Franco Frescura


The southern African sub-continent is the home of a rich and varied architectural tradition. Not only does this include a wide range of indigenous built environments but the influx of white immigrants, from 1652 onwards, also ensured that many of the styles emerging in Europe, America and Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found reflection in local buildings. In spite of these apparently disparate roots however, South African architecture has, nonetheless, achieved a wider homogeneity, being united by a common concern towards climate and materials, and an ability, on the part of local builders, to adapt, adopt and reinterpret the building forms and textures of other cultures. In the process they have also given them new meaning in terms of local values and building customs. This has given rise to numerous cases of cross-cultural pollination. The trims of Victorian colonial buildings, for example, have been reinterpreted by local artists and incorporated into their traditional decorative patterns; the rural use of exterior space has influenced the growth of an urban verandah, porch and patio tradition; and the European medieval "longhouse", imported to the Cape by early white settlers, adapted to local conditions and spread throughout the region to become a house form common to black and white farmers alike.

This paper seeks to formulate a series of simple definitions of a number of architectural traditions as they found expression in southern Africa. However it should be borne in mind that descriptions of "style" are always problematic as they tend, by their very nature, to generalise and create stereotypical images. Therefore the interested reader wishing to pursue this study to greater depth is addressed to the relevant literature on the subject.


A Nguni-speaking group originating from the Mount Frere district of the Transkei. The people are more correctly known as the amaBhaca.


A Nguni-speaking group originating from the Elliotdale district of the Transkei. The people are more correctly known as the amaBomvana.


The Cape cottage is a domestic form derived from the European medieval "longhouse" tradition, prevalent in countries surrounding the North Sea, and introduced into southern Africa by early white settlers to the Cape. It usually consisted of a two-cell unit, one being used as a family bedroom, whilst the second functioned as a cooking and multi-purpose space. The roof was thatched and usually followed a ridged and hipped form, but it could also be ridged and gabled. The Cape cottage may be seen as a forerunner to both Cape Dutch architecture as well as the more humble flat roofed house of the southern African interior.


A regional style of domestic architecture evolved in the Cape Colony by Dutch, Flemish and Huguenot settlers during the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was based upon a short span gabled roof and symmetrical plans, usually with an I, T, H or U configuration. Farmhouses were largely single storied with thick lime-washed walls and relatively narrow and well-disposed door and window openings. Roofs were thatched with local reed and terminated by characteristic gables, the latter undergoing, over the years, a number of stylistic changes. Town houses could reach two storeys in height and, after the 1750s, were invariably flat-roofed.


Began in southern Africa during the late 1890s and lasted through until the early 1930s. The architecture of this period is marked by the reintroduction of such elements as small-paned timber sash windows and, more generally, the poor re-interpretation of the earlier gable tradition. Perhaps the most prominent of its proponents was Herbert Baker who, following his arrival at the Cape in 1892, began to use the buildings of early Dutch settlers as inspiration for many of his designs.


Cast iron is a term generally applied to pig-iron which has been re-melted in a crucible, or furnace, and cast into moulds. It began to find architectural applications in Europe from 1815 onwards and reached the Cape as early as 1820. During the Victorian era it was most commonly used in such elements as decorative trims and motiefs, windows, balcony pieces and street lamps, although its strength under compression made it pre-eminently suitable for columns and structural supports. It also found use in the field of prefabricated building where structures framed in cast iron members and clad with corrugated iron sheeting were exported by Britain to its colonial markets.


A type of stone shelter found predominantly on the southern highveld and parts of Lesotho before 1822 when its construction appears to have come to an end, probably as a result of the Difaqane. The relatively small size of such dwellings indicates that they could have been built to house herd-boys and their activities. Larger corbelled stone structures were also used as lime kilns in parts of the eastern and western Cape by early white settlers.


Derisory term applied during the colonial era to timber framed dwellings clad in corrugated iron sheeting. It was also sometimes referred to as Ironic Architecture. This material was introduced in England during the late 1830s in the form of cast sheets and reached this country in the mid or late 1840s. Its relatively light weight made it an ideal material for the production and export of pre-fabricated housing to the colonial markets of India, Australia and South Africa.


Although a large measure of overlap may be perceived to have occurred between Victorian Eclecticism and the Edwardian era, the latter period was generally marked by a simplification of building styles and of applied decoration. Structures conformed to neo-classical principles using such elements as roof parapets, pedimented windows and imposing porticos supported by classical columns. In domestic architecture sash windows were replaced by casement openings, verandahs became simpler and greater use was made of plaster work, pargeting and mouldings.


A modified English vernacular tradition brought by British settlers to the eastern Cape region after the 1820s. Farm buildings were generally single storied but town houses often reached two floors. Walls were thick and built in stone and the ridged roof, thatched or tiled, was terminated at either end by simple linear parapet gables. In many instances fireplaces were located at either end of the building and the resultant chimney flue projecting through the gable apex gave it its characteristic square capping. Subsequently, when buildings began to be erected with only one fireplace, placed either centrally or at one end of the dwelling, the square capped gable was often retained as a stylistic feature.


Generally comprised of a single-storey dwelling flanked on either side by two fort-like towers. Although the first such structures were recorded in the Outeniquas by Henry Lichtenstein as early as 1803, they only became widespread on the eastern Cape frontier region following the border conflict of 1835.


A style of construction imported to the Cape by colonial administrators after the British annexation of the Colony from the Dutch in 1806. Based upon a Palladian interpretation of classical principles popular in England at that time, its careful proportioning, dignity of form and elegant interiors struck a responsive chord in Cape society whose distance from Europe made the importation of luxuries prohibitively expensive. It was typified by a plain facade treatment, parapeted roof lines, regular fenestration and, apart from an elaboration of the main entrance, a virtual absence of applied decoration.


Stereotypical noun applied to a form of dwelling built by Griqua Khoikhoi immigrants into Griqualand East. It was based upon the Cape cottage built by Dutch colonists and consisted of a single, rectangular cell approached through a raised stoep at the front, with a large, open fireplace and massive external chimney stack at one end. Built in stone with a thatch roof it normally had no windows. The same group of people are known to have built similar structures but with flat roofs at their former homesteads in the northern Cape.


(pl. -e). From the Dutch, literally meaning "house made from hard reeds". A dwelling form built in southern Africa up to the turn of the twentieth century by both white settlers and indigenous residents. It consisted of a series of modified A-frame trusses placed on the ground and thatched over with reeds. See also kapsteylhuis.


Rectangular plan structure, usually a single cell covered by a lean-to roof falling to the rear of the building from a raised parapet facade. Historically this domestic form originated in Cape Town during the latter half of the eighteenth century where it subsequently also became associated with Malay or slave dwellings. Its form and constructional technology made it a highly efficient residential form in warm, dry climates such as that of the Karoo where it flourished during the nineteenth century. It became associated with the Trekboer culture of that era and was transplanted to the highveld by Dutch farmers emigrating there after 1836. During that time it also became associated with the Griquas of the northern Cape. The introduction of corrugated iron in the southern African interior after the 1860's assisted in its spread and after the Anglo-Boer conflict of 1899-1902 it became associated with Afrikaner rural culture. During the 1940s it began to be adopted by black farmers on the highveld where it predominates to the present day. In more recent times however, it has also become associated with urban squatter camps such as those found at Thaba 'Nchu in the OFS and Winterveld near Pretoria.


Derisory term applied during the colonial era to timber framed dwellings clad in corrugated iron sheeting. See also under "Corrugated Architecture".


(Dutch kakebeen, meaning "jawbone", and wa meaning "wagon"). This name is believed to have originated during the nineteenth century from Dutch farm children who, at one time, used to fashion toy wagons from animal jawbones. More commonly called an "oxwagon" or a "voortrekker wagon", it originated from Sweden, Esthonia, parts of Germany, Holland, Poland and Rumania and was used by Dutch migrant farmers of the Cape interior. Although intended primarily as a means of transport, it also became adapted by the trekboers as a highly specialised form of travelling dwelling. Instances of such wagons being converted to more sedentary residential functions have also been recorded. Ultimately it gained political symbolism, becoming associated with the growth of Dutch Republics in the southern African interior.


(pl. -e). From the Dutch, literally meaning "house of steep trusses". A dwelling form built in southern Africa up to the turn of the twentieth century by both white settlers and indigenous inhabitants. It consisted of a series of A-frame trusses placed on the ground and thatched over with reeds. Structures of a similar form but roofed over with corrugated iron have also been recorded more recently in parts of the northern Cape and Lesotho. See also Hardbieshuis.


See under "Highveld Dwelling".


The Khoikhoi were migrant pastoralists who, before the arrival of white settlers to southern Africa, inhabited the Cape, Orange Free State and southern Botswana. The term is thought to mean, quite literally, "men of men". In keeping with their economic system their dwellings were easily dismountable and transportable, consisting of a hemispherical framework of saplings overlaid by reed matting or animal skins. Such structures were also known to the Dutch settlers as maanjiehuise, believed to mean "small, moon houses". The Khoikhoi, together with the San, are also known to have used another form of transportable housing, consisting of a reed mat arched into a barrel vault pegged at either end, with a second mat being placed upright in a semi-circle behind it, thus creating a wind break.


Indigenous southern African group inhabiting a region of the northern Transvaal immediately south of Venda. The people are more correctly known as the vaLobedu.


Shona adaptation of the noun amaNdebele. This was the name given by the Sotho/Tswana to the Nguni group who, under the leadership of Mzilikazi, moved out of northern Zululand in 1822 and eventually settled down in western Zimbabwe in 1837. The word stems from the Tswana root tebele meaning "plunderer" or "stranger". The Matabele should not be mistaken with the Ndebele groups of the Transvaal.


Temporary shelters used by KhoiSan migrant pastoralists and hunter gatherers in the central Cape region. They consisted of a grass mat arched into a barrel vault and pegged down at either end by two sticks. A second mat was placed upright in a semi-circle behind the mat vault, thus creating a wind break. Under certain circumstances either mat could be used independently of the other to provide an overnight shelter for travellers.


Collective name for the Nguni-speaking groups, mostly originating from the Zululand area, who fled into the southern Transkei and Ciskei regions between 1822 and 1837. The name, meaning "beggars" or, perhaps more kindly, "homeless wanderers", was applied to them by the Xhosa upon whose lands they eventually settled. They are also more popularly known as the Fingos, this being an anglicisation of the noun amaMfengu.


Nguni-speaking group originating from the coastal region of the north-eastern Transkei. They are more correctly known as the amaMpondo but have also been known to white settlers as the Pondos.


Nguni-speaking group inhabiting the Qumbu district of central Transkei. They are more correctly known as the amaMpondomise.


Sotho/Tswana noun which has been applied in various contexts to indigenous groups who have either settled on or moved through the highveld region of southern Africa. Its roots have been attributed to the Tswana noun tebele meaning "plunderer". At one time it was believed to have been an appellation created by the Sotho/Tswana as a general term for the Nguni but more recent research has shown that its use has also been made in a Sotho/Tswana context. Various groups are known, both currently and in the past, to have used this noun or its derivatives. This includes the Matabele of western Zimbabwe, the South Ndebele of the south and eastern Transvaal, the North Ndebele of the central Transvaal and the Hlubi clan of the Tlokwa, living in the Nqutu district of KwaZulu. Their language is referred to as isiNdebele.


The Pedi are a Sotho/Tswana speaking group inhabiting the Sekhukhuneland region of the central and northern Transvaal. Their architecture resembled closely that of their Tswana neighbours and consisted largely of a circular plan cone on cylinder surrounded about its perimeter by a wide verandah. See also "Tswana Architecture". Their settlements followed a characteristic circular fan shape with a central cattle byre, which also served as a meeting place for the men as well as an area of burial and religious worship.


The concept of prefabricating buildings within a factory environment appears to have begun in Britain during the early years of the nineteenth century when colonial expansion created a ready market for high quality transportable housing. Although these structures were initially in timber, the subsequent introduction of industrialised building elements such as corrugated sheeting and cast iron served to enlarge and enrich the range of textures and forms possible under such a system of construction.


The San were an indigenous group of migrant hunter-gatherers who inhabited the southern African region up to the early part of the nineteenth century. Their name is drawn from the Khoikhoi and is believed to signify "a person without domestic stock". Their architecture was largely pre-determined by the migrant nature of their society and included rock caves and overhangs, temporary shelters made out of branches and clumps of vegetation, as well as more formal mat screens and shelters such as those also used by Khoikhoi migrant pastoralists of the central Cape region. These consisted of a grass mat arched into a barrel vault and pegged down at either end by two sticks. A second mat was placed upright in a semi-circle behind the mat vault, thus creating a wind break. Under certain circumstances either mat could be used independently of the other to provide an overnight shelter for travellers. Cases of San building a type of Khoi mat beehive hut were also recorded by travelers during the early part of the nineteenth century.


A group of people indigenous to Zimbabwe, although in the past their lands are thought to have included large areas of the northern Transvaal. They are more correctly known as the maShona and their language is referred to as chiShona. The Venda are also currently believed to be part of a larger Shona grouping.


The Sotho are a group indigenous to the interior of Southern Africa who today inhabit the Lesotho and southern highveld region. Their architecture has undergone extensive changes in recent years. At one time this area was noted for its grass beehive dwellings with extended, snout-like entrances but since the 1920s it has undergone widespread change and today the thatched cone on cylinder and the lean-to highveld house rival each other for pre-eminence. The latter dwellings often display richly decorated facades.


The South Ndebele inhabit a region of the Transvaal located north-east of Pretoria, between Middelburg and Groblersdal. Historically their architecture has been based upon that of their northern neighbours and political allies, the Pedi. Their dwellings were circular with a verandah running about the external perimeter but in recent years these have largely been superseded by square plan, lean-to, parapet structures, much like those found on the southern highveld. Since the 1940s their women have developed a distinctive style of polychromatic wall art which draws deeply from the patterns of urban life they have observed in the towns about them.


A style of domestic timber construction prevalent in the United States during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its aesthetic is roughly comparable to that of Late Victorian Eclecticism. (Afrikaans: Amerikaanse Lat).


Although stilt structures have been built in the past by many of southern Africa's rural groups, most have functioned as either grain stores and chicken coops or, in some instances, as weapon stores. The only exceptions to this rule were recorded in the 1830s by travellers to the western Transvaal and eastern Botswana region where grass huts were placed either upon a stilt platform or within the branches of a tree.


The Swazi are a Nguni-speaking group inhabiting the north-eastern part of the southern African region, also known as the Kingdom of Swaziland. They are more correctly known as the amaSwazi and their language is referred to as isiSwati. Their architectural traditions are similar to those of their Zulu neighbours in the south, and make extensive use of the grass covered beehive form. In more recent times however these have begun to give way to cone on cylinder dwellings.


May have been erected for a variety of reasons such as providing overnight shelter to travellers or to house a dying person's final hours.


Nguni-speaking group residing in the central region of the Transkei. The people are more correctly known as the abaThembu.


The name of trekboer was given to migrant Dutch pastoralists who, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, settled in the more arid regions of the Cape. Their architecture tended to be functional and was largely related to their migrant pastoralist lifestyle. As a result they used a variety of domestic forms including their oxwagons, Khoi-like mat beehive huts, Cape cottages, hardbieshuise, kapsteylhuise and flat roofed houses. Such structures were invariably poorly built and were seldom designed to meet long term economic needs or high social expectations.


The Tsonga are an indigenous group inhabiting the eastern littoral belt of southern Africa from Kosi Bay in the south to Sofala in Mocambique. As a result of the Difaqane some groups moved westwards and settled in an area immediately south of Venda which is today known as Gazankulu. The people are more correctly known as the vaTsonga and their language is referred to as siTsonga. Their architecture makes predominant use of circular, cone on cylinder dwellings surrounded by wide verandahs with low sweeping eaves and sturdy supporting pillars. In more recent times their women have also begun to decorate their homestead walls with bold polychromatic designs.


The Tswana are indigenous to the interior of southern Africa and belong to a larger Sotho/Tswana grouping. Although they originally populated much of the highveld region, the events of the Difaqane forced many of them to move westwards. Today they inhabit Botswana, parts of the western Transvaal, the northern Cape as well as a small enclave in the Thaba 'Nchu district of the Orange Free State. The Tswana are best known for their use of circular plan, cone on cylinder dwellings surrounded about their perimeter by a wide verandah. This form is known to have been built by them in the western Transvaal, northern Cape and eastern Botswana region since the 1600s and probably earlier. Although most such structures today comprise a single living cell, in the past they are known to have reached a high degree of sophistication, including in their plan a number of sleeping and storage areas. Settlement is generally made according to clan affiliations, but the scarcity of water in the region has led to the growth of large urban centres which, in the past, have been estimated to have achieved populations of between 10,000 and 20,000 persons.


The Venda are an indigenous group inhabiting the northern Transvaal in an area bordering with eastern Zimbabwe. Their domestic architecture is perhaps best noted for its broad eaves, often supported by verandah posts running the full perimeter of a cone on cylinder dwelling, and the use of stone in the construction of fortified villages for local chiefs and headmen. Wall decorations painted by women feature strongly on the perimeter walls of their homesteads which differ markedly from the circular pattern predominant throughout the rest of southern Africa.


Generic term used to describe any dwelling with an attached verandah. This may be a partial verandah, covering one or more facades of a building, or a full verandah, as in the case of the cone on cylinder, where it runs the full perimeter of the structure. Although the verandah dwelling is indigenous to many parts of the southern African interior, its use as a colonial building can probably be attributed to its introduction into Natal from India during the nineteenth century.


Although the Victorian era was typified by an exuberant and richly textured architecture, much of this character relied upon the use of applied decoration. At first it largely took the form of fretted timber work, used in verandah trims, barge boards, gable finials and loft ventilators but the subsequent availability of mass produced cast iron work also gave added richness to roof lines and verandahs. Although there was an initial tendency to "modernise" previous Cape Dutch and Georgian dwellings by the addition of front and rear verandahs, a wide range of domestic and public buildings were also erected. Their style is better known for its eclecticism, including elements freely drawn from such varied sources as Medieval Gothic, Italian Romanesque and Byzantine traditions. Wide use was also made of ornamented chimneys, bay windows, sash timber frames, roof-ventilators and patterned brickwork, particularly after the 1870s and the discovery of diamonds and gold deposits in the southern African interior.


Nguni-speaking group originating from the northern Transkei. The people are more correctly known as the amaXesibe.


The Xhosa are a Nguni-speaking group originating from the southern Transkei, Ciskei and eastern Cape region. Although the Xhosa-speaking groups of southern Africa cannot by any means be considered as a single entity, their architectural culture has achieved a large degree of homogeneity. At one time most, if not all, are thought to have built hemispherical grass beehive dwellings but, since the early 1900s, these have been replaced with circular plan cone on cylinder structures. Barring a few regional variations in building methods and material textures, these present a uniform architectural style for the region. This has increased since the mid-1920s when local women began to whitewash monochromatic patterns upon their residence facades, leading to some chroniclers making reference to them as being "white faced".


The Zulu were originally a small Nguni-speaking group numbering about 2000 persons inhabiting the region of northern Zululand between the upper Mhlatuzi and the White Mfolozi Rivers. They rose to political dominance under the leadership of Shaka between 1816 and 1819. Ultimately the Zulu kingdom spread along the eastern littoral from the Pongola in the north to the Tukela in the south. The word amaZulu literally means "children of the sky". Their architecture was marked, up to recent times, for its wide use of grass-thatched domed dwellings sited in wide circular settlements about a central cattle byre. This popular stereotype however has undergone extensive revision since the 1950s when the ubiquitous cone on cylinder began to replace the more picturesque but less efficient domed structures.


This paper was written at the request of the editor of Juta’s South African Journal of Property (Vol 5, No 3, 1989: 18-27) and appeared under the title of Styles of Southern African Architecture.

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