Defacing An Icon: The Degradation of Church Square


Vincent has been selling flowers on Church Square for over 50 years. He inherited the flower stall from his parents. He is one of the many informal traders who earn their livelihood on the Square. Under the shade of his gazebo he shared with me his unique perspective of the tumultuous changes witnessed by him and his floral kaleidoscope over the decades.

‘My livelihood is affected’, he says, commenting on the mass migration of businesses out of the centre of town to places like Menlyn, Brooklyn, and Centurion. He then goes on to describe how the vacancies left behind are then occupied by less than savoury enterprises, such as taverns, which in turn attract a similar class of people which keep away the middle to upper class people. It’s essentially a snowball effect where the people with money to spend and the businesses at which they would have spent their money flee for the security offered by office parks and shopping malls. This affects the informal traders like Vincent dramatically. The people who would usually be patrons of the businesses like his are those who have some kind of disposable income, and they are no longer the type that frequent Church Square. Vincent observes ruefully that ‘people are scared to come to the square’.

Vincent’s tone became progressively more nostalgic and despondent towards the end of our meeting as he began to describe the glory days of Church Square. He reminisced on how he used to be able to sell flowers well into the evening to the patrons of the long abandoned Capitol Theatre and the long gone nearby restaurants. He described how couples would stroll, arms interlocked, as they peered into the shop windows. Suddenly, jerking us back to the present, he exclaimed that, ‘now when it hits 5 o’clock you have to pack up and run home and lock yourself in.’

The Dawn of the Capital


The seed of the capital was planted in the rich soil of the idyllic valley of the Apies River around 1848 (1). Originally ‘Pretoriusdorp’, and then ‘Pretorium’ (3), the name ‘Pretoria’ was finally approved by the House of Assembly on the 16th of November 1855 (1). The capital was born almost completely without ceremony: ‘Not a single trumpet sounded and no cannon fired a salute.’ (3)

By 1861 Pretoria had become the seat of government of the South African Republic (1).
The early inhabitants lived in long, narrow thatched whitewashed cottages with fences and verandahs that were brimming with roses, ‘facing towards wide streets on the sides of which willows and gum trees grew in abundance and water ran in channels’ (2). It was a lively hamlet town, a fusion of people from all over the world. It was a place of opportunity.

The Inception of Church Square

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In 1854 it was agreed that a church be built for the fifth Transvaal parish (1). This was the conception of Church Square.
The church was built on the intersection of two prominent axes: an east-west axis formed by the Apies river valley and a north-south axis formed by Wonderboom Poort, the natural gorge in the mountains. This prominent positioning gave the church – and the square which followed – an intrinsic significance. Pretoria as we know it today was formed around that modest thatched and gabled church. From its inception the square has been the heart of Pretoria. Sadly, it was struck by lightning in 1882 and burnt down (1).

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A grand new church was built in its place. Known as the Franken Church, it followed a far more prominent neo-Gothic style and a cruciform plan. At the east end was a tower surmounted by a steeple that could be seen from a great distance and served as a marker for travellers to aim for. This church later suffered its own demise, albeit one far less ceremonious than an explosive ‘act of god’.

As time passed, the simple structures of the original settlers were gradually replaced by government buildings which ‘expressed the new wealth and consequence of the Republic’ (2). These new buildings were designed to ‘fulfil the aesthetic, ceremonial, and symbolic requirements of a capital city’ (2).

Previous Threats

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Decision makers since the 1890s have consistently displayed a lack of understanding of the significance of a place like Church Square.

On the 6th of July 1899 both the Square and its church were transferred by the Nederduitsch Hervormde Gemeente to the Government of the ZAR for £50,000 on the condition that the church be used for an educational purpose such as a museum (1). In 1904 the colonial government ruled that the church be demolished and the square be opened to general public traffic (1). The public was not consulted.

In July of 1974, after an announcement was made that a Provincial Administration Building, a new Post Office, and governmental offices were to replace the imposing and dignified buildings on what amounted to virtually the entire western facade ‘Pretorians were up in arms, … protests were arranged and petitions signed to save the square’ (1).
The then Administrator of the Transvaal proclaimed that ‘the threatened buildings had no aesthetic, historic, or architectural value’ (1). Seven thousand signatures were collected at a ‘Save the Square’ meeting which were delivered with a letter appealing to the Prime Minister at his office at the Union Buildings to reconsider the issue (1). The uproar paid off. The project was scrapped.

This raises the question of how in the age of connectivity there has been no public uproar about this most recent defacing of a national heritage icon.

It’s not only about the History

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The historic significance of Church Square is not the only reason that it should be protected. The incredible architectural beauty is a good enough reason on its own. Beyond that, an enormous amount of energy and irreplaceable resources have been ripped from the earth to create these buildings. The destruction of which would constitute a deplorable wastage.



While sitting at a corner café overlooking the main public square in a capital city, one would anticipate experiencing a sense of grandeur or, at the very least, a vague sentiment of significance. Church Square, a place which was once the central node of South Africa, a square which has entertained events that altered the course of history for every single South African, evokes no such feeling. Instead, this place of such indubitable historic and cultural significance evokes the blandness of feeling like that of a parking lot at a forgotten warehouse.


The story of Church Square is one of consistently missed opportunities, widespread lack of understanding of its value, and brazen ignorance. The lack of understanding has facilitated a proliferation of indiscretions. The insensitivity of which has manifested in the products of questionable design decisions which have led to the degradation of the character of Church Square and the missing of an opportunity to make Church Square a world-class public space.

The root of the problem lies at the initial decision to run the TRT (Tshwane Rapid Transit) system through the square. This was an engineering decision with the sole purpose of implementing a functional traffic system without considering the holistic implications of such a system on a place of great historic significance. This indicates a lack of understanding of the importance of design professionals such as urban designers and architects. Neither architects nor urban designers were consulted at the formative stages of the project (7) which means that pragmatism has triumphed over sensitivity and emotion: ‘there’s nothing of loveliness here’, says Adrian, head architect at the Department of Public Works.


The usual process where design decisions are directed by the architect and carried out by the engineer has been reversed: Mashabane Rose were hired to ‘beautify’ the engineering project on Church Square (8), ‘to basically make something pretty that is inherently ugly’. While discussing the decision to run a transport system through a prominent public space, Adrian laments that ‘our feeling as architects is that the transport system should never have happened on the square’, ‘the square is being destroyed, and, architecturally, more things need to happen’. Secondary roads could have been used, forming a ‘ring-road’ around the square, thereby maintaining its integrity as a grand public space.

Despite Church Square being easily accessible, the park in the middle suffers a lack of accessibility due to the moat of asphalt and paving. A detrimental effect of having a vast paved surface largely dedicated to vehicle traffic is that it becomes a barrier that isolates the areas flanking it, thereby reducing the accessibility of those areas. The roadway has become just such a barrier which has severed the interface between the square and the very buildings which constitute it. Essentially, Church Square has become a traffic circle with an isolated park in the middle.


When you explore the buildings around Church Square you are invariably struck by the exquisite detailing that they exhibit – from the finely crafted staircases in the Palace of Justice to the delicate flourishes on the facade of the Netherlands Bank building. This craftsmanship alludes to a sense of pride and appreciation for workmanship, a testament to the meticulous consideration given to every element. It only follows naturally that the detailing of the square should reflect that of the buildings surrounding it. It is not evident that any detailing was considered beyond that which accompanies plain functionalism. There is no finesse or sense of pride exhibited here.

Tectonic Insensitivities

‘Many layers of heritage significance were removed and not replaced’, says Adrian. Among them is the slate paving which forms ‘an important part of the historic visual edge of these significant buildings’ (7). This slate was ‘unnecessarily’ (7) removed from areas around the Palace of Justice and the Raadsaal. Some was reinstated (haphazardly and inconsistently) and the rest were distributed elsewhere in Paul Kruger Street. The majority of the slate paving was replaced with concrete cobbles which is graceless and completely incongruous with the character of the buildings around Church Square. The level change between pavement and road has also been lost, further reducing the legibility of the space.


There are exposed stormwater channels running across the surface of the square which were a result of ‘miscalculations of road-to-building threshold levels’ (7). This is not in accordance with the best practice principles of designing a public place with any significance. They become unsightly as they gather rubbish and dirt, and they are dangerous because of their placement in areas reserved for pedestrian movement – imagine having a steady stream of water flowing down the middle of your passage at home every time it rained.


At last there was a faint ray of hope when it was announced that the tram lines were going to be preserved. This ray soon illuminated itself as nothing more than an illusion of sensitivity. Gleaned from a letter from the Public Works department is this excerpt which succinctly explains the ultimately missed and potentially redeeming feature: ‘The idea of retaining the original tramlines held much promise, with potential to creatively integrate them into the design, but upon realisation leaves little to be celebrated; only a bland reminder of a past public transport system’ (7) and a pedestrian hazard for anyone wearing stilettos.


Legibility allows people to understand which opportunities are on offer in a particular space (4). Essentially, legibility makes a place graspable. When a person can’t intuitively comprehend the opportunities on offer, they will tend to move on and go somewhere else. These opportunities can be communicated in various ways; the most common being the building typology (if a building looks like a church it is assumed that religious activities will be held in that building). Another method of communication would be simple signage telling you what’s going on in a place.

When arriving at Church Square it is not at all clear what opportunities are on offer. There is no information on or around the buildings that make up the square. This means that most people are unaware of their immense significance. This dearth of communication is a huge contributor to the prevailing ignorance among the square’s frequenters which has allowed the degradation of the square to prevail without public uproar. If people knew what the buildings were worth, maybe they would say something about what’s happening at the square.

The value of the square has never been communicated. There are buildings which have hosted events of immense historic significance, such as the Rivonia Trials in the Palace of Justice, which are open to the public. But, due to the lack of communication most people don’t know that they may enter these monuments. This lack of communication has a detrimental effect on tourism that most certainly contributes to the phenomenon of busses full of tourists simply driving through the square without stopping. Why would they stop if there is nothing inviting them to do so?

The treatment of surfaces is another factor that contributes to legibility. This has been grossly overlooked at Church Square. The floor surfaces are inconsistent and uncommunicative. The replacement of slate with concrete cobble pavers and the loss of the level change between road and pavement has resulted in the blurring of the boundary between the pedestrian and traffic realms. This is confusing and dangerous for a ‘pedestrianised’ square that has not actually been pedestrianised.


Shared surface theory, an urban design concept that removes all demarcations indicating zones of use, has been known to result in wonderful urban spaces where people and drivers are more cautious because of the resultant uncertainty. If that was indeed the intention on Church Square, such positive effects are not observable.

At the (aesthetically inappropriate) traffic lights around the square there is paving which has a different pattern to that adjoining it. This was ostensibly done to assist and guide visually impaired pedestrians. Because of the lack of clear physical or perceptual thresholds, these seemingly sensitive interventions become redundant.



Even though Church Square is an easily accessible place thanks to the web of public transport which crosses it, ‘easily accessible places are irrelevant unless they offer a choice of experiences’ (4).
A place with varied uses attracts ‘varied people, at varied times, and for varied reasons’ (4). The space begins to take on different meanings because of all of the variety of people who are all interpreting the space in varied ways. This rich amalgamation of people inevitably leads to chance social interactions which, among other things, spark relationships that otherwise would never have occurred. Old friends are bumped in to and caught up with, news and gossip about the outside world is shared and discussed, and the seeds of world changing ideas are planted. The lack of variety is the single biggest source of missed opportunities on the square.

Without a variety of functions there can never be a variety of people. People have no reason to be at the square because there are minimal opportunities on offer – specifically commercial, recreational, and entertainment opportunities. Give them a reason to be there and people will show up.

The Bilbao Effect

According to a report in The Economist (2013), in the first three years of the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, $110m (R1.7B) in taxes was raised from visitors of the museum. Enough to cover the construction costs and leave something over. As reported in the same article, last year more than one million people visited the museum – at least half of them were tourists. This shows how a single remarkable architectural edifice can help revive the economy of a city. Similar opportunities are begging to be realised on Church Square. If the issues discussed here were addressed, Church Square could become a world class tourist destination.


  1. BOLSMAN, E. (2001) Pretoria: Artists Impressions 1857-2001. Pretoria: Protea Book House.
  2. GREIG, D. (1971) A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.
  3. CARTWRIGHT, A.P., COWAN, N. The Old Transvaal. Cape Town: Purnell
  4. BENTLEY, I. et al. (2005) Responsive Environments. London: Architectural Press
  5. Trevor Evans, Architect
  6. Adriaan Louw, Architect, National Department of Public Works
  7. Craig McClenaghan, Architect, Mashabane Rose
  8. THE ECONOMIST (2013) The Bilbao Effect. [Online] Available from: news/special-report/21591708-if-you-build-it-will-they-come-bilbao-effect. [Accessed: 12 February 2016].

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