Paul Duncan

10 QUESTIONS: Paul Duncan

Paul Duncan discusses his new book about some of Cape Town's most special interiors


Paul Duncan is the former editor of the South African edition of House and Garden. His new book, Hidden Cape Town, takes you behind the doors of 30 notable buildings in the Mother City, (including the Old Mutual Building, the National Library of South Africa and the Mount Nelson Hotel). With lavish pictures by Alain Proust’s, the book reveals the fascinating histories of these buildings and their intriguing interiors.

How did Hidden Cape Town come about?

I’ve always been aware of the architectural patrimony of this city, and I’ve always been curious about what many of our buildings house. Lots of very old sources provided the research material but I wanted something more up-to-date. This book is that.

How long did you work on it?

It took about a year to do. I did a lot of walking trying to assess which places would fit into the mix and which wouldn’t.

Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan

The architect JM Solomon modelled the staircase on a 17th-century one in the Mauritshuis, a small palace in The Hague in the Netherlands, which was adapted in the 19th century to serve as a museum for paintings. Solomon’s domed ceiling is a representation of a southern celestial hemisphere.

How did you go about researching the secrets of the buildings featured?

Libraries, visits to individual buildings, conversations with curators and keepers. In some cases I had to hunt through old newspaper clippings and documents.

What was your most surprising discovery?

The existence of those incredible sculptures in the Lodge de Goede Hoop on the Stalplein. I think few people other than those who use the building are aware of their existence – and yet there they are in the middle of the city. I thought the interiors of the Greek Orthodox Church in Woodstock were extraordinary too. Half shut your eyes and you could be somewhere remote in Greece or south-eastern Europe, where Romania meets Turkey.

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

Tracking down the right person able to give permission to photograph.

What’s the common thread running through each of the buildings featured?

The fact that many of these places aren’t actually “hidden” at all. They’re right in our midst, many of them open to the public.

Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan

The Assembly Room, one of the finest interiors in Cape Town, is adorned with frescoes done in 1942 by Le Roux Smith Le Roux, depicting the Great Trek, the discovery of gold and, on the right, progress manifest in new railroads and productive farms.

Why is it important to uncover Cape Town’s architectural heritage?

Every city’s architectural patrimony is important. Not only does it provide visual links with the past, but it’s our heritage and physical documentation of who we are and what our history is – for good and bad. You need to know this as a springboard for the future. But this is also about celebrating our city and its content. We do have some pretty spectacular buildings in Cape Town.

What do you enjoy the most about writing about Cape architecture?

I mostly enjoy the stories that underpin a building’s history. Who used it, what was said about it, what happened there and so on. I also like to see if I can find evidence of the passage of time – or “human passage” as I like to call it. Often old interiors are filled with evidence of past occupants and when you find this it brings history alive, making past events tangible.

Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan

The organ has always been a feature of the NGK Tafelberg. It was installed in 1892, and has 1164 pipes and a walnut case. The innards have subsequently been renewed.

What features from the Cape’s historical buildings do you wish were featured more prominently in contemporary architecture and interiors?

In the past they understood climate and worked with it – look at Cape Dutch farmhouses for example: small windows keep the sun out in summer and the warmth inside in winter. Orientation to the sun or prevailing winds helped interiors remain cool in the summer and warm in the winter. That kind of human response (including scale) is key. We seem to have lost that. I like buildings to show that they belong in their locality. Rather use local materials than import them and so on.

What’s the greatest lesson designers and architects can learn from the Cape’s historical buildings?

Well it depends which buildings you’re talking about. I think there’s a lot to learn from the earliest Cape buildings (see the point above). I think many of the buildings of the British Empire (civic buildings for example) have a great sense of pride about them. They’re confident and in many cases memorable places. I think many of our modern civic buildings don’t have this at all and are evidence only of their architect’s ego. Their banality makes them unmemorable. Look at the Civic Centre on the Foreshore, or Artscape.

Hidden Cape Town is published by Struik Lifestyle, R375.

Hidden Cape Town by Paul Duncan



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