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Union Buildings, Pretoria

union buildings pretoriaThe Union Buildings form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President of South Africa. The imposing buildings are located in Pretoria, atop Meintjieskop at the Northern end of Arcadia, close to historic Church Square and the Voortrekker Monument. The large gardens of the Union Buildings are nestled between Government Avenue, Vermeulen Street East, Church Street, the R104, and Blackwood Street. Fairview Avenue is a closed road where only officials can enter to the Union Buildings. Though not in the center of Pretoria the Union Buildings occupy the highest point of Pretoria, and constitute a South African National monument. The Union Buildings has become an iconic landmark of Pretoria and South Africa in general, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city and an emblem of democracy.

The Union Buildings are surrounded by beautifully terraced gardens of indigenous plants. Various monuments adorn the expansive lawns, including the Delville Wood War Memorial and a statue of the country's first president, General Louis Botha. About half way up the terraces, the Delville Wood War Memorial is a tribute to South African troops who died during the First World War as well as a plaque in memory of those that died during the Korean War. Two levels above that is a statue of prime minister J.B.M. Hertzog. The South African Police Memorial is located at the top right of the gardens. The South African National Film, Video and Sound Archives is also located in the grounds of the Union Buildings, adjacent to the Police Memorial. Notable are the terraced gardens, planted exclusively with indigenous plants, surrounding the buildings as well as the 9,000 seat amphitheatre.

The Union Buildings wer built from light sandstone and was designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker in the English monumental style and are 285 m long. They have a semi-circular shape, with the two wings at the sides, this serves to represent the union of a formerly divided people. The clock chimes are identical to those of Big Ben in London. The east and west wings, as well as the twin-domed towers, represent two languages, English and Afrikaans, and the inner court symbolizes Union of South Africa. These buildings are considered by many to be the architect's greatest achievement and a South African architectural masterpiece.

The Union Buildings are divided into three sections; the left offices, amphitheatre, and right offices. All are 95 metres in length. Each offices block contains three inner courtyards providing light and air to the offices. Each block has a basement and three floors above ground. The central curved building behind the colonnade houses the committee rooms, a library and conference rooms while the basement contains the kitchen, dining rooms and lounges. The interior is treated in the Cape Dutch Style: carved teak fanlights, heavy doors dark ceiling beams contrasting with white plaster walls and heavy wood furniture

History of the Union Buildings
The Boer Republics of the ZAR and the Orange Free State were united with the Cape Colony and Natal Colony in 1910 to become the Union of South Africa. Pretoria then became the administrative capital of the whole of South Africa, with Cape Town the legislative capital. Between 1860 and 1994, the city was also the capital of the province of Transvaal, superseding Potchefstroom in that role. The new Union needed a governmental building which could signify unity and host the new Government.

Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, later to become first president of the Transvaal Republic, was the original owner of the farm 'Elandsfontein' on which Meintjieskop stands. In 1856 Andries Francois du Toit (1813–1883), in exchange for a Basuto pony, acquired part of the farm, which he named 'Arcadia' and on which the Union Buildings were later constructed. He was also Pretoria’s first magistrate and was responsible for the layout of the city. During this period he sold his land to Stephanus Jacobus Meintjies (1819–1887), after whom the hill is named.

In 1909 Herbert Baker was commissioned to design the Government Building of the Union of South Africa (which was formed on 31 May 1910) in Pretoria. Pretoria was to become the administrative centre for the new government. In November 1910 the cornerstone of the Union Building was laid. Lord Selborne and H. C. Hull, a member of the first Union Cabinet, chose Meintjieskop as the site for Baker's design. The site was that of a disused quarry and the existing excavations were used to create the amphitheatre, which was set about with ornamental pools, fountains, sculptures, balustrades and trees.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1908, building began in 1909 and was completed in 1913. It took approximately 1265 artisans, workmen and labourers almost three years to construct, using 14 million bricks for the interior office walls, half a million cubic feet of freestone, 74 000 cubic yards of concrete, 40 000 bags of cement and 20 000 cubic feet of granite. Originally built to house the entire Public Service for the Union of South Africa, it was then the largest building in the country and possibly the largest building work undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.

Several other sites were considered, including Muckleneuk Ridge, on the opposite side of the city and Pretorius Square, in the centre of Pretoria, where the City Hall now stands. However, Herbert Baker was strongly in favour of Meintjieskop, which was within a mile of the centre of Pretoria and reminded him strongly of some of the acropolises of Greece and Asia Minor, where he had studied Mediterranean architecture.

The concept of an acropolis and a building that agreed with renowned British Architect Sir Christopher Wren's theory that a public building should be a national ornament which establishes a nation, draws people and commerce and makes people love their country easily persuaded the then powers that be, who were at the time, preoccupied with the ideal of establishing a new and united nation.

The design of the buildings was largely determined by the nature of the site. Baker envisaged identical wings of rectangular office blocks, each representing one of the two official languages. They were to be linked by a semicircular wing, and the space in-between the two wings was levelled to form an amphitheatre as in the Greek fashion for gatherings of national and ceremonial importance.

Baker wanted the buildings to be built of imported granite, but any idea of using anything but South African stone for the most important government building of the new state was unthinkable to those who commissioned it, as a result, the terraces and retaining walls in the grounds are built predominantly of mountain stone quarried on site, the foundation of the building is of granite, while freestone was used for the exterior walls, the amphitheatre and major courtyards.

For the overall design of the building, Baker chose the neo-classic architecture of the Italian Renaissance, and also combined an idiom of the English Renaissance, as well as significant elements of Cape Dutch detail, such as in the carved main doorways and fanlights and in much of the wrought-iron brass work and balustrades of the smaller areas.


 

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