Urbain McGee Architecture & Design, Cape Town

THE ASSEMBLY ROOM

Works:Restoration, Alterations and Additions
Location:Cape Town City Centre
Project Budget:Undisclosed
Status:Completed 2019
Principle Agent:Urbain McGee Architecture and Design
Structural Engineer:AVCON
Quantity Surveyor:Watermarque Consulting
Interior Designer:Atelier Interiors
Works:
Restoration, Alterations and Additions
Location:
Cape Town City Centre
Project Budget:
Undisclosed
Status:
Completed 2019
Principle Agent:
Urbain Mc Gee Architecture and Design
Structural Engineer:
AVCON
Quantity Surveyor:
Watermarque Consulting
Interior Designer:
Atelier Interiors

The Old Mutual Building in Cape Town’s city centre has been classified as ‘one of the finest examples of the Art Deco style in South Africa’. The building holds landmark significance within the centre of the city. In 2017 we were approached by a sibling duo to re-imagine and execute a major transformation to their newly purchased units in the iconic building.

LOCATION PLAN

The brief was to successfully combine the heritage-significant ‘Assembly Room’ with its ancillary spaces and the two adjacent sections purchased by the client into one inner-city apartment. It was their vision that these separate smaller purchased sections juxtaposed alongside the grandiosity of the Assembly Room could be combined to create a very unique family home. Further to that was that this neglected and once important space within the building, and the city, could be maintained and reinterpreted to create a unique urban dwelling.

ORIGINAL FABRIC

The Assembly Room was designed as the meeting room for policyholders of The Old Mutual on Darling Street, Cape Town, and was decorated with frescoes by artist Le Roux Smith Le Roux. It is one of the five core areas (together with the exterior facades, the main entrance foyer and lift lobbies, the banking hall, and the directors’ boardroom) that were identified as “Principal Areas” of the building. The space is roughly oval in shape, double volume, with an upper gallery and a stage area. Its generous proportions and heritage protection status resulted in the space being left intact during the 2003 reworking of the old bank building and has remained as originally intended until the time of work on this project.

The building itself served as an obvious inspiration for us to work within. The international art deco style with a regional localism, in both material selection and decorative motifs, separated it from its overseas counterparts and made it unique in its African context. It was this same design-approach that we employed on the project with the same desired result.

EARLY STAGES

Before starting on the design work of the project, the studio undertook a three-week study of the existing materials in the apartment – The fabric analysis report. This report served to record and document 
the existing built fabric of the Assembly Room and the adjacent interior spaces in the Mutual Heights building.

This report categorised the spaces into their built elements where the original fabric was recorded through mapping, written description and photographic references. Each element was rated in terms of its authenticity, restorative requirements and material sensitivity. Naturally, original items that were vulnerable to deterioration were preserved and it was these that informed most of the material selection or colour palettes in the project.

A heritage practitioner, art historian/restorer, and feng-shui consultant were all appointed on our recommendation to prepare reports that would help characterise the layers of the space and the original materials. These reports would inform all design decisions going forward to ensure a sensitive understanding and approach in our work.

AN ARCHITECTURAL RESPONSE

Dealing with the Assembly Room being the principal space, and its associated ancillary rooms, was always viewed as a challenge when imagining the unit as a home. Initially designed as a public gathering space, it was important that the surrounding spaces took on a domestic scale, while still retaining the sense of the original grandeur in its new purpose.

The disproportionate scale of the secondary rooms in comparison to the principal space, the extent of circulation from the lifts through the adjoining sections and the physical disconnection of the Assembly Room from the other areas motivated the design and layout of the apartment.

The ode to the international style is evident in the form, layout, and stone selection of the tiles in the galleries and the gate architraves, as well as in the stainless steel metalwork in the new gates and in the bathroom fixtures and staircase handrails. Elsewhere, local materials were sourced and used for the timber wall panelling and architectural trims, the timber floors and terracotta tiles.

SPATIAL CONCEPT

GROUND LEVEL

 

1. arrival lobby

2. reception gallery

3. private gallery

4. the assembly room

5. guest wc

6. cabinet of curiosity

7. kitchen

8. passage

9. laundry

10. bedroom 01

11. ensuite 01

12. dresser 01

13. bedroom 02

UPPER LEVEL

 

14. media lounge

15. mezzanine gallery

16. ensuite 02

17. bedroom 03

18. ensuite 03

SECTIONS

THE GALLERIES

It was the architectural intervention of a system of partitions and architraves, as well as horizontal datum in the form of picture rails, which were incorporated within the hallways and service areas that assisted in reducing the overall scale of these rooms. They also resulted in a series of smaller halls and vestibules that, when circulating through the apartment, created hierarchy and domesticity, without compromising on the original spatial experience. The halls now function to create galleries, security, and privacy from the lifts and adjacent areas. 

The use of a picture rail used throughout the galleries took reference from the Assembly rooms dado rail, delineating veneer walls from fresco and fabric lining. The picture rails allowed each space to be linked and, at the same time, be defined with varying degrees of kiaat veneer / painted wall and marble applications. The reduced height assisted with the spatial definition and in the architectural lighting of the rooms.  

The decorative nib walls were introduced as thresholds. These nibs define the sequence and hierarchy of the space; a ‘destination’ arrival lobby through to a gallery reception and on to the more private ‘west wing’ gallery of the apartment.  

The nib walls were set at a 45 degree taper. This was a reference from the prism windows and entrance door of the main building. Clad with marble and integrated with recessed stainless steel gates, they echo the marble surround and stainless steel doors of the adjacent lift shafts.

The art niche at the end of the gallery continues with the tapered wall and marble detailing, creating a focal point and termination of the galleries. It was introduced upon discovery of a historic photo, whereby a glass block wall formed the backdrop of an artwork in its location.

The materials specified in the galleries looked to complement those within the Assembly Room. The kiaat parquet floor of the Assembly Room was referenced and carried through as a finish to selected walls, doors and trim elements (picture rails, architraves and skirtings) in the galleries.

Marble was specified for the floors. The body of the floor, a Palamino white marble, acts as a reflector, bouncing natural light through to the darker ends of the galleries.  A decorative marble inlay was designed for the Reception Gallery. A prism motif marks and holds the primary threshold to the assembly room itself.

The stainless steel gates integrated into the nib wall detail have been referenced from the original Assembly Room doors. Primarily serving as a line of security, it was important that they were expressed as a decorative feature. The stepped profile of the building’s silhouette is sand-blasted onto the glass of the original Assembly Room doors. In the design of the gate the silhouette has once again been mirrored, but in two directions. The combination of polished and brushed stainless steel, with flat and circular hollow sections, are combined in the overall composition. A discreet locking mechanism is housed in the vertical hollow section of the gate. 

THE KITCHENS

A new single doorway was the only ‘architectural’ intervention within the Assembly Room itself and provided the opportunity for a minimal, loose fit, front-of-house kitchen alter to connect to the back, working kitchen and laundry area. 

It was identified at a very early stage that the success of the project would hinge on a close-knit collaboration and common understanding between the architectural and interior elements. We worked closely alongside Atelier Interiors on many aspects of the design in order to achieve the desired result. It was essential that the ideas and concepts for the project were shared between the two disciplines throughout the design development and execution of works.

The front-of-house kitchen was designed to contrast the colours of the Assembly Room, but to be sleek and discreet in its detailing to conceal most of its functions. The dark grey sintered stone forms joinery cladding and countertops. The kitchen island side panels have textured, hand-routed walnut panels complementing the two finishes. 

The back kitchen connects to one of the two external balcony spaces looking down over the Grand Parade and Darling Street. A combination of walnut veneer, oak and red cedar timber were used alongside red-clay terracotta ‘klompie’ tiles (a reference to the original manganese-oxide screed that was found in the kitchen lobby area) to give a more textured and softer character to the room. These materials were highlighted with bronzed aluminium, brushed stainless steel and white marble. 

THE STAIR

Due to the size constraints of the lift, the height of the apartment and unfeasible option of a crane, a service staircase on site was adapted and utilised as the primary staircase within the apartment. The existing utility stair was relocated and appropriated to create a new feature spiral stair.

The structural integrity of the previous design was reworked, the stair was cut into multiple pieces and hoisted into place. A new solid sheet steel balustrade fixed to the outer perimeter creates more stability and a dynamic form and gesture to vertical circulation.  The metal sheets were manufactured off-site and assembled in the rooms to the new design.  An existing handrail was integrated onto the sheet balustrade adding comfort to the clean forms. Different paint textures and artificial light were deployed onto the various components of the stair to enhance the use and playful nature of the form.

By moving the staircase it allowed for the creation of three additional rooms within the apartment while still linking the two floors. The ‘cabinet of curiosity’ meets you on entrance from the shared eighth floor lightwell area. As you ascend the stair within the room you arrive upon the upper gallery overlooking the Assembly Room. The media lounge is tucked away behind a joinery screen. The guest WC takes on the curved form of the stair and becomes a point of interest for the interiors within the project. 

THE BEDROOMS AND ENSUITES

There are three bedrooms in total. The two main ensuite bedrooms sit side-by-side on the eighth floor ‘west wing’. While working in quite constrained areas relative to the adjoining Assembly Room and galleries, the task was to interpret each of the sibling’s requirements and maximise the spatial experience. utilizing the tall floor-to-ceiling height and stacking the en-suites over one other assisted in allowing for more generous bedroom spaces, while maintaining natural light and ventilation to flow to each bathroom. 

Architectural features, such as screens and light fittings, were salvaged from the building’s basement vaults. These were restored and reintroduced in some areas of the apartment to further integrate the new and original features.

We worked alongside local artisans and joiners in designing bespoke solid hand-carved granite stone vanity units and walk-in dressing rooms. Natural limestone tiles were installed to create warmth underfoot. The tile was generally carried onto the walls as a reference to the monolithic stone cladding of the building.

Brushed stainless steel fixtures and glass frames, feature marble slab details and bathrooms layouts served as an ode to the Art Deco style of the building.

A third bedroom is located on the ninth floor off the mezzanine gallery. The colour of the room was referenced from the existing mohair curtains, which were restored by Atelier, and installed in the bedroom. Modern conveniences of heating and cooling and architectural lighting and curtain tracks are discreetly concealed in the ceiling recesses. 

PROJECT INTENTION

Through considerate and consistent reinterpretation of the context and an appreciation for design process, it is hoped that the project offers an example of successfully redeveloping historically important spaces within our cities. It is simultaneously hoped that the work offers an interesting alternative to residential typologies within this context and promotes its interest and development.

Photographs: Tremayne Ward-Smith