Mutual Heights

Cape Town's Art Deco Time Capsule

One of Cape Town’s most stunning works of architecture is Mutual Heights, formerly called the Old Mutual Building and the Mutual Building, Located in Cape Town Central, it is a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture. Since its opening in 1940, its structural majesty has retained its architectural magic.

The architects were Capetown native Frederick McIntosh Glennie and the firm Louw & Louw. Glennie and Louw & Louw’s lead architect, Wynand Henry Louw, travelled to Paris and America from 1933-34 to learn how to design and construct a skyscraper that would successfully represent the dignity and strength the South African Mutual Life Assurance Society (now Old Mutual) desired for their company’s new headquarters. After this international research, the architects decided the Art Deco style best suited the company’s needs. The skylines of New York and Los Angeles--successful cities that had adopted Art Deco earlier—were particular inspirations. The commission began in 1936.

The skyscraper is made of reinforced concrete faced with granite and marble, with bricks, plaster, and stainless steel used as well. Its ziggurat-style exterior and prismoid windows were both architecturally intriguing and functional features for the time. When it first opened in 1940, it was the tallest building in Africa at eighteen stories high. Each floor was separated by an average of 16.4 feet, creating extremely high ceilings. Water-cooled air conditioning and extremely fast elevators were both innovations.

Old Mutual, founded in Cape Town in 1845, was the country’s first life insurance company. Its values and outlook at the time the building was created were unsurprisingly conservative and colonial in nature. Evidence of these attitudes clearly appears in the carved stoned frieze that lines the exterior of the building. This frieze, one of the longest in the world at 386 feet, was designed by Ivan Mitford-Barberton and sculpted by Italian immigrant Adolfo Lorenzi and four of his brothers. Its fifteen sections feature a timeline of Cape Town’s colonization, wars, and emancipation of slaves, as well as the colonization of other parts of South Africa, Namibia, and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), missionary activities in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Tanganyika (Tanzania), and Arab resistance to Turkish attack in Kenya. Old Mutual worked in all of these British colonies. As Freschi observed, the scenes show “conflation of South African history with corporate policy,” and also stress the white male colonists as actors, while the Africans are acted upon, and female colonists are primarily observers.

All the exterior ornamentation emphasizes the luxury and status of this Art Deco structure. Nine granite figures stand above the Parliament Street building frieze, representing the upper torsos of men from nine southern and east African ethnic groups. If some of their distinctive hairstyles or hats are ambiguous, they are clearly labeled: Xosa (sic), Pedi, Maasai, Matabele, Basuto, Barotse, Kikuyu, Zulu, and Bushman (sic). These granite sculptures were included to accentuate and represent African heritage, yet the Khoi who occupied the Cape area are not included. Pairs of elephant and baboon heads, again designed by Mitford-Barberton and executed by Lorenzi and his brothers, decorate the 6th and 12th floor inner edges of the Darling Street façade respectively, while four “native masks” flank the 18th floor tower’s edges. These “masks” are an odd inclusion in the architectural program, for masquerades are not performed by any South African groups, nor do they occur in the other British colonies then part of Old Mutual’s purview--with the exception of a limited number in then-Tanganyika, which look nothing like those on the building.

The internal decorations include marble columns, white-veined onyx marble, gold leaf ceilings, distinctive door knobs, African animal etchings, paneled frescoes, and carved wooden friezes that feature African animals. Many of these elaborate elements illustrate the dedication to Art Deco throughout the building, but some rooms seem more traditional, meant to represent the values and stability of the company. The banking hall is lined with marble columns and has often been described as Neoclassical in style, stressing Old Mutual’s prevailing theme of tradition despite their Art Deco light fixtures. The capitals, however, follow no Classical order; they too are topped by metal rings that echo those of the lamps, suggesting a mere nod to Neoclassism via the fluting on the columns.

Old Mutual moved its headquarters to the Pinelands suburb not even two decades after the opening of the Mutual Building. By the 1990s, only a limited number of other commercial tenants used the building. In 2002, Old Mutual planned to mothball the structure due to white flight from the CBD, but Louis Karol Associates proposed to repurpose the structure into apartments in order to “seed” the district with new residents. They did so from 2003-05, with financing from Old Mutual Properties. Old Mutual retained ownership of the Director’s Suite and Assembly and Banking Halls, using the latter as an event venue, but finally divested them in 2015.

The building and its 180-plus units, now referred to as Mutual Heights, was one of the first conversions to jumpstart a residential return to downtown Cape Town, though some apartments were purchased as vacation rentals rather than primary homes. Much of the building has kept its original design and decorative elements without falling victim to over-renovation, winning Louis Karol Associates three refurbishment awards. Mutual Heights remains one of the most profound and aesthetically beautiful buildings in Cape Town, albeit with now-archaic colonialist visual declarations. Security anxieties led to the installation of a skywalk connecting tenants to an existing parking garage diagonally across an intersection. Concerns arose that residents might fortress themselves from the neighborhood, rather than resuscitate it.



14-18 Darling Street, Cape Town, South Africa