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Artscape and the Future

The Artscape Centre as a pedestrian sees it

Artscape from the street – photo courtesy of André-Pierre du Plessis’s Flickr stream

The question of what a performing arts complex can mean to its city is one of the most satisfying in urbanism, because, unlike for a central rail terminus or a regional hospital, there are many, many working answers to it. These examples – from the Met in New York City to Tokyo’s Shimokita District – are each entrenched in their societies in different ways and to different degrees, governed mostly by what the arts means to each society and how they are paid for.

Compared to many famous arts districts and complexes, the Artscape is beset by problems that mark it as a child of both Apartheid spatial planning and of the global planning delusions of its time (it opened in 1971 with a production of the ballet Sylvia after what was to be the première, a new work by Bartho Smit, was banned). It is hardly a venue ‘for the people’ in that only rather highbrow arts are really supported, and it is far from any existing entertainment or nightlife districts or residential neighbourhoods.

The recently-announced expansion plan – of which neither the stated Rand cost nor the completion date should be taken too literally – would see the Artscape buildings become integrated into a precinct that will include new CTICC facilities, an office block, 30 000 square metres of retail space, underground parking, a new, private city hospital and expanded arts facilities – and all with a six-star green rating. The immediate programmatic success of this development is likely to hinge on how well the CTICC is connected to Artscape, and how well that link continues onwards to the MyCiti main station, forming a long and rather tricky L.

Given that the new hospital is likely to be built on a limited budget, the creative remaking of Artscape as it is – with a minimum of expense – will be essential to the future of the complex, which has never functioned as part of a neighbourhood. The envisioned raising of the Artscape Gardens to the level of the elevated freeway is not that kind of intervention, but the revenue generation from the parking to be built underneath it may offset these costs. And yet, for all that it may contain a 25,000-seater arena, it is hard to imagine that Capetonians will find a little-visited park more accessible once it is hoisted up into the sky, at grade with a major freeway.

As for the Artscape complex itself, the rather proud volumes of this modernist icon act as a civic anchor planted on on the reclaimed foreshore. Its brutalist facade is softened on the entrance facades by an array of screens that provide a rich and varied texture, helping to break the building down to a human scale. This is also accomplished through the use of a large and dramatic staircase which leads off from the fore-court. While these all would be features to treasure in a dense urban environment, they are in fact on a windswept plain, adjacent to the massive wind-funnelling cliff of the municipal building.

Due to its function a building of this type really only attracts visitors in numbers suited to the scale of the Square immediately before and after perfomances, and even then, few linger outside. The location of the building means that no one visits by chance, or en route elsewhere, and the street pattern of the Foreshore means that very few theatregoers come to performances by any mode other than private vehicles.

To bring life and an alternative income to the building should be one of the goals of any regeneration project of the building, but this will require a work of genius, if it is to overcome the basic monumental condition of the Foreshore (wide boulevards, windswept vistas, the huge distances between buildings).

Any successful fix, however, must begin with a plan for wind shielding. The undersides of the walkways surrounding the square might be filled in with restaurants and bars. More and smaller community groups could use subdivided spaces in the complex for rehearsal and performance through the MyCiti link. The construction of a skate park comes to mind, so that a youth sub-culture might interact with a highbrow Other: patrons might watch performances inside before exiting to watch skate performances outside.

By no means can the Artscape continue serving the narrow functions and interests it does now. The excellence of the Artscape Opera, for example, with its nurturing of black and South African talent and its successful home and touring seasons, need not be compromised by the reinvigoration of a centre which all Capetonians pay for.

This is an open question we put to FCT readers: what would a better Artscape look like?

Would it be a haven of calm, with a great bookshop, a quiet wine bar, and a generally cerebral atmosphere – happy for the quiet, all the better to rehearse in? Or might it become a favoured nighttime destination for those slightly older than Long Street’s target demographic, where good restaurants both cheap and dear bustle in between many performances – all overlapping in time if not space – of everything from Opera to hiphop?

By Brett Petzer and Robert Bowen

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Brett Petzer

Contributor for Future Cape Town

I’m a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com

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