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Notes on the Geography of South Africa: Durban

If the name sounds French, that's because it is: the city is named for Benjamin D'Urban, the British governor of the Cape Colony in 1835. That's the year when a few dozen settlers at Port Natal decided to lay out a new town. No Europeans had settled here in the 300 years since Vasco da Gama came by in 1498.

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Here we are: Durban's main street, formerly West Street but since 2008 Dr. Pixley ka Seme Street. Yes, you can understand the logic of stripping away all those names, but it does make life complicated for visitors. Fortunately, the Durban city council (oops! that would be the eThekwini Municipal Council) has a website correlating old and new names. Forget the name grief: this picture is instead meant to hint at why Durban doesn't have the allure of put-your-favorite-city-in-this-space. Was it ever picturesque? Maybe: a drawing from 1878 shows the same street unpaved, wide as ever, busy with ox carts, and lined with one and two-story buildings. There were street trees, too, but they weren't palms. When did the palms arrive? Good question. My bet is that they were linked to the rise of Durban as a winter-holiday resort, and that didn't happen until 1900, when the railway to Johannesburg opened. But it's only a bet.

The drawing in question is reproduced in Brian Kearney's Architecture in Natal, 1973, p. 236.

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Want to see the Durban of those days? There's little left of it, but here's one bit, the Old House Museum, built in the 1850s. It's wattle-and-daub, two rooms. It changed hands and wound up as the home of the owner of the Natal Mercury, who was also the father of the first prime minister of Natal, Sir John Robinson. By then, the house had gained a veranda. It was restored and opened as a museum in 1954.

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There are bits of the Victorian city's commercial district. We're back on West (Pixley ka Seme) again.

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Perhaps the oldest surviving government building is this, the Old Court House, now the Local History Museum. With palms and euphorbias.

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By 1885, aged 50, the city still had no rail link to Johannesburg, but it had grown enough to want a substantial Town Hall, a building that in addition to a hall seating 1,200 also housed a museum and telegraph office. The tower was a landmark for about 25 years, until a new and bigger Town Hall rose across the street.

The architect was Philip Dudgeon, who arrived from Ireland in 1877, aged 25. He grew to be regarded locally as the outstanding architect of the time. He holds that place among critics today, though he left South Africa after only 10 years, returned to England and died a few years later, aged 39, of cirrhosis of the liver.

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Another view, this time including, on the left, the Old Mutual Centre, completed in 1994 and one of the tallest buildings not only in Durban but in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

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The town grid of 1835 included a market square and 200 adjoining lots. On part of the Market Square, a public garden was created, and part of that garden was sacrificed for a new town hall, completed in 1910. Kearney calls it "one of the grandest Edwardian civic buildings in South Africa" (p. 63).

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Construction was celebrated by the high and mighty.

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The building was a dead ringer, unfortunately, for the Belfast Town Hall, which galled one local architect, James Wallace Paton (d. 1948). He wrote, "Our public buildings... might be the public buildings of Vancouver or Adelaide. The travelled critic of good memory for mediocrity might remember seeing the elder brothers of our civic prides, the City Halls of Durban and Maritzburg, in the late-Victorian neo-Italian of Belfast, or the mid-Victorian cum Queen Anne--now happily defunct--of Nottingham" (Kearney, p. xii).

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Well, that's not quite fair. The statuary around the four outside domes symbolized Art, Literature, Music, and Commerce. Prince Albert would have approved. But the pediment is distinctly Africanized, with figures symbolizing Unity and Patriotism. In case the symbolism is not obvious enough, it's spelled out under the central figure. This was 1910, after all, the year of the formation of the Union of South Africa.

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St. Paul's, 1909, built after an earlier church burned. A critic writes that in this case "economy seems to have restrained ornament."

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The Edwardians couldn't have too much statuary, however. In front of the town hall we have a young Victoria.

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Nearby, there's a bird-loving Harry Escombe, famed for pushing the harbour works that helped make Durban the biggest port in Africa.

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On his plinth.

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Another pigeon-fancier, here's John Robinson, the first prime minister of Natal and son of the newspaper owner who lived in what is now the Old House Museum.

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He bears a strong resemblance to Kitchener, who of course spent some time in South Africa.

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Speaking of whom, there's hardly a civic space in South Africa without a monument to the Boer (or Anglo-Boer) War. Here's Durban's.

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One side in the war is (what's that word academics love?) "privileged."

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World War I has an especially elaborate memorial, overwhelmed with plaques.

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You can spend half an hour just reading.

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A later monument recalls the struggle to hold the British settlement.

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The city had a growth spurt once it became a port for Johannesburg. That required the NGR, initials which aren't instantly decipherable but stand for Natal Government Railways. We're only a block from the old Town Hall, and this is the very grand railway station, which opened in 1894, a year before the railway itself.

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Here's most of the building. Despite its mass, it's only a facade, behind which were train sheds. They disappeared sometime before 1990 and the space was converted to retail shops.

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The British royal arms are up top; just below them is the Natal version, with two galloping wildebeest.

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Out back is the old railway workshop that once employed 1,500 men. It's now more shopping.

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We're back to the adjoining commercial district, in this case the former Smith Street, now Anton Lembede. The tourist-promotion department does have a challenge.

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The most picturesque building may be a few blocks away on West (Pixley ka Seme). It's the old Greenacre's department store of 1901, now Edgar's.

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A closer look.

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Only the facade survives; in 1980 the interior was gutted. You can see the new building if you peek down the alley.

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Edwardian pretensions lived on a bit longer with this Colonial Mutual building of 1939, for a while the city's tallest.

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How's this for a lineup? At the far left is the charming Embassy Building, an office block faced with dark, precast concrete. Then there's the homey Shell House. Next to it is the Art Deco Albany Hotel, originally the Mayfair. In a guidebook from the 1950s, it advertised itself as "a good hotel in a good city." There's plain-speaking for you. Finally we come to the mock-Tudor Prince's Theater of 1926 and the semi-Spanish Revival Playhouse of 1931. Both were movie theaters, now combined into a single venue for live events.

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Art Deco became the rage in Durban, in protest, it is said, against British stuffiness. Here's a great example, straight out of the world of Hugh Ferris. Originally it was the Payne Brothers Department Store of 1939. It became Prefcor House, a name only a businessman could love.

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You can't stop progress, and Durban got plenty of it in later decades.

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I'm particularly fond of this parking structure.

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Don't forget that Durban is on the ocean. It also has a much modified bay, one side of which became the Victoria Embankment, now Margaret Mncadi Avenue. Residential highrises piled in. The flamingo-pink building is the West Point, built in 1960. It was originally painted a sky blue. Behind it is the taller Haven Court, from 1964; on this side, the ocher-painted low-rise Riviera Hotel is from 1956.

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The more relaxed Quadrant House, from 1934, echoes the Spanish Revival style, then popular in Southern California.

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One prime site on the Embankment was claimed in 1904 by the Durban Club, whose upper veranda has been glassed-in. Desiree Picton-Seymour writes that Herbert Baker "lent dignity to this otherwise exuberant Victorian building."

See her Historical Buildings in South Africa,1989, p. 135.

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Whoosh! The adjoining 101 Victoria Embankment residential tower.

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The Broad/Windsor apartment house, in colors so bad that they must have been chosen by the enterprising owner of the pharmacy next door.

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A happier paint job on Victoria Mansions, from 1933.

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Judging from the picture, the building once housed the local office of the Union-Castle shipping line, which ran from 1900 until 1977. The entrance gate says a lot about the changes that have come to Durban since then.

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One more Deco tower along the Embankment. Amazing what color can do.

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Across the street (sad to say, the view of the water is blocked) there's an old fountain dedicated to the memory of Vasco da Gama.

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Originally set up to mark the 400th anniversary of his stopping by, it was moved in 1969 to this location.

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Who made it? Here's your answer. MacFarlane had a thriving catalog business, and customers could order prefabricated fountains customized by adding this bit and that.

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A monument from 1915 shows Dick King making his famous ride (600 miles in 10 days) to secure help for the besieged city.

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He travels with his faithful native servant, who (naturally) follows.

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Here's the Durban that pleases the tourist board. It's the Ocean Beach, an area that in the 19th century was dunes but which was gradually built up with holiday hotels that, in turn, were demolished and replaced with a second generation of taller buildings, part hotel and part apartments. The tall one on the left, Southern Sun, was formerly the Crowne Plaza and, earlier still, the Elangeni, from 1970. The "season" is June to September, which is to say winter in the southern hemisphere.

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Along this "Golden Mile" is the Althea Court, 1933.

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A retro imitation, courtesy of a hotel-casino.

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The true-to-its-name Las Vegas apartment building, 1957.

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Another view of the line-up.

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A couple of older beach-front buildings survive. This one, hoping to catch a breeze, is the Children's Hospital, built in stages with the upper floor added in 1892.

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Another abandoned building: the Natal Command, 1935.

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The entrance.

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The southern extension of the Golden Mile is the Point, which amounts to an arm closing off the northern side of the harbour. (The south side is rimmed by the more substantial bluff, seen here in the distance.) The Point is undergoing major change, with derelict commercial buildings like these warehouses being either replaced with new residential buildings or--as the propping girders here hint--conserved.

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Facadism at work. Why these facades in particular are worth saving is a good question.

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Here's a survivor in better shape. It dates to about 1900 and was still very much in use in the 1950s, when a guidebook carried an advertisement with a picture of this building. The text ran: "African Associated Agency and Stevedoring (Pty.) Ltd. Steamship agents; chartering agents, shipping agents, clearing and forwarding agent, insurance, warehousemen and cartage contractors; stevedoring contractors to the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company Ltd, Bullard King and Company Ltd, and other principal South African lines."

See the Year Book and Guide to Southern Africa, 1954, ad. supp. p. 51.)

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Another survivor, operating as a hotel.

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New apartment towers have been built next to semi-detached housing built by the Natal Harbour Board Engineer about 1907.

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More of same.

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New apartments. The question: how many are occupied full-time?

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Novus ordo seclorum.

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We've climbed up into the Berea, the ridge that for many years was Durban's premier suburb. That's the Golden Mile down there on the flats; the Point is behind the pesky frond.

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Berea Court is one of two prominent Deco apartment blocks here. It's from 1935 and was perhaps the first tall building outside the center. Unfortunately, it now stands overlooking the main highway into the city.

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Surrey Mansions is also from 1935 but more peacefully located. The top floor is a phantom, purely decorative.

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You can't live on Deco forever; here's the Skye, on Ridge Road and from 1977. That was the year of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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Like Joburg and Cape Town, Durban has its share of plate-glass residential boxes.

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Also on the Berea: this is the University of Natal and its Howard College, from 1931.

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George V stands guard.

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A plaque explains the name of the college.

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The view from the college entrance is of a park that might have formed the axis for later development of the campus. It would have been a slog between buildings, however, and the campus actually grew along the ridge top. The park is little used but offers a good view of the harbor and the far-side bluff.

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Durban was always very English, which is to say minimally Afrikaner in its sympathies.

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Next door to Howard College, the Memorial Tower Building or MTB opened in 1947 as a memorial to alumni who died in the war.

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All of which says nothing about most of the people who live in Durban. That's a story inaccessible to a guy who has two days to run around and point a camera at things where he hopes he won't cause offense. Here's a glimpse of a place where a nosey camera might do just that: it's a street market next to the minibus station.

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