Franco Frescura


In recent years the conservation of man's built environment has become a major social and political issue, not only in South Africa, but throughout the western world. Many people and communities have come to realise that the quality of life offered by older buildings often exceeds that provided by modern architecture and technology; that the textures and patterns of old environments give society a sense of context and continuity; that such areas are not only economically viable but often tend to generate a wide range of conservation-oriented activities; that architecture is one of the major criteria used by man to judge the cultural achievements of a region; and that, in a cultural sense, a people without a past is a people without a future. Under these circumstances it is easy to understand how the concept of conservation could have become deeply enmeshed with emotion and nostalgia leading some conservation-minded individuals to develop what can best be described as a knee-jerk reactionism to matters new.

The eastern Cape is an area rich in architectural heritage. It is also economically under-developed, a condition which has persisted since its colonialisation in the 1820's. Therefore, when this project was begun in 1985 at the University of Port Elizabeth, it was in the knowledge that the region's cultural mix, economic realities, colonial inheritance and growing rural poverty necessitated an attitude towards conservation which went beyond a mere romantic attachment to old artifacts. In order to survive the uncertainties of this country's social and economic future, our built environment needs to be assessed according to a pragmatic value system based upon the region's needs. Ultimately it is believed that the retention and restoration of historical structures can lead to the creation of jobs in the formal and informal sectors and the generation of new incomes in such industries as tourism, new building construction and old building maintenance. Conservation should therefore be viewed as a potential development industry in a country which, in many ways, still has a developing or third world economy.

It was also believed that, although a number of noteworthy conservation and restoration projects have been completed in southern Africa to date, these have usually involved single buildings. With few exceptions such structures belong to what Amos Rapoport has called the "grand design tradition": the monuments, the civic buildings and the homes of the rich, the powerful and the idiosyncratic (1969). Thus local conservation efforts to date have generally tended to ignore the larger body of humble domestic architecture which does not necessarily stand out individually but creates the contextural backdrop essential to a larger historic environment. The character of such architecture is usually based upon applied elements : cast-iron trims, verandahs, fretted timber fascias, finials, loft ventilators and sash timber windows - elements which are being lost daily through neglect or just plain ignorance and cannot be preserved through the continued declaration of national monuments. Therefore no matter how many individual buildings may find careful and loving restoration, their impact will be minimal unless conservation is also tackled on a wider, urban scale. Such an approach allows decision makers and city fathers to approach the subject with a detailed knowledge and awareness of their town's historical potential and it enables them to exercise control over a wide range of planning and land usage options. There appears to be little use for conservation if, as in the case of Uitenhage, a petrol station is allowed to be built next door to a potential national monument (Herholdt and Frescura, 1986).


This project is based upon work conducted in the eastern Cape region by members of staff of the Department of Architecture at UPE from 1983 to date. It includes research done in such centres as Uniondale, Oudtshoorn, Keiskammahoek, Bathurst, King William's Town (Project leader Franco Frescura), Uitenhage (Project leaders Albrecht Herholdt and Franco Frescura), Enon, Aberdeen, Steytlerville (Project leader Albrecht Herholdt), Knysna and Cape St Francis (Project leader Danie Theron). It is orientated towards the development of a research methodology which will enable concerned individuals, conservation agencies and local municipalities to conduct an evaluation of their own historical built environments without necessarily resorting to the services of a small and already over-engaged group of conservation experts. Such guidelines will enable local groups to develop a conservation strategy valid to their own individual contexts without having the values or prejudices of an outside researcher being imposed upon them.

Although the documentation published thus far represents a wide range of projects, these should be read as one. Not only do they employ a common methodology derived as the result of consultation between researchers but, in most instances, each successive case explores new areas of the theoretical framework.

It is relevant to note that although the work currently suffers from a noticeable Eurocentric emphasis, it is hoped that this bias is of a temporary nature.  In future it is planned to extend the scope of this work to cover the full range of communities and cultures found in the eastern Cape (Frescura 1987a).


The first step in such a research programme usually involves a detailed examination of the historical architecture of the urban environment in question. Normally this will entail the listing of buildings deemed to be conservation-worthy according to a number of predetermined criteria. Although this stage is crucial to subsequent conservational action, to date no more than a score of towns in southern Africa are believed to have conducted such an exercise. Unavoidably the methodology used to date has varied considerably from study to study and from one individual researcher to the next. Findings have thus tended to suffer from a general lack of consistency.

Although the listing of a town's buildings is an important weapon in the arsenal of a conservation body, it is of little value unless it is also followed up by subsequent and more detailed research. Bearing this in mind, a methodology has been evolved based on the following stages of work:

Stage 1. A preliminary windscreen survey of the town. This establishes basic findings and creates a framework for subsequent more detailed research.
Stage 2. A detailed sidewalk survey during which buildings are evaluated according to age, condition, quality of architecture, function and location. This usually forms the basis for a preliminary report. Where necessary important structures and textures are recorded by means of measured drawings or freehand sketches.
Stage 3. Through the cooperation of the town's archivist, historian or museum curator, an amended sector theory model is used to recreate the historical development of the town.
Stage 4. At the same time a register of the town's major structures known to have been demolished since 1910 is established together with details regarding their location, former owners and reasons for demolition.
Stage 5. Finally the names of the present owners of historically important buildings is incorporated into the survey data.

This information allows for the creation of a number of charts, maps and mathematical models which reveal, among other things, the following data:

  • The character and extent of the town's historical core and fabric of current urban land use.
  • The spread and distribution of the town's surviving historical heritage.
  • The location of development nodes and future demolition trends.
  • Identifies individual buildings or town blocks under threat of redevelopment and gives early warning of the formation of land cartels.

Taken as a whole this information allows the researcher to establish not only those areas where conservation should be encouraged as a whole but also to determine the threat factor faced by individual buildings. For example current research has shown that a structure owned by either local authority or a major business concern is under higher threat of demolition than one owned by a private individual. Such considerations are also influenced significantly by site location and land values.


Apart from the more obvious elements of contact and feedback between researcher and community concerned, this programme is currently engaged in the preparation and dissemination of three main publications:

  • A handbook on conservation research and methodology aimed at lay groups and local municipalities. This will set out basic conservation strategies and survey methods as well as give guidelines as to the interpretation of survey data. The volume is currently under preparation and is expected to go to print within this year.
  • A bilingual glossary of conservational terminology aimed at providing the lay public with a basic nomenclature covering most aspects of this country's indigenous, folk and colonial architectures. The first edition of this work has been completed and is currently awaiting publication (Frescura, 1987b).
  • A hand-book which examines the elements, styles and chronological datings of buildings in southern Africa from the 1840's to 1910. Aimed at both layman and architectural researcher, this will provide a basic outline of the region's architectural typology and give guidelines for the description, analysis and dating of the region's historical buildings. This volume is currently being researched and should be ready for publication by early 1990.

It goes without saying that the results of the various architectural surveys should also be made available for public consumption. To this end reports on Keiskammahoek, Uitenhage, Oudtshoorn, Uniondale and Steytlerville have already been published. Preliminary reports have also appeared on King William's Town and Aberdeen.

It should also be borne in mind that the implementation of a conservation study in a small urban area is usually dependant upon a concurrent programme of information dissemination and smaller awareness-generating projects aimed at both the town's citizens and its decision makers. It is true that the concept of educating for architectural conservation is vast and thus beyond the scope of any single regional programme such as this one. However, through the selective use of data culled from the survey document, it is possible to devise any number of minor architecturally-related projects which are both simple and effective to implement.


The final stage of a conservation study, the implementation of findings, should be seen as a long term multi-faceted component which may take a number of years to complete. This is an area where local groups and municipalities come into their own and allows them the opportunity of implementing conservational programmes tailored to their own needs, realities and expectations. One such programme is currently taking place in Uitenhage where many of the conservational proposals put forward as a result of the Frescura/Herholdt study are now being implemented by the local municipality.


The conservational philosophy of the Department may be summarised as follows:

  • A conservation policy does not set out to create a large number of museums nor a whole museum town. It rather seeks to maintain and restore the character of a built environment and retain a worthwhile quality of life for its inhabitants.
  • It does not concern itself only with individual buildings but seeks to look at the environment as a whole. There does not appear to be much sense in restoring a national monument only to site a factory next door to it later on.
  • It seeks to revalidate old buildings, giving them new relevance in line with current economic needs and realities.
  • It does not necessarily mean restoring the building back to either its original function or its original form.
  • It does not mean creating something that was never there and passing it off as the original and genuine article.
  • A conservation policy does set out to create economic development in a variety of ways
  • such as making work opportunities in times of economic depression.
  • such as the recycling of old buildings at a fraction of the cost of new ones.
  • such as encouraging peripheral economic activities as tourism and small businesses based upon conservation work.
  • A conservation policy does set out to preserve and present the culture and values of a place, region or people, thereby allowing them to derive pride in their own achievements.

In 1987 the HSRC provided the funding for the development of a research methodology aimed at the survey of small towns and rural villages in southern Africa. This was the essence of their report. Frescura, Franco. 1989. The Development of a Conservation Strategy for Small Urban Centres in the Eastern Cape. HSRC BULLETIN, Vol 1, No 6, June 1989. 1-2.


FRESCURA, Franco. 1987a. Monkeys in a Cage. Conference Paper in Conserving a Heritage, ISAA, Port Elizabeth.
1987b. A Glossary of Southern African Architectural Terms. Port Elizabeth: The Archetype Press.
HERHOLDT, Albrecht and FRESCURA, Franco. 1986. Uitenhage Conservation Study. Port Elizabeth: Department of Architecture, UPE.
RAPOPORT, Amos. 1969. House Form and Culture. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

  • Gable details, King William's Town. Drawing by Michael Hinze.
  • English fortification, Uniondale. Drawing by Mark Wagner.
  • Old Mission buildings, Uniondale. Drawing by Mark Wagner.
  • Reconstruction of old military fortification, c1853, Keiskammahoek.
  • Village Hall, formerly the Old Drill Hall, c1908, Keiskammahoek.
  • St John's Church, King William's Town. Drawing by Craig Billson.
  • Methodist Church, King William's Town. Drawing by Craig Billson.
  • Residence, Alexandra Road, King William's Town. Drawing by Craig Billson.
  • Residence, Amatola Row, King William's Town. Drawing by Craig Billson.
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