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South Africa House
Trafalgar Square, London, UK
associated engineer
Oscar Faber
date  1931 - 22nd June 1933
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ299805
South Africa House, along with India House (1930), continued the co-operation between architect Sir Herbert Baker and engineer Oscar Faber that had begun in the 1920s. It now houses both the South African High Commission and the South African Consulate and is located in Trafalgar Square in central London.
South Africa House was the focus of anti-apartheid protests during the 1980s and was the South African Embassy from 1961 to 1994 (while the country was a republic). Nelson Mandela appeared on its balcony in 2001 to celebrate seven years of freedom from racial segregation in South Africa.
Baker and Faber’s professional association began at Lord’s Cricket Ground (1923-26). However, there are more similarities between South Africa House and the rebuilding of the Bank of England (1924-42), with which both men were involved not only for structural engineering but also for heating and ventilation and electrical engineering. Both buildings have the same deep basement foundations, both are steel framed and both have classically proportioned stone façades.
South Africa House is a Neo-Classical Grade II* listed building, which was built on the site of a derelict hotel. Construction was complex; firstly a reinforced concrete retaining wall was needed before the basement levels of the new building could be excavated. Trenches for the retaining wall were dug adjacent to the surrounding streets (Trafalgar Square, Duncannon Street and The Strand), to form the perimeter of the building. Permanent shuttering was erected against the edges of each trench, jacked by struts across the trench. Once the retaining wall was completed, excavation of the basement storeys could begin.
Faber foresaw danger when the struts, which had been holding back the pressure from the streets at higher level, were removed after the retaining wall was cast and the soil was excavated for construction of the foundation raft. As the retaining wall is not anchored by the weight of a building above — it has yet to be built at this stage — the wall could be at risk of slipping inwards or tilting inwards by rotation. To combat this, Faber pioneered the now accepted design of adding a ‘toe’ to the base of the L-shaped cross section of the wall.
Slipping is resisted by providing a sufficiently large toe, extending below the foot of the ‘L’ by more than the thickness of the foot itself. Overturning is prevented by making the foot long enough and deep enough. Fracture of the ‘L’ at the point of maximum bending moment, at the elbow, is resisted by tapering the inner face of the vertical part of the retaining wall upwards (thinner at the top).
The building’s steel frame rests on the reinforced concrete basement foundation raft. Reinforced concrete panels span between the steel members and its exterior is faced with Portland stone, with carvings of South African flora and fauna. Masonry construction of the façades is load-bearing to the line of the retaining wall below, and tied back to the grid of steel beams and columns at each floor level.
The radiant heating comes from hot water pipes embedded in the ceilings, similar to the system used in the new Bank of England.
The building is trapezoidal in plan with a rounded balcony at its south end and a triple height columned portico above the entrance. The lower ground floor and two basement levels are below street level, and there are six further storeys. The ground floor is slightly above pavement level and has the entrance foyer, reading room and reception rooms while the High Commissioner's suite is on the first floor. The building’s interior is decorated lavishly with South African marble and semi-precious stones, teak, Dutch tiles and painted murals.
South Africa House cost some £300,000 and was opened by King George V on 22nd June 1933. Faber and Baker’s partner, Alexander Thomson Scott, were presented to King George and Queen Mary during the official ceremony.
Architects: Sir Herbert Baker and Alexander Thomson Scott
Steel frame design: Stanley Vaughan
Contractor: Holland Hannan & Cubitts
Architectural sculpture: Sir Charles Wheeler
Stone carving: Joseph Armitage
Research: ND
"Modern Buildings as Engineering Structures” by Oscar Faber, in The Structural Engineer, pp.42-54, London, February 1931
“South Africa House: A Neighbourly Building”, in The Times, 22nd June 1933
“South Africa House: Opening by the King”, in The Times, 23rd June 1933
“Oscar Faber, his work, his firm & afterwards” by John Faber, Quiller Press, London 1989

South Africa House