Research and design – not so different

Wanda Odendaal (Verster)[a] 

Chapel of the church of the latter-day saints, in Zastron street Bloemfontein. It was demolished in 2013. Photo Credit: Kobus du Preez

We had a photocopied drawing, that must have been sourced from the Mangaung Metro, but there are no drawings available for that site now. A student must have made a copy when there were plans available. We are working on a research project about a demolished building, and like a design, it seemed not to want to come into presence yet.

The drawings are of the chapel of the church of the latter-day saints, in Zastron street Bloemfontein. It was demolished in 2013 and the site now houses the parking garage of the FNB on the corner. Paved paradise? Not exactly, but a beautiful piece of Brazilian inspired modernism, a chapel with a barrel vault, that could perhaps have been repurposed, that was demolished and paved over.

On the photocopied drawing we found the name of the architects. Roberts and Cassells 1956. Surely there must be more information available, especially If they designed such a unique structure in Bloemfontein. But like an elusive concept or a program that does not quite seem to fit together, Roberts and Cassells proved to be as difficult to pin down as what exactly makes a design perfect.

Google would not prove helpful, architects from the 1950s in Bloemfontein do not have much of a digital footprint, and they are a generation removed, few people are alive who had worked with them. Journal databases, library sources, all came up blank. I needed a crit, so I started with Prof Roger Fischer, and Kobus du Preez, fountains of knowledge about historical contexts. Finally, there was progress. We found an entry in the ISAA journal in 1959, that R Roberts was once the president of the Free State branch of ISAA, and still a member at that time. An earlier 1953 entry indicated that Cassells was an honorary secretary. A lead, but not one that went further. Time for new sketches.

Perhaps the church itself could be helpful even though the building had been used by different denominations in the 2000s, a new piece of tracing paper, a new approach. Again, many dead ends, but eventually I managed to contact Rachel Felt in the USA, of the Latter-day saints history library. There was a single entry, in a 1973 journal, where mention is made of the “Unique architectural style of Bloemfontein Chapel in Central South Africa”, there was a low-quality photo, but no other reference or name.

Again, we could find nothing more. My co-author, Hein Raubenheimer was busy trying to reconstruct the building in other ways, through models, maquettes, and drawings, both digital and physical. He had the foresight in 2013 to have the students at the department of architecture at the UFS record as much of the chapel before demolition. As he was recreating the building in digital drawings and timber models, I was still searching for evidence of the original authors.

The trail grew cold, other work became more important, in a way the client was no longer interested in this project. But after the lockdown, and some discussions to clear my mind, someone suggested genealogical research. Finally, some results. Cassells is a unique surname, at least in the Free State, and I found a reference to GC Cassells, a death certificate, of 1955 on an online family search platform. Occupation: Architect. I had found a name, an occupation and a place. From there I found the names of his sons, and finally, Google proved helpful. One of his sons and grandson are chartered accountants with a good website, and they directed me to the eldest son, Graeme who was only 7 or 8 when his father died.

As turns out, Graeme Cooper (Peter) Cassells, sole practitioner and author of a few buildings in Bloemfontein, including his own home in Bayswater, was diagnosed with cancer in 1954 and started the partnership with Ron Roberts in the same year. The partnership only lasted up to 1955, and Roberts seems to have continued on his own after the Zastron Street Chapel design. Whether it was Cassell’s, last design, or a single collaboration, is not clear.

The research continues but has proven to be as interesting, challenging and frustrating as a design could be (at least for someone inclined to like research in the first place).

Hein and I are still in the midst of this project, but hopefully, we will be able to find more about these architects and their work as the search goes on.

The generation of architects responsible for much of the modernist influence in Bloemfontein are becoming difficult to track down, archives have little information and time is running out to interview living architects and their relatives.  Hein and Prof Walter Peters were able to record and analyse the work of Henk de Bie, an architect of the same era (see ArchitectureSA for the article). We aim to create a record of Roberts and Cassells, but there are more architects whose work remain ready for investigation.

Chapel of the church of the latter-day saints, in Zastron street Bloemfontein. It was demolished in 2013. Photo Credit: Kobus du Preez

[a] Wanda Verster (now Wanda Odendaal) was a PhD candidate at the University of the Free State in South Africa, where she was also a part-time lecturer. She is a professional architect and currently a lecturer at the Central University of Technology, Free State. She is interested in gallery and museum spaces and the architectural implications related to thresholds.

ORCID
0000-0003-0065-0161

(Email: wodendaal@cut.ac.za)

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