial Tower Building
28 June 2015
The era following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 was marked by a spate of monument making as various nations around the world sought to find appropriate symbols to mark the slaughter of a generation of its youngest and bravest. These varied in scale and scope, depending on the national character of their builders. In the British Empire they were generally limited to simple memorial gardens or, at best, an austere cenotaph, to be walked around, sat upon and generally ignored for 364 days of the year. The more flamboyant statements of national identity were best left to the Italians, the Germans, and the French.
Or so most sensible people thought.
Discussions around the exact nature and location of Durban’s own memorial began in 1920 when a fund to build a monument was established. Proposals for the memorial included a shrine, a chapel, a new swimming bath, a library, a children’s hospital, and a beachfront pavilion (Hurst, 1945: 31). The majority of the Committee favoured a more conventional tribute, and after lengthy and often emotional public debate it was resolved to locate this in the Town Gardens, in front of the Town Hall, taking the form of:
“an obelisk bearing a sculptured group of angels carrying the spirit of the fallen warrior. The warrior’s tomb, and a long sarcophagus bearing the names of the dead are placed on the top step below the obelisk.” (Hillebrand, 1986: 216)
The design was the outcome of an open competition won by Cape Town architect HL Gordon Pilkington who, at one stage, stated that its sculptures had been:
“executed in fayence, modelled on the tradition of the finest Assyrian works, it is meant to stand for all time. Its colouring, which I understand has been eminently successful, can only be imagined ... Those who look for satisfaction in a simple cenotaph will receive, I fear, a shock”. (Hillebrand, 1986: 217)
Despite the controversy which had preceded the early stages of the design, no-one could have predicted the public reaction when the completed memorial was unveiled on 7 March 1926. Letters to the press described it as “shocking”, “vile”, “trash”, and “as ostentatious and glaring as any Oriental or uncivilized heathen could wish for” (Hillebrand, 1986: 218). Durban’s liberal tradition obviously extended to passing off racial bigotry as aesthetic taste. More reasonable critics were able to ask “Why must a memorial be a thing of granite or of graveyard solemnity?”
The public’s concept of a war memorial was obviously conservative, and rarely strayed beyond the accepted norms of the monumental and the funerary, which is why, at the time, a member of the public was led to suggest building a “one-thousand-fee high pylon with a lamp of remembrance perpetually shining on the top” (Hurst, 1945: 31).
REMEBERING THE DEAD
By the time the war was drawing to an end in November 1918, some residents of Durban were already casting their thoughts forward to the peace that was to follow, and to ways of easing the pains of mourning. Although many were already thinking in terms of the inevitable cenotaph or similarly inert lumps of granite, others were talking about living memorials to honour the dead in perpetuity. On 14 September 1918 Dr Sam Campbell proposed that:
“I know of no better way for each one of us to commemorate the sacrifices of our heroic dead than causing them to live in our personal dedication to the service of education in its widest sense.” (Rees, 1957: 106)
A few days later Dr CT Loram, District Inspector of Schools and later Stevenson Professor of Education at Yale, put forward a proposal for the establishment of an university college in Durban, pointedly rejecting the bucolic isolation of Pietermaritzburg by asking:
“Where shall the scholar live, in solitude or society? In the green stillness of the country where he can hear the heart of nature beat, or in the dark, grey city where he can hear and feel the throbbing heart of man? I make answer for him, and say, in the dark, grey city.” (Rees, 1957: 111)
He also pointed out that the establishment of a spacious campus with noble buildings arising out of the Stella bush would show visitors to the town that the people of Durban “did not in their prosperity forsake learning, nor were they unmindful of their honoured dead” (Rees, 1957: 111).
On 11 October the Council of the Durban Technical College adopted a nine-point plan for future development. Prominent on this list Item 7 stated:
“That the whole of the new University College buildings to be regarded as a memorial to the men who have fallen in the war, and that tuition therein to the dependents of such men to be free”. (Rees, 1957: 112)
Thus, from the onset, the establishment of a University for Durban has been linked to the concept of a memorial to the dead. Its campus bears the name of a fallen soldier, its first building is a funerary monument built by a grieving father to his son, and by the time its second building, the Memorial Tower, was finished in 1947 Durban, and the rest of the world, had another 60 million dead to weep for.
THE HOWARD COLLEGE
Howard College and the Memorial Tower are the University’s oldest and most prominent buildings. Although they were both memorials built only 16 years and less than a generation apart, and stand less that 10m from each other, they have little in common, and their spirit and design philosophy lie in different worlds.
Following the announcement made in April 1923 that Thomas Davis would be making a £50,000 donation towards the establishment of a new University in Durban, the NUC and the DTI took the first steps that would eventually lead to the transfer of the Departments of Engineering and Commerce to the University. Then, in April 1929, once the site for the University had been assured, a University Development Fund was established with strong civic support, and within a short time £26,000 had been raised, while the Durban Corporation undertook to make an annual grant of £2,500.
This gave the University funds of its own, allowing it to take a leading role in the construction of the Stellawood campus. Davis, on the other hand, obviously had no intentions of playing a passive role in the production process of what he obviously considered to be his personal project. The fear of alienating such an important patron must have given rise to some anxious moments for the University’s Council, and Campbell’s good humour and powers of diplomacy must have been sorely tested on a number of occasions
Despite his newly established role as a patron of tertiary education, Davis saw no need to engage a qualified architect to design the building, and instead planned to employ the services of a contractor who had previously erected a number of dockside warehouses for his stevedoring company. Towards the end of 1928 the Principal of the DTC, Benjamin Narbeth travelled to Britain on leave and took the opportunity of meeting with Davis, tactfully suggesting that he might follow the example previously set by Cecil Rhodes when he employed the relatively unknown Herbert Baker to design his home at Groote Schuur. As fortune would have it, Narbeth already had a suitable candidate in mind, who was currently in Britain and was thus available for an interview.
His name was William Hirst, a graduate of the DTI who had been awarded the prestigious Emma Smith Scholarship, and was now reading in architecture at the Architectural Association in London. On 26 March 1929 Hirst wrote to Narbeth stating that he had prepared a set of sketch plans which had met with Davis’ approval, adding that “the building was planned around two internal courtyards with open arcaded corridors”. As agreed beforehand, Hirst was allowed to complete his studies at the AA before returning to South Africa, and submitted his design for the College building as part of his final year treatise. Such was the urgent need for him to return to Durban to take the project in hand that an additional cabin had to be found aboard ship so that he could continue with his work during the voyage.
Back in South Africa Davis continued to treat the project as his own private fiefdom, and to the embarrassment of the College Council refused to allow the building contract to go out to tender, having decided to employ his own contractor. Fortunately the protest from Durban’s building community that had been feared never materialised. The foundation stone of Howard College was laid by Mrs Davis in February 1930, and the building was officially opened on 1 August 1931 by the Governor-General, Lord Clarendon,
The design of Howard College shares in a humanist tradition which goes back, via the Renaissance, to classical Greece and imperial Rome, and an aesthetic which it has in common with the temple of Vesta in Rome (205 CE), Bramante’s tempietto of St Peters, in Rome (1502-10), Herbert Baker’s Union Buildings in Pretoria (1910-12), and Lutyens’ Government Building complex in New Delhi (1913-30). The entrance portico repeats the colonnaded pattern of the clock-tower on the Durban Town Hall, the dome makes reference to the central dome of the Government Buildings in New Delhi, and the large timber sash windows and shuttering are drawn from Herbert Baker’s Cape Dutch revivalism. The gilded ball finial on top of the dome is probably a reference to the golden globe that the British monarch holds in the left hand during the coronation.
The building has been raised on a generous stone plinth giving it additional height, and is set on axis with Howard Avenue, below Princess Alice Road. This may originally have been intended as the main entrance to the Campus, and the remnants of this are still visible below Howard College. Such planning would have maximised the advantages of the sloping site and its dramatic outward vistas, and is a feature of other English-speaking campuses, such as Wits, UCT and Rhodes, in Grahamstown. This contrasts sharply with sites chosen for Potchefstroom, Pretoria, RAU, Port Elizabeth, Stellenbosch and UDW, whose campuses were located on flat pieces of ground.
The detailing and the ornamentation inside the atrium uses elements of Art Deco, of Union Heraldry and of Cape Dutch timberwork. It was built at a time when the British had abandoned Italian Baroque as the preferred architectural expression of the Empire and were struggling to find a language which merged the imagery of the past with the new technology of modernism.
Howard College has been designed with two distinct elements in mind: the central atrium whose sole function is to act as a pedestrian distribution centre, and the two double-storied wings on either side, with large Cape Dutch revivalist shuttered fenestration The design takes strong cognisance of its eastward outlook as well as Durban’s sub-tropical environment. The large sliding sash windows can be manoeuvred to take advantage of natural air movement, while its sliding louvres attached to the wall can be entirely closed to keep out the glare of the early morning sun. The office plan has been articulated about two large internal courtyards to maximise on natural ventilation.
The atrium, on the other hand, has been designed as a metaphorical mausoleum, and although the body of Howard Davis, the young man whose life was sacrificed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, rests still in the fields of France, the centrally-located glass caisson placed beneath his portrait might as well contain Davis’ miraculously preserved corpse rather than a model of the merchant ship he sailed in.
The rotunda was probably based upon an introverted design of the Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, in Rome, built by Bramante in 1502-10, which marks the spot where St Peter was supposedly martyred. Its drum is surmounted by a small dome raised on a sizeable drum for greater effect, which has been punctuated by a series of window openings. The entrance portico is a truncated reference to the Tempietto in Rome, also supported by a set of plain Doric columns. The ambulatory passage which runs on the outside perimeter of the Tempietto here runs on the inside instead.
The bulking of the rotunda also gives us a further clue as to its classical intent. The proportions and raised parapet walls projecting above the portico define the outlines of a cube, whose form interfaces with the closed circle of the dome above, thus making obvious reference to da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, whose proportions dominated much of European architectural design up to the 1900s.
Apart from the fact that the rotunda is a mausoleum, the use of a dome is in itself of obvious symbolic significance. The circle is considered to be the most perfect shape, simultaneously signifying perfection, infinity and the self. In this context it means the abolition of time and space. In other words, it has been used to signify immortality.
The circle used with the square is an integration of heaven and earth. The circle is also the sun, linked to the sun-god Ra, and therefore the cupola is symbolic of the heavenly dome which the sun must travel daily. Thus the dome is also a symbol of resurrection, the process daily birth and rebirth, of renewal and cleansing, which like the sun undergoes as it emerges each morning from the vulva of the goddess of the sky Nut.
Many groups whose ideology incorporates elements of mysticism and the movement of the sun have used the coincidence of the sun’s rays at a specific time upon a particular aspect of a building, such as the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, but I have not been able to determine whether Hirst made use of such a device. Propitious dates which might have been used are the now-proverbial “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, when the Armistice was signed, or 12 August, when Howard Davis died of his wounds.
Inside the Mausoleum four heraldic bosses on the balcony mark the cardinal points of the compass, a mariner’s device which may be a reference to Davis’ sea-based roots. Pride of place on the western wall of the drum has been given to the giant portrait of George V, a poor father who spent most of his private life with his extensive stamp collection, and nearly gave Britain a Nazi king. Nonetheless he was an important symbol of the British nation, and in 1934 Davis commissioned an old school-friend, the portrait painter John St Helier Lander, to execute a giant portrait of his king. Davis was so pleased with it that he commissioned Lander to make four copies which he then donated to Howard College, Canada House, Australia House, and New Zealand House. The Australian bequest now hangs in the Australian Parliament Building.
Today the portrait of His Royal Majesty looks down upon the space where Howard Davis would have been buried had this design for a mausoleum been taken to its logical conclusion. His presence validates the sacrifice made by Davis and his generation of young men who went off to fight for King and country. Without his blessing their deaths would be rendered meaningless, and the repetition of the King’s presence outside in three-dimensional form, is as much part of this Mausoleum as is the inner sanctum. To the illiterate this statue is a statement of British Empire, but to the donor, it is a memorial to their dead son.
Internally, the space has not been softened by use. A number of lawyers have put up their boards but apart from the imposition of two glass caskets into the space, it has been little altered by time and use.
Inside the entrance lobby the decoration was kept to a minimum. Lintel panels surmount each door opening and contain an Egyptian sunburst pattern. In the context of a mausoleum, these are significant for the sun’s rays are a reference to Ra, the Egyptian sun god, who was also represented as a fiery or golden sphere. Later on Ra merged with falcon-headed Horus, and was believed to rule all parts of the material world, including the sky, the earth and the underworld. Thus the golden orb surmounted on the apex of the dome, may be a symbol of the British Monarch’s reign, but can also be interpreted as a symbol of the sun’s rule over the sky represented by the dome, the earth represented by the cube, and the underworld below, the resting place of Howard Davis.
Panels set in the openings where the lights are normally located contain a number of other designs, including a zig-zag pattern which signifies water, coolness, fertility and youth. The papyrus design is representative of the swamp where the first gods were created, and are therefore symbols of eternity and the afterlife, while the waves contained above may be a reference to the family’s links to the sea.
Taking this line of argument further, the central placing of the round atrium surmounted by a dome, itself a truncated orb, as the centre point of two equilinear wings may well have been intended as a representation of the twin pylons which stand at the entrance of an Egyptian temple, themselves a metaphor for the solar boat that transports Ra, the sun, across the heavens during the day and into the stygian darkness of Nut’s body through the night. The boat also transports the souls of the dead to their ultimate fate. Like an Egyptian temple, Howard College also faces east into the rising sun. Thus the College building becomes a mythical means to convey the soul of Howard Davis into the afterlife. Unlike King Tutankhamun, whose tomb was packed with mere earthly belongings, Howard Davis’ eternity is filled with countless academic debates more likely to keep him entertained than mere goods and chattels.
William Hirst designed this building in 1927, only five years after Howard Carter opened the Tomb of Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings, revealing to an astonished world the trove it contained. Hirst cannot have been unaware of the treasures that were discovered there, and would have been swept up in the excitement of the golden images then emerging from Cairo. He designed the building too early to make extensive use of the Egyptian forms and symbols that would eventually be incorporated freely into Art Deco architecture, but would have known about the symbolic interpretations that archaeologists were now placing on Egyptian architecture.
THE MEMORIAL TOWER BUILDING
By comparison with the richness of meanings inherent in the design of Howard College, the Memorial Tower Building (MTB) provides us with the barest of readings. Designed immediately after 1945 to celebrate the lives of young men and women who went to war against Fascism, their sacrifice is commemorated by a memorial whose aesthetic has more in common with buildings of the vanquished than those of the victorious.
Following the termination of hostilities on 2 September 1945 the Union army began to return its volunteer conscripts to civilian life, offering free tertiary education as a means of easing their transition back into the peacetime economy. Many of them chose to enrol for courses at University which immediately placed existing facilities under considerable strain, and the provision of additional library, laboratory and lecturing facilities became a matter of urgent concern. A measure of relief was provided on both Natal College campuses by the provision of temporary army huts, but this was a short-term measure and steps had to be taken almost immediately to find more permanent solutions.
The problem was most critical on the Durban campus, which had only one building. Planning for new premises was set in motion in 1946, when the Durban architectural firm of Powers & Powers was briefed, and the first part of the Memorial Tower Building was given over for occupation in 1947. The structure was designed to be erected in sections, and Stage One consisted of the central tower, where the library was located, the south wing and part of the north wing. Work continued on the MTB until it was finally completed in 1970, by which time alterations had to be carried out to the original building to rectify a number of design faults, mostly related to the planning of the library.
Funding for the building had to be raised by public subscription, but given the fact that it was also intended to serve as a memorial to the war dead, the necessary funds were rapidly found.
The MTB straddles the Cato Manor ridge and has provided the city with a landmark visible from many miles around. It consists of a ten-storey tower block framed on either side by sweeping four-storey wings which use a stripped-down classical idiom typified by the use of narrow vertical elements terminated by a bold projecting cornice. To the casual observer any references to history are little evident, and the building owes more to the American skyscraper than to the Humanist tradition.
The bulking of the tower is reminiscent of the main building of Moscow State University, and its use may well have been a tribute to the role played by the USSR in the defeat of the Axis forces. The late 1940s were but little removed from the time when Allied nations were using the phrase “good old Uncle Joe” as a term of endearment for Joseph Stalin, and the South African public was being exhorted by postal stickers to “Support our Soviet Allies”. The massacre of an estimated 22,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn Forest in March and April 1940 by the Russian secret police was yet to become known, as was the fact that the Russian dictator had been responsible for the death of 19 million of his people, including more Jews than had been murdered by the Nazis.
It might also be that the architect, Frederick Powers, was mindful of criticisms made public in 1926 upon the unveiling of the Cenotaph in the Town Gardens, and chose to create the architectural equivalent of “a one-thousand-feet high pylon with a lamp of remembrance perpetually shining on the top” (Hurst, 1945: 31). The design reappeared in 1984, when the Soviet Olympic Committee used it as the symbol for the 1984 Olympic Games, an event widely boycotted by Western nations.
The building itself can be likened to a bully who shoulders aside its less imposing neighbour and thoroughly ignores the height lines it established 18 years previously. Plans were also put forward at the time to mirror the Memorial Tower on the other side of Howard College, but this proposal was never implemented, possibly because it was soon realised that the first MTB was a thoroughly inappropriate design which suffered from a number of critical faults.
The MTB had been designed to provide the University library with new premises in the tower block, spread over eight floors including two memorial reading rooms. It was estimated that the new library would house 35,000 volumes and provide adequate space for the next fifteen years. Despite much official enthusiasm and the fine views that it offered, the building was soon perceived to be “a ridiculous design for a university library” (Buchanan, 2008: 126-7), and never became the library building that was needed on the Durban campus.
“As the collection grew in size, more books had to be moved into the reading and storage rooms, resulting in a collection ‘spread over seven floors and over a dozen rooms or areas’. The monumental design of the building did not allow for easy expansion and was very ‘wasteful of space’. Secluded study alcoves, out of sight of library staff, were also not a good design feature for a university library”. (Buchanan, 2008: 127)
An attempt was made to increase the library area in 1959, but this was only a temporary measure which had little effect upon its activities. At one stage it was proposed to build an additional floor to one of the wings, but this had to be abandoned when the engineers rightly pointed out that the roof slab had not been designed to take such additional weight.
Quite apart from such practical considerations, this proposal called for the erection of a temporary structure on the roof, and one can only imagine what this would have done to the aesthetics of what had already become one of Durban’s most admired landmarks. As architects well know, there is no such thing as a temporary building, and it might have taken many years before the University could have afforded to remove such a prominent eyesore from public scrutiny. So, by 1962, the building of a yet another new library building on the Durban campus was once again on the University’s agenda. In 1968 the library was able to move into space in the MTB that had been vacated by the Departments of Mathematics and Physics, but again the relief that this brought was only temporary. Sometime later, in 1978 when the Main Library was still located in the MTB, Prof IK Allen chaired a University Committee to investigate conditions in the various Durban libraries, and declared the Memorial Tower Building to be “a structure blatantly unsuited to the needs of a University library” (Buchanan, 2008: 21).
In the final analysis, a fine view does not make for fine architecture. Ironically the MTB housed, for a short while, the University’s School of Architecture, but it is doubtful that many students used it as a role model later on in their professional lives.
Howard College refers back to an era when architecture was expected to provide a multiplicity of readings, whose forms set out to tease the intellect and inform discussion, and the profession expected the general public to understand the intellectual games being played. Eighteen years and one world war later, the designer of MTB was more literal-minded and presented his clients with an overblown version of a funerary monument. Thus while Howard College lends itself to critical examination and intellectual analysis the Memorial Tower can never be anything other than a monolith: stolid, unforgiving and forever granite.
More importantly, by the time the Memorial Tower was designed, the national and international intellectual climate in architecture had started to transform. The Allies might not have liked the buildings of the Third Reich, but Albert Speer’s lessons on the monumentality of symbols and the use of light in construction were not lost on architects of the post-war era. More importantly the relationship between the architectural profession and the general public had begun to change. Thomas Davis had been a knowledgeable and enthusiastic participant in the design and production processes of Howard College, but the University Council is unlikely to have had much of a say in the design of the MTB. Sadly, as Modernist thinking became ever more entrenched as a design philosophy, so then the gap between Architect and Client was going to grow ever wider.
Drawing of Howard Davis Memorial College entrance by an architectural student
Professor Franco Frescura explains the architectural principles of the Howard College building
Inside the entrance rotunda
Retored floor with 3000 tiles and central marmoleum disc
Lintel panel with Egyptian sunburst pattern
Dome, with extra windows added underneath by Davis senior's builder, his refrigeration engineer
Pattern ring below the dome
Portrait of King George V, one of four copies commissioned by Davis senior, and distributed around the world
Elements of Cape Dutch revivalism in the doors and windows of the balcony
Pattern alongside King George V painting
Portrait of Howard Davis, deceased 1916, aged 21, as a result of wounds sustained at the battle of the Somme. In front is a glass-enclosed model of the merchant ship on which Howard was an officer prior to the first world war.
Drawing of the entrance and tower of the Memorial Tower Building by an architectural student
Entrance façade of MTB. In this picture the inserted library floor is just visible as it crosses the glass panes, dropping the ceiling of the original double-height foyer, and eliminating a magnificent art deco, cast iron chandelier.
Professor Frescura alludes to the stripped classicism and "brutalism" of the façade design of the Memorial Tower Building.