The Mutual Building is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in South Africa and certainly one of Cape Town’s most beautiful landmarks. Completed in 1939 and officially opened the following year; it was, at the time, the tallest modern structure in Africa at 85 metres, dwarfed only by the pyramids of Giza.
The building was initially built by and for the Old Mutual (then known as the South African Mutual Life Assurance Society). It was to epitomise the values of the company, “Strength, Security and Confidence in the Future”, and so was planned to be the tallest building in Africa, with the fastest lifts, the largest windows and the longest carved stone frieze in the world.
The original design of the building is attributed to associated architects Louw & Louw and Frederick Glennie. It is designed in a ziggurat structure, a terraced pyramid of successively receding levels. The building is constructed using reinforced concrete, filled with bricks and plaster, and clad with granite. The granite cladding was hewn from a single boulder on the Paarl Mountain and incorporates decorative baboon, elephant and tribal heads that project from the upper facades of the front of the building. On the Parliament Street facade there are carved granite figures representing nine ethnic African groups as they were then labelled; Xosa, Pedi, Maasai, Matabele, Basuto, Barotse, Kikuyu, Zulu and Bushman.
Around the three sides of the building is a 118 meter frieze depicting scenes from the colonial history of South Africa. The frieze was designed by South African, Ivan Mitford Barberton who also designed the other carved figures of the building. Although it was proclaimed that the building was built by South Africans, using South African materials; the carving work was executed by a team of Italian immigrants led by Adolfo Lorenzi. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Lorenzi’s team of masons were incarcerated, being Italian and therefore regarded as “the enemy” at that time. They were obliged to finish their work under an armed guard.
The rising nature of the ziggurat mass of the exterior of the building is reinforced by the prismoid (triangular) windows, which extend up and down the height of the building. These windows allow light to enter the building more effectively using the reflective properties of the inside face of the glass, and by opening and closing blinds on the one side or the other it is possible to manage the heat entering the building as the sun traverses the sky.
Internally the building is as impressive as externally. The massive brass entrance doors lead to a gold-veined black marble foyer with a gold leaf roof soaring 15 meters above. A flight of stairs leads to the magnificent banking hall with its tall marble colonnades. The interior glass work is etched with the iconic ziggurat form of the building. Stainless steel trim and light fittings are everywhere. The elevators are trimmed with black marble and each door etched with representations of indigenous birds, animals and plants. The spacing between floors is generous — generally each floor is about 5 metres above (or below) the next. This generous spacing between floors was intended to achieve the greatest possible overall height for the building without exceeding the city planning limitation of 10 storeys.
Artistically the best known interior feature of the building is the Assembly Room. The room is lined with striking frescoes depicting some of the history of South Africa. The frescos were painted by Le Roux Smith Le Roux and include historic representations of industrial development, the Great Trek, the development of mining following the discovery of gold, the growth of industry and agriculture, and a hint of international travel and trade. One of the images includes a representation of the Mutual Building itself, the tallest building in what is known as the “City Bowl”, below the slopes of Table Mountain. This did not remain true for long, it was only one year later that the General Post Office was built, and a large number of larger buildings have been built since.
In 2004, the Mutual Building was converted into residential apartments. The conversion was done to allow for a contemporary lifestyle without compromising the historical value of the building. Little of the main structure has changed. The original light fittings, banisters and door handles all still remain as does the beautiful block-wood floors. One of the few structural changes was to enclose the central atrium with a translucent roof; this unfortunately included placing a solid cover over the banking hall skylight removing the natural light from that space.
Afribode Accommodation does offer several apartments in the Mutual Building allowing you to experience the majesty of the building first hand; to see a selection of these apartments click here.