Commissions on R700m worth of projects is not a bad start for a brand new architectural practice launched in Cape Town this month by two UCT graduates that began their careers 14 years ago and have now left the shadows of the grand old names they have been working for to go it alone.
The five significant projects are the new Citadel Investment Bank in Claremont (R200m,) a new hotel in Ghana for Tsogo Sun (R200m,) a Holiday Inn in KwaZulu-Natal (R125m,) a boutique hotel in Green Point, Cape Town (R100m) and a new residential tower in the Cape Town city centre (R75m.)
Robert Silke has been known as senior partner and heir-apparent at Louis Karol Architects (LKA,) which made its mark with the monolithic central city buildings of the 60s and 70s that still stand today as some of the tallest structures in the Cape Town CBD.
As creative director, Silke repositioned the practice as a design force between 2000 and 2010, with his major urban interventions such as Mutual Heights for Old Mutual in 2004, a residential conversion that catalysed the turnaround of Cape Town CBD, and The Point for HCI & Berman Bros in 2014 in Sea Point, which similarly experienced a rejuvenation sparked by the project.
Robert McGiven also chose big names to raise his profile and was a key member of two top South African architectural firms, Noero Wolff, Cape Town, for whom he job-captained Port Elizabeth’s award-winning Red Location apartheid museum, and Mashabane Rose of Johannesburg, where he worked on the historic urban regeneration project at Newtown Junction for Atterbury. He also worked on the infrastructure for a sustainable diamond mine in Sierra Leone.
Reconnecting now after their parallel studies at UCT and uncrossed career paths in the past 14 years, Silke and McGiven decided to join forces in their new practice, Robert Silke and Partners. They are presently fitting out their new offices on the top floor of the Waalburg Building in Wale Street.
The choice of Waalburg as headquarters connects with one of Robert Silke’s hallmark architectural commissions as designer of the former Old Mutual headquarters conversion into a residential development in Darling Street.
Mutual Heights as it is now known shared its origins with Waalburg as the original work of famous Cape architects Louw and Louw. Now Silke and McGiven are converting the traditional law practice offices they will occupy into the creative space of their architectural firm.
“The leap of faith has paid off and immediately major new projects have come our way,” says Silke.
The partnership has been appointed architectural design consultant for the Citadel building, which Silke originally designed at LKA, and which will occupy the former Boardmans site in Claremont. The appointment provides a means for him to complete work started at his old firm. They have also been appointed as interior designers and space planners for the 6,000m2 internal fit-out.
“I want to design buildings that matter,” says Silke, who describes himself as a public architect interested in buildings on a city scale. He has never designed a house, “though I would not turn down the opportunity to make something beautiful.”
Now, with their new partnership, Silke and McGiven want to expand on the changing scenario of the City. “I think that we’re only now coming to terms with the spatial damage suffered by South African cities in the 20th century, as well as the brutality of our modern built environment,” says Silke. “Commercial developers know that they have a role to play in turning our cities around. I’ve hardly ever met a developer who doesn’t dream of making the city a better place.”
“Commercial buildings have to provide economic returns, and once a client knows that his architect is looking after his return, then you’d be surprised at the social magnanimity and largesse that can follow.”
“In that way we see ourselves as libertarian architects, fiscally conservative and socially progressive.”
Silke has a pragmatic attitude to doing business as an architect in uncertain economic times and says, “I think we’re coming to terms with the fact that we continue to live through a long depression era. And what that means for architecture is that new buildings have to work a lot harder, as developers can’t afford to build the same thing twice. So fashion is out and enduring beauty is in. Spec buildings are passé, and durability is the order of the day. Which is good for the planet and good for architects.”
The partners are looking forward to expanding the practice and already the staff complement has risen to ten.