The story behind the Naspers building

The Sanlam Centre of 1962 was a ‘monument to faith in the future’.

On Friday 18 May 1962 the Prime Minister of South Africa at that time, Dr H.F. Verwoerd, officially inaugurated the new Sanlam Centre on the reclaimed Foreshore area of Roggebaai, CapeTown — the Gateway to Africa.

With its 26 storeys above street level, the centre was at that time the highest building in Africa. It was built at a cost of R4 million.

“We are not inaugurating a commercial building, we are actually inaugurating a monument, a monument to faith in the future. Sanlam would not have erected such a building if they did not have faith and confidence in what lay ahead,” Dr Verwoerd said.

The insurance company Sanlam opened its first office in Burg Street, Cape Town, in 1918 amidst great poverty in the Afrikaans community, the cumulative result of the Anglo Boer War, the First World War and the Rebellion. Sanlam’s purpose was job creation for the thousands of uprooted impoverished people from rural areas who were streaming to the cities in a desperate effort to make a living.

Forty years later the company had expanded to such an extent that they decided to erect a Cape Town head office building for 2000 employees on the developing Foreshore area. For this purpose Site 62, located between Rua Vasco da Gama and Rua Bartolomeu Dias, was purchased.

On 1 May 1957 the building contractor Murray & Stewart started the foundation and basement excavations, for which a total of 35 623 m³ of soil and sea sand were removed.

Because the water table of the reclaimed Foreshore area at that time was very high­– it was only 2,7 m below street level – 35 concrete pillars, each 5 m in diameter and on average 25 metres long, were cast to stabilise the building. These pillars of 50 tons each extended down to a solid rock-bed of Table Mountain shale.

During the initial construction phase a total of 4.4 million litres of water seepage had to be pumped from the excavations. After the foundations had been cast and the basement level had been constructed, about 4 million litres of waters had to be pumped into the basement, so that the water table there would not be 60 cm lower than the surrounding water table.

Only then could the first four storeys be erected. The water level in the basement was kept at a constant level to prevent the building from floating above the rock bed. The upward pressure from the water table was 3 700 kg per square metre. A second wall was erected within the outer wall in the lower basement so that seepage could collect in the gulley of 7cm wide between the two walls and be pumped away. These pumps still stand in the lower basement, but the water table subsided many years ago to such an extent that water no longer seeped into the building.

The architect of the project was D. F. Naudé, and the project manager was Nic Meyer, both of the firm Meiring, Naudé, Papendorp and Van der Merwe. An American architect, Robert A. Jacobs of New York, was appointed as consultant. The building was completed on 31 January 1962.

The structure of the building, about 90 m high, was cast from 15 000 m³ of reinforced concrete, and for the whole building a total of 46 904 m³ of concrete was used. The reinforcing steel weighed 2 920 tons, and the blue gravel, from the Durbanville quarry, weighed 38 000 tons. Of the latter, 10 000 tons of stone was used for the concrete of the foundation. The building structure and the foundation had to be specially reinforced to withstand wind pressure (especially of the Southeaster) to a maximum of 950 tons.

The east and west facades of the building were finished with a mosaic of terrazzi, small high gloss marble chips set in mortar. This could be easily cleaned. Terrazzi was often used in commercial buildings in the 20th century, chiefly for floor surfaces.

On the north and south facades re-enforced glass windows with frames of anodised aluminium were utilised. The panes made up about 70% of the facades. Inside the building Venetian blinds were originally installed in front of all the windows.

The installation of the frames and panes took about 15 months. To facilitate the cleaning of the windows, an aluminium gondola was constructed according to a German design. It is controlled electrically. A track and mechanical arms for the manoeuvring of the gondola is affixed to the roof. Vertical tracks for the nylon wheels of the gondola stabilise its activities on the north and south facades.

The sections not covered by windows, were finished with panels of colourfast medium blue-grey glazed enamel on an aluminium base.

The building is served by ten lifts. The lift lobby was initially beautifully finished with great panels of veined wine-red marble. Around the lift entrances throughout the whole building the walls were coated with a total of 59 563 100 Japanese mosaic tiles in tomato red, black, ice blue and mushroom colours.

The mosaic panels were outlined in bands of polished grey granite. These mosaic decorations covered a surface of 1 629 m². Most of these are still in place, but are hidden behind more recent wall coverings.

The original flooring of the whole building consisted of 250 000 linoleum tiles covering a surface of 28 000 m². The colour was grey with green flecks.

The ceilings, with a surface of 53 000 m², and the interior walls of 4 500 m² were covered with polyester paint.

On the western side of the lift lobby were two freight lifts which served all the levels, including the two basement levels. Three passenger lifts on the same side served all the levels from the ground floor to the twelfth floor. On the eastern side of the lift lobby were four express lifts for passengers who wished to travel from ground level directly to the 11th floor or any floors above that, up to the 22nd floor. On the latter level was a small lift on the north side of the lobby serving every floor level from there up to the 26th floor, the roof of the building.

The 22nd floor was originally furnished as a restaurant and night club for 225 guests. There was also a staff restaurant. The roof space was partially partitioned off with a windbreak of glass and aluminium. It was later improved and is now known as Nasdak. On the ground level provision was made for a post office, bank and hair salon.

The building was provided with an air-conditioning system for cooling and heating. A total of 600 tons of air is pumped through the building every hour. The pumps are located in the lower basement.

Also installed in the lower basement of the building is a power substation with three transformers delivering 4500 horsepower. Later a support system with powerful batteries and a diesel generator was installed on the northeast side of the building to ensure that at times of municipal electricity outages, the extensive computer network would have an uninterrupted power supply. Inside the building 240 switchboards were installed to distribute power safely to all floor levels.

On the upper facades of the building a neon telenews track was installed right around the building which continually streamed news flashes in Afrikaans. It was the first news service of its kind in South Africa. Unfortunately continuous problems were experienced, which led to its removal in 1975.

In 1981 Naspers bought the Sanlam Centre from Sanlam and renamed it the Naspers Centre. The name is soon to be changed to the Media24 Centre.

Article by Marthinus van Bart

Sources:  Naspers News June 1990; U Gids tot Sanlam-Sentrum, 1962; The Profile of Progress, 1957, A Profile of Progress, supplement to The Manufacturer, July 1961. With thanks to Verity Rossouw of the Sanlam archive.

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