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Chrysler House
Johannesburg, Gauteng

People:

Donald Lansdowne NURCOMBE: Design Architect
NURCOMBE and SUMMERLEY: Architect
REINFORCING STEEL COMPANY: Engineer


Date:1938
Client:Sydney Clow & Co.
Type:Showroom
Status:Extant
Street:Eloff St

The fourth major skyscraper of the pre-war phase was Chrysler House, which occupies an entire city block. Its principal frontage lay on lower Eloff Street, where Motortown had grown up at the beginning of the Automobile Age. The building, designed by NURCOMBE & SUMMERLEY, was built for Sydney Clow & Co. as a vast centre for the selling and servicing of automobiles.

The ground-floor showrooms once glinted with the latest models of streamlined US automobiles — icons of Americanisation — on the rubber-tiled sales floor. Nearby were stainless-steel Bauhaus-style chairs, sales tables and ashtray stands. Car lifts - the fastest 'of their type in the British Empire' - served the upper car floors up to level nine, sustaining the image of glinting modernity that pervaded the entire building.

Chrysler House reveals a new level of sophistication and competence in the Johannesburg of its day, above all in its core of extra-large lifts, vertical service ducts, air-conditioning (to keep the dust of the mining town off the shiny automobiles) and massive reinforced-concrete structure with cantilevers of six and a half metres on the perimeter (up to the level of the setbacks). It is these cantilevers that permit the continuous bands of uninterrupted glazed windows to the north, east and south elevations. Unadorned and powerful in their demonstration of modern construction, they reveal the brilliance of the Modern Movement at this early stage of its creativity in the Southern Hemisphere. The main Eloff Street frontage is in the Skyscraper Style, with continuous, vertical stainless-steel fins (once highlighted at night with green vertical neon strips) to emphasise verticality.

The audacious use of reinforced-concrete structure, stainless steel, neon strips, a glass window wall twenty-six metres high, and the absence of contrived decoration, all form part of the new vocabulary of twentieth-century architecture. Nevertheless the window wall on the west elevation was an unfortunate decision, similar in kind to glass exposure at LE CORBUSIER's Salvation Army hostel in Paris. Unfortunately, renovations carried out in more recent times have diminished the powerful presence of Chrysler House and have concealed the pristine quality of this pre-war skyscraper.

The Reinforcing Steel Co. were the engineers who designed the 11-storeyed Chrysler House with its 76-ft. (23.16 m) tower around 14 main columns, which, 61 ft. (18.59 m) apart in the north-south direction, were tied by 45 in. (114.3 cm) X 24 in. (60.96 cm) beams extended through as cantilevers 19 ft. 11 in. (6.07 m) long on either side. Along the east-west axis the columns were placed at 28-ft. (8.53 m) centres and the cantilever overhang reduced to 16 ft. 8 in. (5.08 m), the average live load on the upper floors being about 100 lb. per sq. ft.

(SAB Aug 1936: 41; PWSA Dec 1938:9; SAAR Feb 1939:40?54; SA Archt Mar 1939:9; SAB Jan 1940 ill)

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Chipkin, Clive M. 1993. Johannesburg Style - Architecture & Society 1880s - 1960s. Cape Town: David Phillip. pg 150-151 ill
Fredman, R. 1964. Structural concrete in South Africa: Some Observations on the Development of Reinforced and Prestressed Concrete from the Time of Van Riebeeck to the Present Day. Johannesburg: South African Reinforced Concrete Engineers Association. pg 65
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 145 ill - 146 ill
Herbert, Gilbert. 1975. Martienssen & the international style: The modern movement in South African architecture. Cape Town - Rotterdam: AA Balkema. pg 144, 268
van der Waal, Gerhard-Mark. 1987. From Mining Camp to Metropolis - The buildings of Johannesburg 1886-1940. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council. pg 173, 198 ill

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