Urbain McGee Architecture & Design, Cape Town

56 Church Street

Works:Restoration, Alterations and Additions
Location:Cape Town
Project Budget:R3 500 000.00
Status:Completed 2015
Principle Agent:Urbain McGee Architecture and Design
Contractor:Funda Mentals
Structural Engineer:De Villiers and Hulme
Quantity Surveyor:Simpson Heath
Restoration, Alterations and Additions
Cape Town
Project Budget:
R3 500 000.00
Completed 2015
Principle Agent:
Urbain McGee Architecture and Design
Funda Mentals
Structural Engineer:
De Villiers and Hulme
Quantity Surveyor:
Simpson Heath

Little was known for sure on the exact history of the site when the client approached us with the project. The building had been neglected over the years and the surrounding buildings had hemmed themselves up against its perimeter walls. Retaining the original character of the building, as well as creating safety, natural light and ventilation have been driving principles in establishing an appropriate architectural solution. It has been the careful integration of these elements within the historical context that the client and the city have met the project favourably.


Located within an old city block between Long Street and Burg Street, the building at 56 Church Street forms part of a rich architectural heritage. The 1:8, width to length, proportions make the site and building unique within the context of Cape Town. Classified a heritage grading 3(b), the building is thought to date back to the 1820’s and was initially constructed as a ‘pakhuis’; used to store produce. This is supported in the simple yet densely engineered construction and material use.

Working with specialist craftsmen and heritage consultants, a month long learn-through-unravelling strategy was implemented before the main contract was tendered. This involved pealing back the layers during the on site ‘opening-up’ in order to determine appropriate site responses. The investigation informed decision-making, as the team adopted a symptomatic and diagnostic approach to working.


A significant part of the process has not only been working within the historically sensitive fabric, but meeting regulations and making the building safe and compliant in its context and time. The building in a sense has only one façade, that which faces onto Church Street. It is completely enclosed by buildings of equal or taller size. Existing windows served directly onto parking arcades and blank walls. This resulted in a long, dark passage like space. A certain attention was required in order for it to realise its value and potential.

The design was developed from a trio of basic premises: that the development should stay inside its original building envelope and retain its ‘pakhuis’ character, that the internal spaces should be disposed around a new central courtyard and that where possible the internal areas should incorporate a section which encourages natural stack-ventilation and introduces controlled amounts of natural top lighting.

The spaces have been largely dictated by the building width and are both flexible and timeless in design. The solution that has been adopted seeks to keep the existing structure and fabric with the addition of the new roof and courtyard – in a sense the interventions redefine the building and gives it a new identity, one other than that of a storage facility.


1. entrance

2. reception

3. gallery

4. courtyard 1

5. gallery

6. kitchen

7. art store

8. wc

9. private office

10. courtyard 2

11. 1st floor entrance


12. office 1

13. wc+shower

14. reception

15. shared office

16. lockers

17. lightwell void

18. kitchenette

19. store

21. office 2

20. wc

22. void


Much emphasis has been placed on reusing the existing materials on site and exposing the user to the original building fabric of dry-pack stone walls, yellowwood beams and Oregon roof trusses. The 1950’s teak façade and stairwell was also reused and restored. The new material palette serves more as performance enhancing – new insulation, glass and mill finish metal sheeting complete the overall scheme. These interventions are light, transparent or neutrally coloured and are textured on a framework of simplified modernist forms.


Photographs: Tremayne Ward-Smith & Nicole Fraser