Herbert Baker

The African Architect 1 (1 August 1911):68-73.

One of Britain's most distinguished architects of the early twentieth century, Herbert Baker (1862-1946) began his architectural career articled to his cousin, the London architect, Arthur Baker. Herbert studied at the Royal Academy School of Architecture and found work at the office of Sir Ernest George where Edwin Lutyens was also a pupil. He became an Associate Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1890 and the recipient of its Ashpitel Prize the previous year when he came first in the examination list.

Moving to South Africa in 1892, he gained the notice of Cecil Rhodes who retained him to restore his Cape Dutch mansion, Groote Schuur. Rhodes, pleased with the results, provided funds for Baker to visit Mediterranean countries to study their architectural traditions and achievements. On Baker's return to South Africa he found himself in demand and designed many buildings that evoked the early Cape Dutch style. This included a completely new Groote Schuur in 1896 after the destruction by fire of the original. In 1902 Baker moved to Johannesburg, and there as in Bloemfontein and Pretoria, as well as in Rhodesia, he executed commissions for many major buildings.

His most important work, the Union Buildings--the administrative center of the Union of South Africa, consist of a semicircular colonnaded central block with two wings. They occupy an elevated site and face gardens descending down in hill in a series of terraces. Baker began his designs for this composition in 1909, and among his papers is a sketch of how streets might be laid out nearby to enhance its appearance. Perhaps it was then that he began to think about the problems of town planning articulated in this address delivered at Pretorian Normal College.

In 1912 Baker joined Edwin Lutyens in designing the government buildings for New Delhi whose plan Lutyens and others had just completed. Baker designed the two Secretariat buildings flanking the great axis leading to what was then the Viceroy's Palace. In 1913 Baker began his practice in London. He and his partner, Alexander Scott designed the new Bank of England, India House, and South Africa House, among others. Near the end of the most productive phase of his career Baker received a knighthood, was elected to the Royal Academy, had conferred on him the Royal gold medal for architecture in 1927, and received honorary degrees from Witwatersrand and Oxford Universities.

The text below omits the first portion of Baker's lecture dealing entirely with the subject of architecture and architectural styles.

Speaking in Pretoria, where the Government and Municipality are exerting themselves to make the city worthy of the administrative capital, I must add a few words on the art of town planning. It is an art which has but lately come to the front, and been raised to the rank of the older arts. London and Liverpool have recently instituted chairs of civic design in their universities. I hope those are examples which Capetown and Pretoria will some day follow. There is no art which, in the long run, is more profitable to a city, nor any field in which good seed, well sown, will ultimately reap a richer harvest. The seed and the sowing cost little; but as generations may pass between seed­time and harvest, town planning, like forestry, should be husbanded by Governments and not by individuals. John Burns, who has thrown himself so fervently into the efforts to redeem the faults of over­grown London, in a recent speech said: "An enormous amount of the £25,000,000 per annum we are now spending in London would not have been necessary if Wren's plans after the great fire had been adopted; or if, a hundred, or even eighty, years ago, inspired by his plans and ideals as to what the city would have been, they had created a chair of town planning at the London University."

Even in beautiful Paris, the authorities have authorised, I believe, an expenditure of £25,000,000 to undo mistakes made in the past. Most of the larger towns of America--Washington, Philadelphia, and Chicago, certainly--are spending vast sums to rectify the bad initial planning of their towns, which have grown up in the past much in the same haphazard manner in which our South African towns have grown. Every large town, with any civic pride, in the old and new world is now regretting past neglect, and considering schemes for improvements; so it is full time we in South Africa bestirred ourselves. The capital of the United States was saved by the foresight of General Washington, who employed a French architect trained in the great school of Le Nôtre, the French master of landscape design. As it is, through not keeping strictly to L'Enfant's plan, when the first enthusiasm died, and the usual cold fit came on, millions are now being, and will have to be, spent for expropriation. Jerry buildings and even railways were built on the architect's vistas.

Growth of Modern Towns

Modern towns are not created, as old ones often were, by the fiat of a despot. Democratic communities grow in a less arbitrary manner. Alexander and the great building emperors, such as Trajan, Hadrian, and Constantine, took very direct methods to establish their new cities. They carried with them in the imperial progresses through their empire architects, armies of workmen and craftsmen. Towns laid out on scientific and artistic principles sprang up like magic. Constantine, in his new capital of the empire, not only endowed this new capital with magnificent architecture and all the arts, but he took more direct measures to force population. If the Roman patrician families refused to migrate to the new capital, the emperor ordered the father of the family away to the frontier in Gaul or Britain. When he came back he found that all his family and household goods had been removed and installed in a new house in Constantinople. Peter the Great, I believe, did the same at St. Petersburg. Thus town planning was an easier problem under imperial than under our modern democratic systems.

The mediaeval towns grew in the form that congested sites, bounded by natural features and fortifications, admitted. They are, as a result, generally picturesque, but not always in conformity with modern municipal by­laws. But their defect in this respect affords no reason for us to err in the opposite extreme. Our modern townships are laid out on what is called the "Gridiron system "--roads mechanically standardised, crossing each other at regular intervals, and at right­angles, regardless of artistic considerations, and often of natural features. The result, except for an occasional square, is a series of monotonous streets, with broad vistas, it is true, but with nothing to see at the end of them.

Placing of Building

In the mediaeval towns, by chance, or the natural instincts of the citizens, and in the town schemes of the Renaissance by studied intention, the finest buildings were more often placed at the end of streets culminating the vista, and making it beautiful. People walking down a street look naturally less at the sides but more at the ends, and it is at the termination of streets that architectural effect tells most. It is not the number, but the position, of its fine buildings on which the beauty of a town depends. Many of you know the Madeleine at Paris; it blocks a street, but forms a most noble end to a fine vista across a bridge, past an obelisk--between two symmetrical buildings all on the same axis. This effect, which helps to make Paris pre­eminent for its ordered beauty amongst cities, would not be possible under our present South African system of town planning. The position of the Pantheon, at the end of the Rue Souffot, is a similar example. Wren, in his report on replanning London, insisted that the churches and public buildings should be "conspicuous and insular." In the same report he recommended that the width of streets should be ninety, sixty, and thirty feet respectively.

I am far from meaning that all streets should terminate in some architectural object blocking the view beyond. In streets which you can look down upon from hills, as you can in Pretoria, or which can be seen stretching far into the open country, the long vista should be made the most of. But to get the full value of the vista you must give interest, dignity, and scale to it--by monument, water, or some formal treatment of trees. The great vista at Versailles is an example, where great beauty is attained by the effect of water, statuary, and trees planted on a geometrical plan with alternate massed shade and open sunshine. The town­planner cannot lay down any law, but he pleads that there may be variety and interest in streets, and that the present order of things may be reversed and the most be made in the future of the best buildings and natural features, and the least made of disfiguring tram poles.

Effect of Foliage

I have no time to deal with the subject of tree-planting. I congratulate your Municipality on having avoided one common error: the trees in the new avenue are planted in double rows of the same kind. All the great avenues of the world are planted in this way. Mixing the varieties is a modern vice. I should like to add a plea for the classic trees, which are too much ignored. The ilex, the myrtle, and the stone pine, if it will grow. The cypress and the oaks you have. The plane, which you are now planting, can be called classic, as in Greece it gives shade to every fountain. And I think we ought to try and make our own South African trees serve the purpose of art. The local stinkwood, that grows in the Fountains valley, seems worth trying in any town; and the yellow wood, if it will thrive, should take the place in South Africa that the ilex does in Italy. There must be many others that the town­planner could yoke to his service. The more in Italy and France you study the art of landscape gardening, the more you realise that some formality of planting is necessary in the vicinity of buildings and towns. There was one thing I used to admire in Pretoria: it was a circle of stately white­stemmed gum trees in your park. I used to think that if fairies lived in Pretoria they might have danced there. Fairies, you know, have architectural minds and like circles. But these trees have been cut down and a vulgar rockery takes their place.

The Cape Peninsula particularly has neglected its opportunities. On its magnificent flats there is only one through road from sea to sea, and that is dangerously congested and slovenly in appearance. If the Cape authorities ever wake up to the burden imposed upon them by the rich endowments of Nature, they will have to embark in the future on a costly expropriation scheme. The Cape has neglected its duties in this respect almost as much as the Rand--but with Nature all in her favour instead of all against. The authorities have done little to help Nature. The one great effort at landscape planning--the high­level road through the forest round the base of Table Mountain--was the work, at his own cost, of a private citizen--Cecil Rhodes.

Frames Without Pictures

South African towns were well planned. Grahamstown, for instance, has a very broad central street lined with trees, in the centre of which at one end is the Cathedral, with its tall spire; at the other, the gateway of the old Drostdy. The street is made by the right placing of these two buildings. Nancy is perhaps the highest effort of the French genius in town planning. Here the vistas are not kept open endlessly, but buildings or monuments are intentionally placed along the central axis. Interest, scale, and beauty are thus obtained. Our streets are too often frames without a picture. In England, the classic traditions, which made such a beautiful town of Bath, were swept away by the Romantic Revival and the worship of Individualism. In Germany, also, architects went to their old mediaeval towns, like Nuremberg, for example, but they are now, I think, sorry that they did so. In France, the great classic tradition survived, to her great advantage. But England has never departed from one great tradition--that of the cottage or separate house, as opposed to the flat system. At the recent International Town Planning Congress, a French representative, Monsieur Rey, said "The English cottage system is one of the national glories of England, and the fifty­story mansion of New York is an economic disgrace to the United States. It is the crowning glory of England to have made her own this motto, `One house, one family.'" A German representative also, Professor Rud, made a most favourable comparison between the English principle of cottage building and the system of flats prevailing in Germany and on the Continent. It is something to the good that this tradition thus admired by the French and German experts, is the basis on which South African towns have been built up. The tradition gives us the material for beautiful garden cities, if we know how to handle it.

What is Needed

I have, I fear, little practical advice to give, as the subject needs much consideration. not only by architects. but by surveyors, engineers, lawyers, and politicians. It is admitted by those who have written most on the subject in England, that it is impossible to give wide discretionary powers to municipalities. But the central government should have such powers acting through trained experts in civic design. These experts should be able to control the laying out of townships in their infancy, so that they may ensure the potentiality of beauty for their maturity. There should be power to limit the number of houses per acre in different zones, as in the German system, to reserve sites for public buildings, and the location of factories. There is something wrong in our municipal laws when an engine­house adjoins the cathedral in Pretoria, and a skating rink the chief church in Johannesburg. Municipalities should be empowered to offer inducements to good landlords who desire to improve their properties for the good of their own town. In the Hampstead Garden City--the best in England--the Hendon District Board made considerable alterations in their by­laws to aid the realisation of a fine architectural scheme. The result has been a considerable gain both to the health and beauty of the village.

Bye­Laws and Climate

Our by­laws are too often framed for congested cities in northern climates. The most beautiful features of Italian towns, for instance, the arcade or colonnade over the pavement, for which our climate makes such strong artistic and practical demands, is forbidden by all our by­laws. These colonnades were the dominant feature of both ancient and modern towns in the south of Europe and round the Mediterranean. We have a record of Alexander personally laying out the two cross colonnades which formed the centre of Alexandria. There was a double colonnade two miles long in the original form of Antioch, and the remains of a similar one exists at Palmyra, in Syria, which impresses us with the greatness of public life of which it bears witness. I have seen such a colonnade in Patras, a modern Greek town. Bologna is famous for its arcades, which are adapted both to the heat and heavy rains of the district. If these arcades were common, they would not, I think, be prejudicial to the shops.

In this week's mail papers you will read a report of a debate in the House of commons in which a Bill for a new bridge across the Thames and a new road into the centre of the City of London (a scheme costing two and a half millions) was rejected by a large majority in favour of an alternate route, in which the bridge and the new road would culminate in the dome of St. Paul's. It is of hopeful augury for the progress of the town­planning movement in England that in this debate artistic considerations prevailed. May we in South Africa realise the importance of the subject in time to prevent mistakes that have proved so costly to the old countries. I regret that the subject is much too big for the latter part of a lecture. I fear I have been able to touch only on the fringe of it. I have said nothing about the excellent town plans of Copenhagen or Vienna, nor of the scientific system of work in Germany. But I shall be satisfied if I have been able to create a little interest in this most important subject.

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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