Windhoek’s new soul

Windhoek’s new soul

Nevin, Tom

As the millennium approaches, some Windhoek landmarks are as unchanged as they were a hundred years ago. Others, new landmarks, have emerged and mark the beginnings of a new architectural era that is uniquely Namibian. These have sparked heated debate.

Many of the capital’s public and private buildings are distinctly German in character, a reminder of decades of German colonisation (1884-1915), but this is giving way to a mixture of African ethnic and western styles. Although newer structures, such as the Supreme Court, have brought acclaim for their departure from foreign influence, not everyone agrees the city fathers are redesigning Windhoek in the right way. Free for all hotch-potch

Prominent Namibian architect, Piet Odendaal, describes the changing Windhoek skyline as a “free for all hotchpotch” and says it’s about time that Namibia developed a design philosophy of its own. He could be right, if you listen to the critics. There is little doubt that the new Supreme Court building is an inspired edifice, borrowing liberally from the African vernacular and yet poised for 2000 and beyond.

“After independence we needed to create an architectural style that could be identified with Namibia,” says Odendaal, “with structures that are African other than mud huts or thatched roof houses. Most new buildings in southern Africa are copies of European or American architectural styles. The inspiration for the Supreme Court, on the other hand, was the adobe style created in northern African countries, featuring thick sloping walls with small openings.”

The Supreme Court fulfils functions other than purely aesthetic ones – it is the place where justice is dispensed at the highest level. It is intended as a monument to independence and a new focal point that echoes Namibian culture and tradition. In this it succeeds, Odendaal believes.

“The two arms form a grand plaza to be used as a civic area,” says Odendaal, “and the steps afford people a place to sit and have informal gatherings.”

Not quite as inspired, according to many locals, are the new Reserve Bank building – a structure of concrete, stainless steel and glass – and the new National Archives, described by Odendaal as a “faux pas”. Others think it is accessible and functional and “does justice to the skyline”.

Many colonial structures have been declared national monuments, such as Christuskirche (Evangelical Lutheran Church), built in 1910 while others, like the Tintenpalast (Ink Palace), completed in 1913, has been converted (although very few changes were made) to serve as Namibia’s Parliament.

As the controversy around Windhoek’s makeover heats up, the visitor comes to the conclusion the city is doing it just right. It’s difficult not to decide that the new Windhoek, with its variety of old and new architectural styles, the borrowed and the vernacular, the bold and the conservative, make it unique in Africa and probably the world. The lasting impression is one of commercial bustle in an atmosphere of culture and progress.

Windhoek is an appealing city with clean, handsome good looks. It has drawn about itself clusters of hills and the Auas and Eros mountains, which embrace it protectively. It a thriving cosmopolitan city of just over 200,000 people. Its height above sea level of nearly 6,000 feet means it catches the high level winds and breezes which translate to warm days (make that hot in summer!) and cool nights. As a hub for tourists, it’s ideal being about halfway between the Atlantic coast and the eco-safari adventure of Etosha and beyond.

The mission of the city elders is “to make Windhoek a vibrant economic and technological centre of excellence in Africa in order to enhance the quality of life for all our people.” Are they getting there? Undoubtedly.

What’s in a name?

Windhoek has been known by at least seven names in its short existence. Settlers were first drawn to the area where the Namibian capital now stands by the hot springs that once bubbled up through the arid sands there. It was then known as /Ai//gams and Otjomuise as the vernacu(ar referred to the springs.

In 1836, British explorer Sir James Alexander dubbed the site Queen Adelaide’s Bath in honour of his queen. Wesleyan missionaries called it Concordiaville in the hope of an end to hostilities between the Nama and Herero people continuously at war over ownership of the spa. Jan Jonker Afrikaner settled at the hottest spring in 1840 and named the area Winterhoek because it reminded him of his birthplace in South Africa’s Western Cape.

In 1890, when the town was occupied by General Curt von Francois, the German abbreviated Winterhoek to Windhuk, and so the present name of Windhoek came into being.

Copyright International Communications Jul/Aug 1999

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