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TThe architecture of Sir Herbert Baker can be found in the most affluent and historic areas of South Africa’s major cities. While not all his buildings are open to the public, a passing view is a visual treat, offering a glimpse into the style of one of the leading architects in South Africa, who created a template for the country’s grand public buildings over two decades.
The British architect became the leading influence on architecture in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century.
Born in the English town of Cobham in 1862, Baker was recognised as the top of his class after passing his examination for associateship of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1891.
He came to South Africa in 1892 to visit his brother, and during this visit was commissioned to redesign Groote Schuur, Cecil John Rhodes' house on the slopes of Table Mountain – a coup for an untried architect. Obviously pleased with the result, Rhodes sponsored Baker's further education in Italy, Greece and Egypt. When he returned to South Africa, Baker became the most sought-after architect of his time.
He was invited to build residences for the 'randlords': wealthy Johannesburg mining magnates in the then-Transvaal. The work of his practice can be seen throughout the country in schools, churches and private homes. Johannesburg's Parktown and Westcliff suburbs are filled with Herbert Baker buildings, including his own home, Rockhouse.
Most famous among his works in this country are the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government in South Africa. The cornerstone for this impressive edifice was laid in 1910 and the buildings were completed in 1913.
Other famous Herbert Baker buildings include Groot Constantia, the Rhodes Memorial and St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, Northwards, Roedean School and St John's College in Johannesburg, and Rhodes University in Grahamstown.
Much of Herbert Baker's architecture is still in official use and open to the public, and together display the dazzling variety of styles that this master of his craft was capable of, all of them perfectly proportioned. Private homes are visible on walking tours of old Johannesburg, or on certain open days throughout the year, and the gardens of the Union Buildings can be visited as part of most tours of Pretoria.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Johannesburg Heritage Foundation
Tel: +27 11 482 3349 (weekdays between 9am and 1pm)
Northwards, 21 Rockridge Road, Parktown, Johannesburg
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation offers guided tours most weekends to historical buildings in Johannesburg, Pretoria and occasionally further afield, including some designed by Sir Herbert Baker.
Best time to visit
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation's tours happen mostly on Saturdays and Sundays. Check the website for details. The Union Buildings are not open to the public, but at any time of year you can walk in the gardens and pose for pictures on the front steps. Groote Schuur in Cape Town is only open to the public on special days.
Things to do in the area
If you’re in Parktown and Westcliff, you’ll be ideally positioned to visit the Johannesburg Zoo or take a stroll around Zoo Lake. If you’re at the Union Buildings, pay a visit to nearby Freedom Park to appreciate the contrast of old and new South African architecture. While you’re in Cape Town, especially in the Constantia area, do a wine tour.
Tours to do
Visit the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation's website to see which tours are coming up.