The story of the sawmills

The story of the sawmills

This week I came across a beautiful historical picture of the Stellenbosch sawmills while paging through a Stellenbosch coffee table book from 1966 (the book cost R3,95):

Alice Mertens 1966

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of speculation about the sawmill on Polkadraai Road and what will happen to it. Earlier this year, Eikestadnuus announced that the area was approved for development and that the upgrade should be completed by April 2019.

Is this good or bad news for Stellenbosch?

When thinking of Stellenbosch I realized more and more that the only constant in today’s life is change. Stellenbosch will never be the small village of Adam Tas or Sybrand Mankadan. Today it is an eclectic combination of old and new – something that is well demonstrated in streets such as Dorp Street or Van Riebeeck Street.

It is however important to be sensitive towards a place’s historical landscape when making changes. Many experts believe historically sensitive developments are better for the economy as well as for people’s sense of place:

In looking for growth, politicians and officials often focus too much on “wow”, and neglect the fabric of place. Fabric of place endures. Cities that focus on fabric of place hold out better against economic collapse, and support growth longer.

(Stellenbosch heritage- Is Stellenbosch a city?)

That’s why I find it brilliant that the new Woodmill development uses the aesthetics  of the old sawmill in its new design (colors, textures, materials and patterns):


It’s seems that the project takes into account the ‘fabric of place’, showing respect for the legacy of the place and trying to compliment it. On their brochure, the Woodmill developers explain that they researched a number of existing projects in view of these ideals:

  • Integrating existing with new materials
  • Continuation/juxtaposition of architectural form
  • Detailing
  • Enhancing existing architectural qualities
  • Integration with landscape and context
  • Creating new identity and aesthetic

One project used as example of successful post-industrial landscape architecture is the Godsbanearealet project in Denmark, an old freight station which was redesigned as a sustainable, climate adapted city district.

Photo: Wichmann+Bendsen
Photo: Wichmann+Bendsen

Godsbanearealet shows how a place’s heritage y can inspire new design elements (such as the railway gardens above or the wooden train platforms as benches).

Changes to sensitive urban environments must respect the spirit, the prevailing character, and genius loci of a place; otherwise it will lose its identity (Norberg-Schultz, 1984, in R. Donaldson).

Below is a drawing that represents the future Woodmill project, as well as a graphic representation thereof below – pay attention to the use of wood and the high ceiling that mimics the industrial space.

A brochure of the entire project is available here for those who want to know more.

PowerPoint Presentation


For some more historical pictures of Stellenbosch, look at our blog: Stellenbosch: “Way back when”/Toeka se dae.

If you want to read more about old and new coming together, read our blog about how the name Koloniesland originated.

Article: Y Coetsee 2017
Historical photo: A Martens, Stellenbosch (1966)
Sources: The Production of Quartered Spaces in Stellenbosch R.Donaldson.

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