Does Access impact Heritage?

In the architectural profession, heritage and history are considered an important part of the whole approach to creating and preserving spaces, along with all the important classic architectural principles of balance and form and context.

Of course, it goes without saying that the practicality of the building for the users, and the use of sound building practices in the putting together of it are essential.
One of the processes that practitioners have to comply with, and seem to take seriously, is the legislation relating to heritage. It used to be the National Monuments Council who dealt with this, and now it is the South African Heritage Resources Agency, acting in terms of the South African Heritage Resources Act of 1999.

All buildings which are expected to be submitted to their local authority for approval are also expected to be submitted to the Agency if the building is 60 years or older as well. In fact, the Local Authority will not give approval if this permit is not also provided. It is not an onerous process here in Kwazulu Natal which submits to Amafa aKwaZulu-Natali. We are losing quite a large proportion of older buildings, for varying reasons. One of the most common is ‘Demolition by Neglect’. In most cases where architects are involved in the project, the heritage factor is respected.

The building now owned and occupied by the Kwazulu Natal Institute for Architecture is one that falls under this legislation. It is a charming building in Glenwood, directly adjacent to the 10 year-old NSA Gallery (winner of a competition), with a veranda on two sides and beautifully conserved. It is not accessible.

It has been occupied by the Institute for about 12 years, and has been customised inside for this usage. One of the members who is paraplegic, and has been on the committee for 3 years, has been pressurising the committee to make the building accessible, and even though intentions were expressed to do so, it has not been done. He has now resigned for this reason. He also sits on the Built Environment Committee which is part of Amafa, who used to have alternate meetings at this venue. They have been inspired by his dilemma and have now decided not to issue permits to any of the buildings which are not also accessible, and should be in terms of the Constitution. This has also been applied to Kings House in Durban, which is the President’s official residence, and is being renovated at present. This does not require Local Authority approval as it is a site which belongs to the National Government. The nation will be proud of this.

Many heritage buildings have successfully been made accessible without their value being derogated. Nearly all those of note are at least air-conditioned, which has been considered essential for comfort and not for safety, which is the usual criterion. It seems to have made an impact on the profession; I realise though that at present it is only expressed intentions, and has not yet been done.

If accessibility can hit the button and get the same respect as heritage, or greenness, from the architectural profession, then we will have the opportunity of achieving everything set out in the Constitution and the Equality Act.

The old Post Office in Durban (that’s what the building is usually called) used to be the Town Hall before we became a City, and was made accessible about ten years ago when the whole building was renovated. A stainless steel ramp was attached at the side of the building to allow access to the post office boxes and the main hall. It took ages for consensus to be reached between the National Monuments Council, the Local Authority and the architect as to the best way to achieve access for everyone. One of the main objections was from the police who felt that it might be used as a hiding place for criminals. Well, for years after erection it did not appear to have evil connotations. But it has succumbed and now has this ugly palisade fence around it on a busy, very visible corner in the Durban CBD. I’m wondering if the Heritage Committee has approved this?!

As an afterthought: the Architectural Heritage Committee in Durban, which is separate from the Provincial Heritage Organization, and acts in terms of the National Legislation, always celebrates Heritage Day on 24 September by having functions open to the public to spread the word about being nice to old buildings, usually at The Institute building. This year we are holding that function at the NSA Gallery instead of the KZNIA because the Gallery is accessible.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited.” Plutarch

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