This volume, the fourth title in the Ashgate Studies in Architecture series, is a substantial achievement due to Nicholas Coetzer’s thorough scholarship drawing on archives and other primary sources to support a historical study of architecture, housing, and urban planning in Cape Town, South Africa, from the late nineteenth century to 1948, when apartheid officially began. Coetzer argues that the project of legal exclusion known as apartheid began fifty years before it was enforced through legislation. The book is admirable for its highly articulate portrayal of the social, political, and cultural contexts that, through architecture and the ordering of urban and suburban spaces, “were actively constructing Cape Town and South Africa into a territory of the British Empire—mapped out, ordered and remade through architecture into a landscape legitimizing their continued control and exploitation of the land and its people” (215). The book is strong in its historical treatment of pre-apartheid Cape Town through a postcolonial lens, though not an overly determined one. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this study is the revelation that the seemingly innocuous humanist and scientifically based decisions around the aesthetics and ordering of space in pre-apartheid Cape Town gave rise to a dehumanized landscape and “unfold[ed] without contradiction from Empire to apartheid” (216), laying “the solid foundations onto which the ugly edifice of apartheid was built” (13).
The organizational scheme of the book is grounded in the literature of “whiteness” and the premise that the construction of identity is a relational process involving the binary of “Self ” and “Other.” Conceptualized in such a fashion, the formation of “Self ” is a result not only of what the self is but also what it is in opposition to. Therefore, the unstable nature of identity sows the seeds for its own unraveling. Part I, “Self/Countryside,” brings this theoretical premise into the spatial realm as Coetzer discusses the built heritage of Cape Dutch rural homesteads and their architectural elements (e.g., gables, thatched roofs, whitewashed walls). The British and Afrikaner residents of Cape Town saw these as their common heritage. Given these buildings’ status as examples of a significant vernacular, which subsequently became the prototype for the so-called Cape Dutch revival in Cape Town and beyond, they were also understood as requiring preservation. At a social and political level, Cape Dutch architecture came to be construed by Europeans living in the Cape—as they positioned themselves as the stewards of the history and vast territory of southern Africa—as a mark of Western “advanced” civilization. Conveniently framed in this manner, “civilized” was seen in opposition to “native” or “Other,” although, as Coetzer points out, that relationship was often muddled.
Part II, “Other/City,” extends this oppositional relationship to the urban scale as the city’s public health officials, engineers, planners, and architects attempted to make the cityscape pretty and inoffensive. Unsightly visual aspects of Cape Town, such as dense slums and dilapidated structures, were positioned in contrast to making the city beautiful through regulation of the aesthetics of built form and concomitant social space rooted in European heritage as well as romantic ideals of the garden city and Arts and Crafts movements. Regulatory mechanisms couched in “scientific” terms, but in reality rooted in racial and social assumptions about the “Other,” legitimated where and how certain inhabitants of the city should live and led to “the exclusion of social and racial Others from the city,” thereby transforming the city into a “White space” (107). By addressing the racialized underpinnings of planning regulations, Coetzer undermines an enduring myth of science and its applications as “disinterested” or “objective” and points to the shifting definitions of what constitutes progress and norms around how and where people live. The construction of difference involved the conflation of the “Other” with physical materials, such as corrugated iron, that were associated with low status. Buildings constructed from such materials were deemed disorderly hybrid eyesores and were consequently removed and relocated to the periphery of the city in an effort to “sanitize” the inner city and make it “safe” for middle-class and white inhabitants. Coetzer highlights this significant point through his discussion of the association of diseases, such as tuberculosis, with low social and economic class, blackness, and a lack of visible order, as well as with low-status construction materials. The prevalence of infectious diseases in the city’s “unsightly” quarters, such as the well-known District Six, was yet another justification for the forced removal of people from the core of the city based on their race and social status. Coetzer’s discussion is a useful springboard for further research focused on the relationships among disease, public health, and the built environment in African cities.
Part III, “Same/Suburb,” details a history of housing in Cape Town that grew out of Darwinian theories about the impact of the environment on living organisms as well as influential ideals of the garden city and Arts and Crafts movements. Through the spectacle of imperial exhibitions and design competitions, “the identity of Englishness (as signified through the cottage) was paraded and ‘naturalized’ as essential, whilst other ways of being in the city were excluded or downplayed” (175). The creation of social-spatial zones that dictated where and how people should live combined with antiurban low-density housing formed the backbone for municipal housing schemes in early twentieth-century Cape Town and set the stage for later apartheid planning. Decisions about housing the “native” population, including permanent residents, migratory laborers, and well-educated nonwhites, were based on ridding the city of its ugly, dense, and insalubrious environment and thereby bringing order and beauty to Cape Town. The “natives” were pushed out to the margins of the city and into the suburbs, where they were rehoused in stripped-down freestanding cottages, block houses, or hostels in the hope that these new settings would be conducive to “civilizing” the nonwhite population. Coetzer argues that this reordering of urban space ironically created conditions in the city’s suburbs that brought whites into close proximity with “Others,” but this time in the city’s periphery. This uneasiness and uncertainty eventually led to new plans for achieving order.
Overall, Building Apartheid: On Architecture and Order in Imperial Cape Town is an outstanding contribution to scholarship about the historical development of pre-apartheid Cape Town. While the book can be criticized for being repetitive at times, that is in part because the story of spatial planning in South Africa is one of repeated selective exclusion of people according to race and class based on social constructions of “Self,” “difference,” and “Other.” Carefully articulating the historical development of architectural space in Cape Town from many perspectives, Coetzer’s highly readable benchmark study has significant relevance for scholars of architectural and planning practices in contemporary South Africa.