After more than 25 years, the hugely successful V&A Waterfront is still expanding, while retaining its links to the harbour and the Mother City’s history


When the rundown, windswept Cape Town harbour area was transformed into the V&A Waterfront in the late 1980s, then-landowners Transnet had to sell the idea to a sceptical audience. Now, more than 25 years later, the vibrant Waterfront is an African success story, attracting 100 000 people per day during peak season. However, its owners still face scepticism whenever they announce new property developments.

‘People resist change initially, but our plans should win over the hearts and minds of Capetonians,’ says Martin Kearns, development executive at the V&A Waterfront, which since 2011 has been jointly owned by Growthpoint Properties and by the government pension fund through the Public Investment Company.

The ambitious plans, as laid out in the holding company’s Vision 2040, centre on re-establishing the city’s link with the ocean, opening up public spaces and extending the footprint of the Waterfront. But how big can they go? And what is too big?

Kearns says these were some of the fundamental questions that the development team grappled with. ‘Around the time of the Silver Jubilee of the Waterfront in 2015, we discussed what we wanted to achieve over the next 25 years. We asked ourselves, “Where do we go from here? Nothing is broken, there’s still development potential but what, where, when and how? And how big is too big?”.’

As always, context matters. The tallest building in the Waterfront is the repurposed 1920s grain silo that houses the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA) and a hotel. It’s 65m high and was once the tallest building in the entire country.

Of course, the nearby CBD has long overtaken the silo in height, dominating the skyline with several buildings between 110m and 120m. And the CBD is still reaching new heights. Even the tallest existing building – FNB’s Portside, featuring 32 floors at a height of 139m – will be dwarfed if the proposed 192m Cullinan Square (47 floors) goes ahead on the Foreshore.

The Waterfront visionaries are keeping size in perspective. ‘We’re mindful of the history of the Waterfront; mindful that we’re limited on height because of the historic nature of the buildings,’ says Kearns. ‘We believe that on the city side we can push the height of the buildings up to 80m; perhaps at Granger Bay they can also go higher. But in the historic centre around Victoria Basin the buildings will remain the height they are now. We don’t want to impact on sightlines nor do we want to damage the integrity of the basin.’

John Wilson-Harris of Gabriel Fagan Architects, which specialises in heritage and green design, agrees. ‘It’s important to keep to scale when developing a precinct so as not to overpower the original buildings. There’s always the worry that historic buildings such as the old grain silo might be crowded out by new developments and that the Waterfront might be undone by its own success.’

As a committee member at the Institute of Architects, he is tasked with commenting on any proposed developments in Cape Town’s heritage areas, including the Waterfront. He says the guidelines recommend that ‘the material and the scale should be of the place’ so that any new building fits into the context of the existing ones.

‘The task is to keep the V&A Waterfront authentic, because that’s the reason why everybody visits it: the authenticity of the working harbour,’ says Wilson-Harris. He points out the significance of small details such as the iron chains along the harbour basin. ‘It’s not something people notice until they go somewhere else and find modern handrails with barriers everywhere.’

The term ‘authenticity’ also pops up frequently in Kearns’ explanations. Without it, he cautions, the Waterfront would be more akin to a resort or theme park. ‘What truly makes the Waterfront authentic is the historic nature of the buildings, the working port, the syncrolift and the 19th- century dry dock, which is still very much operational,’ he says. ‘When you drive in here you see the sparks flying. Some people think we’re putting this on for show, but it’s real. It’s gritty.

‘The syncrolift is managed by the National Ports Authority. Trawlers go up on the blocks; some get sandblasted, others are scrap, so you see them being cut to pieces and taken out.’

A magical way to view the contrasts within the Waterfront is from the end of Collier Jetty, according to Kearns. For safety reasons, it’s closed to the public but, he says, ‘if you look to the left, you see the Table Bay Hotel, the expensive yachts, Victoria Wharf and restaurants – a wonderful leisure node. If you turn 180 degrees to the right, you see gritty marine industry, with rust, ships, trawlers, fishing equipment. It’s the complete opposite’.

Tessa Brunette, facade designer at Arup, who has been involved in the facades of all the buildings in the Silo District, including the iconic pillow windows of the MOCAA complex, has her office in the Clocktower District.

She says it’s not just the sights, but also the aromas (‘on some days it smells of fish’) and the sounds (‘the I&J fishing boats blow their horns when entering or leaving the harbour’) that add character to the area. While this grittiness makes working and living at the V&A so special, it also requires a unique approach to the design, construction and upkeep of buildings. Waterfront spokesman Donald Kau mentions the maintenance challenges posed by the working harbour, which is effectively a ‘hostile environment with dirt, dust, salt, water and bird life’.

The proximity to the harbour also means that when designing building facades in the district, Brunette has to meet stringent acoustic requirements to reduce the noise and keep the inside comfortable and quiet for the occupants.

She notes that the Waterfront developers emphasise sustainability and Green Star ratings in line with the Green Building Council of South Africa. For instance, the Silo District features a shared seawater cooling plant that uses icy water from the Atlantic rather than the potable municipal supply for chilling and heating water. There’s also a grey-water system, energy- and water-efficient fixtures, and a green roof that provides thermal insulation.

Consequently, the district has achieved a string of ‘firsts’ in green awards and certifica-tions, including the much-publicised, first-ever 6-star as built rating in SA for No. 1 Silo (the Allan Gray building) and, most recently, the country’s first custom-design rating for a new hotel (5-star Green Star rating for Silo 6, the face-brick Radisson Red).

Looking ahead, the Waterfront wants to future-proof its developments by building its own seawater desalination plant to take the precinct off the city’s water grid by 2019. CEO David Green said in a statement: ‘In addition, we have allocated part of our land to the City of Cape Town to install one of their temporary desalination plants. This desalination plant is currently being built and should be operating and producing water by the end of March 2018.’

This may help win the hearts and minds of Capetonians, as may the creation of an urban park in the new Canal District. Originally dubbed the Gateway, the mixed-use development opens the link to the CBD and the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC).

The 0.8 ha park is being landscaped along the ruins of the Amsterdam Battery, on top of a four-storey car park. ‘When the battery was built in the late 18th century, it was the same size as the Castle of Good Hope, right on the border of the beach before the land was reclaimed,’ says Kearns. Battery Park is envisaged as a ‘fantastic open space’ not only for office workers but for absolutely anybody, he adds.

‘The idea is to come to the park for a day out, have a picnic or eat out, listen to jazz, use the playground and outdoor gym, do stand-up paddling or water polo on the canal.’

Kearns sees the Waterfront as a place of aspiration, a shop window to the world that encourages South Africans to feel on a par with Paris, London, Sydney or New York.

This worldly flair is enhanced by the new Cape Town Cruise Terminal at Duncan Dock, which welcomes international cruise passengers on the doorstep of the Silo District and the CTICC. So far the Waterfront has invested R50 million to remodel the former cold storage warehouse into a sleek, efficient passenger terminal that also targets local visitors all year round to offset the seasonality of cruise traffic.

One of the drawcards is Panama Jacks, the well-known seafood restaurant that had to vacate its original venue near the port. The cruise terminal will also, during the off season, be repurposed as a venue for high-profile events, such as art shows.

However, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the new developments is Granger Bay, according to Kearns. While the exact plans are yet to be made public, he says: ‘It will be primarily a residential and leisure development. The size of its footprint depends on the density and bulk we believe is appropriate for this area. Is it going to be a seaside village, a seaside point or an extension of Mouille Point? What we can say: it’s not going to be just another line of tall buildings.’

The trump card – to win over the hearts and minds of sceptics – promises the creation of a new public coastal walkway, similar to the Sea Point Promenade, with outdoor recreational facilities for local residents and tourists.

‘We’re excited about this,’ says Kearns, adding that the scenic walkway will meander from the CBD through the Canal and Silo districts over the swing bridge and the quays along the seafront to connect Granger Bay and beyond.

‘And yes, there are going to be challenges but it’s a wonderful story we’re trying to tell.’

By Silke Colquhoun
Images: Jotham van Tonder/HMimages, Gareth van Nelson/HMimages, Gallo/Getty Images, V&A Waterfront

Article written by