Beyond the Hottentot's mountain range, across rolling hills and flat plains reaching out to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the southern most tip of the African continent is home to the oldest city in South Africa. Today, this international city protects its past through architecture and invites travellers and adventurers from all over the world to visit and if they love it enough, to stay.

Over 300 years ago, a population of less than 10 000 created their own architectural style; Cape Dutch. Dominating the area for more than 200 years, the white washed walls and gables topped with reed-thatch continue to be admired and replicated for their distinctive characteristics. The story of Cape Dutch Architecture is one of ingenuity, of beauty and of making-do. It is the story of the little provisions stop that did.

Diverse influences from medieval Holland and Germany, French Huguenots and Indonesia contributed to the graceful and unique style known as Cape Dutch Architecture. A small population mingling Eastern and European styles combined with local resources resulted in the elegant, reed thatch buildings found all over the Western Cape Province. These Cape Dutch Homesteads are not a product of a formal school of architecture but instead were created out of necessity and designed from the creative minds of their craftsmen.

History of the Cape

On the 6th of April, 1652, the first adventurers disembarked at the Southern tip of Africa with economic intentions. The Dutch East India Company with a few hundred employees arrived at the base of Table Mountain to establish a provisions stop for passing ships. Fresh produce and meat were farmed and made available to weary sailors whose travels from Europe to Eastern markets and back again were demanding. Many men lost their lives on these merchant journeys due to disease and treacherous weather conditions. Sailors were grateful for the provisions stop at the meeting place of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, also known as, ‘The Cape of Storms.’

With the financial success of the provisions stop, a Dutch Governor was sent to The Cape to continue its development. The first thing Simon van der Stel did was to send out scouting parties to find fertile mountain soil. He was interested in the cultivation of grapes. Today he is known as the father of one of the country’s most significant industries and cultural identities; wine.

In 1685 he selected his farm and called it Groot Constantia. Van der Stel selected a plot with fertile soil and a view of the Cape flats stretching out to the Indian Ocean. The homestead remains one of the oldest examples of Cape Dutch Architecture in South Africa. The farm, still functioning today produces award winning wine and is open to the public. Visitors can explore an antique furniture and local history museum, wander the lush grounds, have a meal at Simon’s Restaurant and admire the more than three centuries old Cape Dutch buildings from both inside the thatch roofed rooms and the uniquely designed exterior gables. A gable is the triangle formed by a sloping roof. A building may be front-gabled or side-gabled. Porches and dormers may also be gabled.

In the 1700’s the population of the company’s provisions stop began to grow. European immigration and the approved slave policy (1717) increased the number of settlers to the Cape dramatically. Thousands of Malay individuals from the Dutch colony of Indonesia arrived in the Cape as did hundreds of French Huguenots. The arrival of the French Huguenots brought wine cultivation and the Indonesians brought artisan skills.

When King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, providing religious tolerance in France, many Huguenot (protestant) refugees made their way to Holland. The Governor of the Cape, Simon Van der Stel requested that any individuals with wine farming experience be provided passage to his settlement. Roughly 200 arrived and set out to establish the wine industry. The Cape Dutch style owes much of its existence to the French Huguenots for bringing with them contemporary European design ideas and incorporating them into farmsteads.

The dissimilar design styles, lifestyle, food and religion of the Malay slaves played a major role in the cultural and architectural development of Cape Town. These influences today are an integral part of society. The Cape Dutch style also owes much of its existence to these artisans who designed many of the structures and built them without a single blueprint or plan.

The Cape flourished as French, English, Danish, American, Portuguese, Austrian, Spanish, Swedish and Prussian ships filled the harbor. Provisions prices doubled, tripled and doubled again; the local farmer was doing well for himself. As more and more immigrants arrived to stay, the population growth became increasingly demanding on the natural resources. Shortly all of the timber within wagon-haul had been cut. The bricks being locally produced weathered badly and importation of building materials from Europe was not financially viable; the round-trip to Amsterdam took a year, and such a voyage might take a third of the crew’s lives.

So, in 1778 the first exploratory mission up the Indian Ocean on the east coast of Africa was organized. The journey proved sailors’ tales to be true. The great forests of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay had enormous trees thrice as high as a ship’s mast! It wasn’t long before Yellowwood, Stinkwood and Ironwood were made available for beams, door-panels, ceiling and floor-boards, as well as for furniture.

This discovery was a great and final contribution to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company. By 1780, Holland was declining as a Maritime power. Consequently, foreign ships, paying the local farmer’s high prices, outnumbered the Dutch three to one. The Company was heading towards ruin and in 1793 became insolvent. The Cape’s future was uncertain.

During the Knysna and Plettenberg forest discoveries, Britain and Holland were at war (1780-1783). A British fleet sailed to take ownership of the Cape but was attacked and disabled by the French. As a result two French regiments arrived in the Cape. One of the men, Louis Michel Thibault, a Parisian architect, decided to make the Cape his new home. During his lifetime, he contributed significantly to Cape Dutch architecture and his name is attached to many exquisite buildings including the gables (not part of the original construction but added later) to Groot Constantia, the lions at the Castle and the magistrate in Tulbagh.

Over the next 30 years, rule at the Cape changed hands numerous times and was finally fought for and won by the British. In 1814 the Cape Colony formally belonged to Britain. Cape Town continued to grow as a port and became known as the, ‘Tavern of Seas’ for all passing vessels. Outside of town, villages formed around churches. The majority of Cape Dutch buildings were erected during this time. As the 19th century progressed so did the economy and in turn the ornate manner of the homes and specifically their gables. Cape Dutch style flourished for the remainder of the century before losing its popularity to neo-classical architecture.

The Development of a Style

The entire motive for the existence of the Cape was agricultural. Produce and cattle were farmed to supply passing ships and the employees living at the Dutch East India’s provisions stop. Consequently, homes were needed for the farmers and merchants. Built strictly out of necessity they were initially very basic and small. Using the humble materials available; roofs were made of wild reeds, indigenous wood was used for frames and support beams while the walls were clay, thick rubble or burnt brick. Sea shells provided the basis for lime-motor and floors were often made with compacted peach pips or left earthen.

With minimal technology and a low availability of local materials, building was limited. This resulted in basic structures being only 6 meters wide and having a consistent roof pitch of 45 degrees. In order to build larger homes, buildings were extended in Northern European longhouse fashion. This is one of the reasons why many consider Cape Dutch Architecture to be based on Northern European style. However, the most distinctive and uniquely defining characteristic of Cape Dutch Architecture is the central dormer gable. There is no other style that can claim this prominent feature as theirs. Each Cape Dutch building has an individualized gable with consistent features including; date of construction, molded decorations and a prominent centralized location. It was in the first half of the 18th century that the gables began to appear in their variety of styles and decorations. They were created largely by the Malay craftsmen and the completely non-European carvings indicate this.

As the economy and population grew in the Cape so did the ornate manner of gables, the size of the homesteads and the value of materials used. It was the gable however which came to represent the financial wealth of the settler. The signature social status of wealth, of ownership, of individuality, of dominance and power over the landscape and social structure is what gables came to represent. The approximate date of a building can be surmised at first glance of the central gable. The more elaborate the design work, the later the date of construction. Gables can also be classified chronologically in order of their development; earlier gables of the late 1600’s and early 1700’s were Lobed or curvilinear before moving into concave or convex shapes. Followed by transitional styles and finally in the late 1800’s into Neo-Classical style, before their demise.

A Cape Dutch homestead is of course more than the sum of its central gable. The early Cape houses were built very symmetrically. At the front, the central door was the builder's focal point and on either side, equally spaced, were two half-windows with two or four full-width windows. Most homes had a room at the entrance, rooms on both sides and a back room. The kitchens had open fireplaces and a Dutch oven fitted with iron bars to hold cooking pots. In town, chimneys were ruled out because of the threat of fire.

By the mid-18th century as prosperity increased so did the elaborate nature of homes. Gables became more ornate and the size of homes increased. Homeowners began to add wings onto both ends of their basic structures. The result was the U-plan. At about the same time, the T-plan was evolving in the rural areas. This model had a single wing, with the kitchen at the end and was attached like a tail to the centre of the basic building. Later, another wing was added at right angels to the T and parallel to the original building creating ultimate design in country houses, the H-plan.

During this architectural transformation, materials changed as well. Floors originally made of peach pips or compacted earth started to be covered in Robben Island slate, shutters were crafted to protect windows and stronger wood like ironwood was used in construction.

Later still, outbuildings began to appear. These included a jonkershuis (house for the eldest son), stables, a coach-house, slaves' quarters and a wine cellar. A wall typically encircled the whole farmyard. Often farms were magnificently placed against mountain backdrops and surrounded by agricultural lands presuming a ceremonial quality. Arriving at gateposts which mark the beginning of a tree lined avenue, following beneath the canopy towards an opening in a white, waist high wall to reach a set of stairs leading onto a porch and front door beneath a uniquely molded gable. This is the experience of entering a Cape Dutch home. It remains the very same as it has for hundreds of years. A relentlessly symmetrical front, sensible floor plan, additional wings forming a U, T or H shape, reed thatch roof, white washed walls, raised stoop and a gable; these are the defining characteristics of a Cape Dutch home.

The graceful buildings that stand as a testament to the skill and strength of the Cape’s past also carry secrets. Who built them? Who designed them? There is a certainty that a few men, notably, Louis Michel Thibault from France, Anton Anreith, a young sculptor and woodcarver from Germany and Hermann Shutter, a young architect and builder also from Germany, contributed much to the Cape Dutch style and the development of the settlement. However, the truth is that most of the architecture of the period is anonymous

The farmer of the 18th century led a patriarchal existence: farms were isolated, communications incredibly slow; and communities did all the work required to keep a farm going, including building. Wealthy farmers often had a staff of artisans which included masons, smiths, wagon-wrights and cabinet makers. These men were both free as well as slaves and were sent to neighboring farms to construct buildings. This system would account for identical gables on different homesteads and the ‘home made’ construction results. It is not uncommon for a Cape Dutch building to have unleveled floors, door and window frames. There is very little to indicate who built most structures. This unique style owes much of its elegance and grandeur to the unknown architects.

The decline of the Cape Dutch Style began in the 1840s. With the introduction of spine walls it became possible to construct wider buildings. Homesteads were facing erosion intensified by the porous brick walls and flammable thatch roofs. Open hearths in kitchens combined with the infamous southeast wind were the cause of many destructive fires especially in towns. By the end of the 18th century many of Cape Town's thatched and gabled dwellings had vanished. Flat roofed and often double storied houses began to appear.

Today there are only about 400 intact original Cape Dutch homesteads left in South Africa.

Information provided by Nicole Crozier