Happy Birthday, Robert Silke

The salad days of La Perla in Sea Point are definitely over when your eponymous salad arrives nude and rude, with two halves of a boiled egg peeking playfully out from an undergrowth of lettuce and anonymous greenery. Birthday boy Robert Silke (he turned 30 yesterday) has a soft spot for La Perla (and Sea Point in general) which is one of those Castle Liners from the sixties, ran aground. Where there’s now a pool was once a lawn and maids in doeke would dandle chubby children while the miessies put on the Ritz (with avo) and smoked, inside. Robert was one of those children.

IMG 0062 300x199 Happy Birthday, Robert Silke

Today the best thing about the place are the lights that look like motel bathroom infrared heaters and the art with Georgina Gatrix paintings dominating one wall (above). Georgina is from Durban which could explain the waiters who take you back to Blue Waters and there’s no shame to ask for extra mince with your spaghetti bolognaise.

I met Robert five years ago and was so captivated, penned a profile.

IMG 0057 300x199 Happy Birthday, Robert Silke

Robert looks like a cross between interior designer Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen, whose extra long cuffs are a feature of the BBC design program Changing Rooms, and Alain de Botton, British public intellectual and all-round egghead whose Architecture of Happiness is this year’s surprise highbrow best seller. Although Robert’s charcoal velvet jacket is Zara, not Armani.

We met at de Luca coffee shop on Green Market Square, Ian Halfon’s trendy alternative to Vida e Caffé with a Silke shocking pink motif and risqué nude upstairs (dusky beauty in a fynbos arrangement). He’s more energetic than a pocketful of frogs.

Mom is an eccentric Hungarian artist and dad a famous legal eagle. “I was brought up in the foyer of the Cape Sun Hotel. Mom would walk to school to collect me (she doesn’t drive) and I’d do my homework on those marble tables in the foyer and we’d wait for dad to come from court. Sometimes we’d visit Jani Allan up in her eyrie. Mom didn’t cook, so we ate out every night.” The Cape Sun was designed by legendary architect Louis Karol “who built half the skyscrapers in Cape Town. His thinking is revolutionary and his design is progressive, with a conservative attention to detail.” So a career as an architect working for Louis solved the nature versus nurture debate.

“I wanted to make an impact and I wanted plenty of witnesses. I think being an architect at Louis’ firm is the most powerful way of touching as many lives as possible.” Robert’s biggest project to date was transforming the mothballed head office of Old Mutual on Darling Street into Mutual Heights. It was the most successful redeployment of office space into residential apartments to date – even if the central banking hall has yet to morph into the sophisticated restaurant with room for a cocktail bar that is a design no-brainer. Riboville, in the renovated ABC Bank building on St. Georges Mall, has proved the concept works, so time for the Old Mutual moguls to stop sharpening their pencils and sign the lease.

“I still get a rush walking into Mutual Heights in the morning, finding the lights on and hearing all those toilets flush because we designed and located each of them. It’s like having your own giant ant farm.” The most glamorous ones are situated in the penthouse (original colonial numbers with mahogany seats) which kicks off the “hotels” section of the Wallpaper* City Guide to Cape Town. The British design Bible is impressed with Robert’s transformation of the caretaker’s flat into “an amazing apartment” with two of the four bedrooms connected by a catwalk “to make partner swapping easier” as architect told owner. Or a structural necessity to stop the façade imploding and squashing the stylish swappers like… ants, as engineer told architect.

Transformation of this particular building was a gift: first off, its one of the most excellent examples of Art Deco architecture in the world. “It’s made of stone and concrete. It’ll still be standing in 1000 years.” Planning restrictions limited the building to a dozen floors, but wanting the tallest building in Africa, the canny directors decreed that each one would be 4.8m high (the maximum allowable) and their corporate egos were sated. When the apartments went on sale in June 2003, they sold out one hectic weekend. “It was like the city woke up from a drug-induced coma.”

“We had Pam Golding as agents to add a bit of glam. Pam was great, with reminiscences of her first job selling World Book encyclopedias. The kugels were so keen, they broke their manicured fingernails trying to peel off the red ‘sold’ stickers on the plans so they could pretend they were still available. Darling Street was transformed, it was like a car showroom with all the 4x4s and Mercedes double parked as people joined in the gold rush.”

Robert loves ant farms and dense living and even notes the Tampon Tower eyesores on the lower slopes of Table Mountain would look better if the gaps between them were filled in with other buildings through some radical urban dentistry. As for a green belt, Robert argues for a clear separation of town and country: “cities need a crisp urban edge. You should drive as short a time as possible to get out into the country. In the case of traditional Italian cities, there was a wall marking the division. We’ve lost that with our urban sprawl that has seen towns like Stellenbosch and Paarl simply disappear into Brackenfell.

Robert’s inner city ideal is a cross between Gotham City and a Bauhaus Fritz Lang Metropolis with romantic overtones from his simple aesthetic criterion: “for me, beauty equates to ‘I don’t quite understand how it was made by humans.’ It’s a quasi-religious thing.” But overwhelmingly humanist.

“I like to program buildings for social interaction. We need excuses to interact, so make the corridors narrow enough so that people touch when they pass” – butt-brush by design. “I’m less interested in monofunctional office towers. I like apartment blocks and hotels, especially budget hotels.”

Of which he has two on his drawing board – a R650 a night Holiday Inn Express on St. Georges Mall next door to a six-star Indian super luxury hotel being built, with rooms running at R4500 a pop (“with access to the same facilities” he laughs). The second is a skyscraper planned to pop up on the crisp edge of the Karol Kingdom, a five block urban precinct centered on Thibault Square surrounded by Karol skyscrapers.

“If a public square is an outside room, it has to have walls like these granite-clad skyscrapers. Which is why the Grand Parade doesn’t work – no walls.” Silke notes that the Karol Kingdom is one of the largest urban spaces dominated by a single architect in the world, once you discount entire cities engineered in the Brazilian jungle by Oscar Niemeyer.

Robert is an enthusiastic daddy’s boy in the Mother City. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. People do you favours, and they know you without you having to be famous. San Francisco is my second best (shades of the Kentridge film ‘Johannesburg, Second Greatest City after Paris’) because it reminds me so much of Cape Town. That sense of impending doom – they’ve got the San Andreas fault, we’ve got post-2010.”

On the differences between South Africa’s two main metropoli, Robert waxes philosophical. “Cape Town is a market garden where people make money waiting for things to ripen. In Johannesburg, people just rip them out of the ground. Jo’burg is a real place whereas Cape Town can be quite affected. We’re slower in everything and urban decay was also slower here.” Which preserved the inner city, unlike the Johannesburg experience. “The abandonment of Johannesburg was a more radical expropriation of land than anything Mugabe tried. And those refugees gave up a whole way of life also.”

On the subject of suburban flight, Robert gets uncharacteristically savage. “Sandton is not a city centre. It’s a privileged suburb with no public transport. People don’t have access. The only public space, Nelson Mandela Square, is a private space.”

Home is two bachelor flats knocked into one in an anorexic Art Deco giraffe of flats called Holyrood that looks like the South Easter blew it off the Durban Berea and deposited it opposite parliament. “It’s so small, people ask ‘where is the other flat?’” he quips. The lift is a wood paneled antique number, small enough that his claustrophobic boss Louis Karol has never visited. “But I’m sure he would walk up the eight flights of stairs.” It’s what Leonard Cohen might have had in mind when he composed The Tower of Song – a tall skinny building with fiercely individual tenants each taking up a floor.

When parliament’s cannons sound off, as they did the morning I stopped by to ogle the view, the fat pigeons rise up in angry clouds from the Company’s Garden and wheel around like an urban Van Gogh while Holyrood quietly quakes with reverberations. “What was that? The end of the world or the noon gun when it’s not twelve o’clock?”

IMG 00561 199x300 Happy Birthday, Robert Silke