Heritage at Risk: Ocean Terminal Precinct, Point Precinct, Durban, South Africa

Docomomo International was made aware that the landmark Ocean Terminal Complex in Point Precinct, South Africa is under threat for demolition. We present the letter from the co-chair of Docomomo South Africa, Sandra van der Merwe below:

A demolition permit has been granted for the demolition of all structures on the T-jetty in Durban Harbour, including the landmark Ocean Terminal Complex, to create a flat top area for vehicle and container terminal expansion at Point Precinct. Docomomo South Africa will be supporting the KwaZulu-Natal Regional Institute of Architects, SAIA-KZN, in their objection to the decision made by the provincial heritage authority, KwaZulu-Natal Amafa and Research Institute. We wish to make Docomomo International aware of this, and call upon those who wish to add their support to our objection to contact Docomomo South Africa at info@docomomo-sa.org before 12 May 2023.

The Ocean Terminal Complex is a massive 600-meter-long Modernist complex comprising of the MHA building, Durmarine Building, L-shed, M-shed, Ocean Terminal, South Access Tower and N-shed. The project was authored by a multi-disciplinary collaboration of engineers, architects and artists within the engineering firm MS Zakrzewski & Partners in 1961. The Ocean Terminal Precinct is inventive, artistically creative and ground-breaking for its time in its conceptualization (combining ocean liner passenger and cargo logistics) and exquisite execution, with integrated original artworks and decorative sunscreens as an early attempt to adapt modernism to the local Durban climate. The Ocean Terminal buildings have been selected time and time again by the Durban architectural community to represent the best of Durban’s architecture, and its modern architecture in particular. Should the demolitions proceed, Durban will lose a set of iconic buildings historically associated as an arrival point to the city and the country.

The Ocean Terminal Complex combines a number of functions, which each came with its own spatial, programmatic, operational and highly technical engineering requirements, in an innovative manner. This creativity was recognized internationally through the publication of the precinct in the Architectural Review, March 1963, which was rare for South African architectural projects at the time. At the base of the structure are two long storage sheds, L-shed and M-shed, designed for the handling and exporting tons of fragile fresh produce which required technical storage and cooling requirements. The 1st floor of M-shed was a dedicated pre-cooling store with insulated tunnels designed to handle 4000 shipping tons of export produce, fruit in particular. On top of this podium, there is the Durmarine Building, a multi-storey office tower raised on V-columns, with alumiunium-louvres to the sun-facing northern side, giving the building its “cheese-grater” appearance, and the Terminal Hall, for passenger arrival and departures, with the folded concrete V-shaped roof, and aluminum louvres to the facades.

Magda Zakrzewski, daughter of Michal Zakrzewski of MS Zakrzewski & Partners, recalls in an email to Docomomo South Africa, that that the client originally wanted warehousing to be built to process both visitors and cargo arriving by ship, and that it was her father’s creative idea to turn it into a magical arrival location instead. By placing the Ocean Terminal Building on top of the cargo and cooling store levels of M-shed, the terminal hall was located at eye level of the decks of the docked ocean liners, adding to the ceremony of arriving and departing. Comparing the precinct to other South African ports, to our knowledge, the Ocean Terminal Complex is unique as most ports separate passengers and cargo.
Zakrzewski & Partners fostered collaboration between engineering, architecture and art. The architectural design of the Ocean Terminal precinct was led by Polish architect, Janusz Warunkiewicz, whom Michal Zakrzewski recruited specifically for the project. Warunkiewicz emigrated to Canada shortly after this project, where his notable projects include the design of metro stations Place-d’Armes and Henri Bourassa, Montreal and ‘La Pyramide’ apartments on Nuns’ Island, Montreal. Other known collaborators on the Ocean Terminal Complex include architect Hans Hallen, engineer Milek Masojada, and artist John Hooper.

The architectural highlights of the Ocean Terminal Complec are undoubtedly the Ocean Terminal Hall and the Durmarine Tower. These two buildings draw reference from international Modernist precedents especially Brazilian Modernism and the work of Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer. The multi-disciplinary nature of the Zakrzewski design team contributed to the sculptural forms and quality of execution associated with the Ocean Terminal precinct. Zakrzewski & Partners transferred their knowledge of civil engineering construction to architectural forms and building a complex structure within a challenging marine environment. These ideas can be seen in the Durmarine Building, elevated on its V-shaped columns and the folded concrete V-shaped roof of the Terminal Hall. A mix of in-situ and precast systems was employed depending on the requirements for accuracy, aesthetics or construction sequence. The highlight amongst these is the shard-like smooth precast concrete columns to the façade of the Terminal Hall: the columns were cast on site in glass fibre and steel moulds and then hoisted into position.

As air travel replaced the age of ocean liners, the complex fell out of use as a passenger terminal but retained its cargo logistics and administrative functions. In the mid-1980s the Ocean Terminal Hall was retrofitted with internal mezzanine levels to provide more office space for Transnet National Ports Authority (the public company who owns all rail and port facilities in South Africa). Presently, Transnet is looking to expand their vehicle and container terminals at Point Precinct, which has led to the application for total demolition of the Ocean Terminal Complex.

The Ocean Terminal Complex is a landmark modernist complex, combining construction technology transfer with modernist forms and a creative solution to a complex programme. Docomomo South Africa believes that the structures are robust and flexible enough in their layout to manage considerate transformation and re-use, without diminishing their architectural value. The Ocean Terminal Complex deserves all our efforts in finding an alternative solution to total demolition, and we hope that you will join Docomomo South Africa in objecting to the proposed total demolition.

Sandra van der Merwe
Co-chair of Docomomo-South Africa