Classical Revival

The old Reader's Digest building in Cape Town has been reimagined to become home to one of the city's leading advertising schools.

The old Reader’s Digest building in Cape Town has been reimagined to become home to one of the city’s leading advertising schools.

The old Reader’s Digest building in Cape Town has been reimagined to become home to one of the city’s leading advertising schools. We spoke to architect Renato Graca from EHH Architects who undertook the makeover of the new Vega campus.

Tell us about the origin of this project…

The building was originally designed and built for Readers Digest, as a dispatch and distribution centre. The result was that columns were oddly positioned (for parking) and the building had an incredibly large footprint. As a result of this, it had been converted to a call centre. The building is owned by Pedfin Properties Trust and the developer is the Santoni Group. We were briefed by Dr. Sean Gomes, the main contact person from the client’s side, who was very much involved in the conceptualisation and design of the project.

What was the brief?

The client brief was to modernise the existing building from a visual and organisational point of view. This entailed the redesigning of all facades, the introduction of a new parking level to the building, activating the street edge by introducing new retail spaces to the street corners and the upgrading of the reception area, main staircase and roof top entertainment area. The main office floors were treated as ‘empty shells’ for which the tenants were responsible. All existing services were upgraded where necessary and all issues such as waterproofing etc. were assessed and addressed.

Talk us through the design for both the building and the interiors

The colour red became an important accent colour for the inside and exterior design of the new Viega building.

The colour red became an important accent colour for the inside and exterior design of the new Viega building.

The concept was to divide the building into multiple focal points, breaking the old monotonous façade. Large areas of the facades remained unchanged barring a new Marmoran finish and the introduction of sun shading louvres, yet the building has been uplifted completely and presents itself as fresh and new altogether.

The focal points are the main building entrance and the reception, the retail corners and the fire escape on the side street elevations. Vega uses red as its signature colour and this was used to highlight the entrance area at night while keeping the remainder of the building a two-tone neutral grey. The concept was to further utilise the existing roof space as a break away area for the students to get together outside of the classrooms and enjoy the beautiful view of Cape Town harbour.

The main entrance, and particularly the laser cut screen, has made the building highly recognisable along one of the major through roads in Cape Town, especially when backlit at night. The area as a whole has benefitted from the upliftment of the architecture and Chiappini Street now forms the gateway to the Waterkant area. The developer also deserves credit for spending money to have all existing trees replaced with indigenous species as well as providing additional public lighting and replacing all paving around the building.

Strong horizontal lines were introduced to the building. This was achieved in the colour scheme and the introduction of an aluminium-clad element on the main façade, sun-shading devices over the existing windows and screens to the new parking garage on the ground floor. A bar coded design was used for all elements tying various design elements together.

Both street corners were opened up and a double volume glazed corner was used to create maximum exposure for retail tenants, at the same time making the building lose some of its bulkiness. The design of the perforated screen above the main entrance was inspired by the city’s street grid and the use of colour-changing LED’s behind the screen have anchored the building in its location making it a highly recognisable point in the city.

The reception area repeats the Vega brand colour and the notion of barcoding and is a visually powerful space emphasising a strong and modern brand. The roof garden was designed to allow the students to break away from their classrooms, offering them shaded spaces in a green and open environment.

Classical revival of the old readers digest buildingWhat were the challenges on this project?

The time frame was extremely tight: Six months from brief to occupancy. Naturally, working with an existing structure entirely built out of concrete brought its own set of complications and challenges. It proved quite challenging to demolish the existing façade without compromising the structure. As a result it would have been too time-intensive to remove the concrete down stand beams in the new parking garage, which meant we were unable to have the parking garage naturally ventilated and comply with the fire regulations. The existing roof was originally designed with a minimum fall and very few full bore outlets. Proper weather steps were introduced to the sliding doors facing the rooftop entertainment area and sufficient falls were used where the waterproofing was re-done.

How did you overcome them?

A lot of design details were workshopped on site. The parking level was eventually designed to be mechanically ventilated which required less time and effort than demolishing the concrete down stand beams. The existing roof was stripped down to the concrete slab and new screeds to fall were introduced. The number of full bores could not be increased, so a channel was formed along the edge of the roof to direct the storm water to the existing full bore points. A double layer of torch-on and new weather steps at the existing canteen spaces were introduced to address all waterproofing issues.


CLIENT: Pedfin Properties Trust


ARCHITECTS: EHH Architects Inc



MECHANICAL CONSULTANT: Basil Nair & Associates


FIRE CONSULTANT: Keith Fletcher and Associates

ALUMINIUM CONSULTANT: Etherington Aluminium

HEALTH AND SAFETY: Smartsafe Health & Safety


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