When Centuries Collide


Old Meets New in These Cape Town Co-Working Spaces 

The talented team at Open City Architects has been involved in numerous heritage projects over the years, effectively honing their craft in giving old buildings a new lease on life. In honour of SCAPE’s November focus on refurbs and renovations, we asked Bettina Woodward to weigh in on how interior architecture navigates the coalescence of past and present design elements to preserve South Africa’s heritage…  

I have chosen to showcase two small historical refurbishment projects in the CBD of Cape Town. In both cases, the buildings were underutilised and neglected, and have subsequently been transformed into vibrant co-working communities. Located on 163 Bree Street, Open Co-Workspace is a calm and inviting co-working office in the hub of the Mother city. It is tailor-made for architects and designers who wish to collaborate creatively. Yet, perhaps the most intriguing part is the building’s great historical value. According to the 1833 Cape Almanac, the residents of Bree Street included builders, coppersmiths, and shoemakers – a long legacy of Capetonian craftsmanship. Today, the heritage building with its beautiful plaster adornments sits proudly on a street corner in a revitalised part of Cape Town. The second project is our recently-unveiled co-working space on 109 Loop Street. With five office suites, a shared kitchen, and beautiful boardroom, the cosy quarters offer modern amenities coupled with the character of centuries past. 

Peeling away the layers 

One of the best parts of working with historical buildings is the joy that comes from reviving their old charm. Often these buildings have been subjected to unsympathetic changes which detract from their underlying integrity. We usually start the process by subtracting these elements, after which the important historical features become more prominent. You don’t always know what you will find when you peel away the layers – you can get pleasant or nasty surprises! When we removed the modern plasterboard ceilings during one project, we found beautifully preserved 18th-century green ceilings above. Fortunately, the engineer agreed they were structurally sound and could be kept in place.  

Engaging a heritage architect right at the beginning of the process is very important. They will assist you in identifying which building elements are historically significant and why, and ensure that your interventions preserve and enhance these features.  This is not often precisely what you think, and the technical considerations when dealing with the fabric of old buildings can be complex, requiring a very specialised approach. 

163 Bree Street Greg Cox 005 1

Creating a unique character  

At Open City, we regard material selection and using a limited palette as the essential components of a successful refurbishment. We search for an abstract, timeless quality whereby the textures and forms of the original building are preserved and enhanced. The essence of the space takes centre stage rather than a ‘layered’ array of interior design elements. Each building has its own unique character, and part of the craft of heritage architecture is understanding what it is and how to reveal and strengthen this unique quality. 

Aiming for authenticity  

Creating tension between old and new elements is a key heritage approach we explore in our work. The authenticity of the historical features is preserved at all costs, while new additions are clearly differentiated. However, this does not necessarily mean that contemporary insertions are out of keeping with the old. When we design new elements such as doors and windows, we would choose a similar material but give them a contemporary form. Alternatively, we could use a contrasting material and be inspired by the original form. So you are always trying to reveal the layers of history and tell a continuous story of the building through time.   

163 Bree Street Greg Cox 006 1 1

Reinventing for relevance 

Refurbishing old buildings is also vital to preserving our city’s unique heritage and character. This is not only about form but also about function. Old buildings need to be reinvented in order to remain relevant and accommodate new ways of living. Co-working as a community-centred initiative has transformed the way that people work. Our specific approach has been to establish a creative community within a space whereby ideas can be shared, and small businesses can build support networks that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. The small size, unique corner sites, and character of the heritage buildings are all critical factors that unlock this social potential within the city.  

Bettina Woodward Open City Architects 2 2
Bettina Woodward 
Architect and Director of Open City Architects 

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