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COLE BOWEN, Robert Edward, (Coley)

Born: 1904 05 25
Died: 1976 06 02


Reg No: 268
Year registered: 1927

Also known as COLE-BOWEN Robert Edward and sometimes mistakenly as BOWEN Robert Edward Cole.

TPIA (1927); ISAA (1927); MC 1942.

Was the son of St John Cole Bowen whose work as superintendent of the Naaupoort (Noupoort) refugee camp during the Anglo-Boer War was commended for his exemplary humanity by Emily Hobhouse. After the war St John Cole Bowen became chief magistrate of Cape Town.

Robert Cole Bowen was born in Winburg in the Orange River Colony. The family moved to Fauresmith, and here he spent much of his childhood. He particularly remembered being taught (1910-1915) by a Miss Finnemore. He continued his schooling (1916-1922) at St Andrew's Preparatory School and College, Grahamstown and passed the Woolwich Entrance Examination (Artillery and Air Force College, England). He considered further training in England, but his father's illness meant that he should remain in South Africa and instead he attended the School of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1923. He was obliged to leave after only a year in order to support himself owing to his father's declining health, and was employed by the PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT in Pretoria on a temporary basis from 1924, attending architectural classes in Pretoria. He certificated in 1928 but was only fully qualified after the Second World War. The Civil Service lists (1934) indicate that he was appointed a permanent member of staff in the Public Works Department in 1929. By 1931 Cole Bowen had already won a reputation for his skill at drawing and was frequently employed on perspectives for various public buildings and designed the cover of the 1931 Kirkness Catalogue for JN Kirkness's clay products. A gifted cartoonist, in 1932 he executed a large cartoon depicting the move of the Public Works Department from the Union Buildings to new quarters in the Central Government Building, Pretoria. He called it The retreat from Moscow. It portrays the members of the Department's staff capturing likenesses and characteristics. In 1933 Cole Bowen (known by his colleagues as Coley) was appointed architectural assistant Grade 1 and in 1936 a senior architectural assistant. He served sixteen years with the Department before enlisting for service on the outbreak of the Second World War.

Among works he designed while with the Public Works Department were several post offices, notably those at Margate, Port St John's and Krugersdorp, Transvaal, all in about 1938. He was connected with the design of the Johannesburg Mortuary in about 1939.

In June 1940, at the start of the Second World War, Cole Bowen enlisted as a trooper. By the end of the year he received a commission as a Troop Commander in the Fourth South African Armoured Division and was sent to North Africa where he received his 'Desert Rat' flash. He fought at Sidi Rezegh and was in the rearguard at Zaniet Msus. He was severely wounded in action at Mechili, North Africa, in June 1942, after which action he was awarded the Military Cross, hospitalised for two-and-a-half years, and lost a leg. He was repatriated to South Africa in 1944.

His lively sketches of life during the desert campaign and on leave in Cairo were made at this time and were published in the South African Architectural Record (Aug 1943:189-93) as Egyptian Extracts. Cole Bowen returned to work for the Department in Pretoria after the war, but left in February 1946 to join Norman EATON on a large project for the Railways in Pretoria which was cancelled when the National Party came to power in 1948. Harrop-Allin (1975: 47-51) gives a description of the proposed building.

He was in private practice from 1945 until 1953 and was also a senior lecturer in Architectural Design at the School of Architecture in Pretoria where he was appreciated for his helpfulness to students. A tall man of 6' 4 (1.87 metres), Cole Bowen was a well-known personality in Pretoria, famous for his gruff though kind manner. In 1956 he left South Africa to join John GAULDIE in Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe) and was invited to design the Government House in Salisbury. He turned the job down as he did not want to design in the style required. A cartoon of the completed building appeared in the newspapers where the building was described as Roman Dutch Architecture. Cole Bowen retired in 1967.

Throughout his career Cole Bowen remained faithful to methods adopted by the Bauhaus and its followers: when Norman Eaton returned from Brazil with a study of Oscar Niemeyer's work there, Cole Bowen was not impressed, dismissing it as impractical. He was, however, much influenced by the work of Helmut STAUCH, in whose house, Hakahana, he stayed while building his own house at The Willows, Pretoria.

While in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) he produced an illustrated poem, published in book form and entitled On Rhodesia's magic carpet, which was an account of the daily countrywide journeys of an African bus. In it he conveyed his love of African life and topography, characterised by his spirited draughtsmanship. He married Elizabeth Cole Bowen (nee Findlay) in 1945. He died in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe); one of his last buildings in South Africa was a house at Hilton near Pietermaritzburg for his daughter, Elizabeth, around 1969.


Letter of reference by A.L. MEIRING head of the Pretoria School of Architecture:

10th November, 1955.


I have known Mr. R. E. Cole-Bowen as architect and lecturer in architectural design in my department for the last ten years. In the former capacity I consider him as one of the country’s leading men, for he is an architect for whom his work is not merely which has to be, and is, conscientiously and meticulously done, but also an ideal. It is a joy to see his ideas evolve and develop on any design or plan he is busy with for there is always the sure aesthetic and intellectual touch about it, based as it is on mature appreciation of the problem and its possibilities in solution. Although a man of long professional experience, he has therefore remained youthful and fresh in his architectural outlook, and he certainly has the power and ability to steer an uncontaminated and ever progressive course with his work. He is at the same time the most practical of architects, and has in fact made a name for himself with his remarkable ability to combine the aesthetic and sound structural aspects of an architect’s work.

I think I can truthfully say that I have seen no finer draughtsman. Had he chosen the profession, I think he could have been our country’s leading cartoonist, but then he would not have given himself the scope for analytical design in which his full talent lay.

In the latter capacity, that of lecturer in architectural design, he was a man who spoke a clear and inspiring language. The students benefitted enormously by his positive guidance and line of action. He was always connected to the senior years of the curriculum, and to me as Head of the school of architecture it was of extreme importance that the students should receive the experience of his valuable tuition in design and construction before they left. In these two important subjects Mr. Cole-Bowen left his mark on the School in such an unmistakable manner that students who passed under him still speak of the particular value his lectures were to them, also in their later professional work. It has not been easy to fill the gap after he left the school at his own request at the end of last year, nor has it been easy to maintain the high standards set by him. I shall always be deeply grateful to him for his invaluable assistance in the building up of our School of Architecture.

(Prof. A.L. Meiring F.R.I.B.A.)
Head of The School of Architecture,
University of Pretoria.

Letter sent to us by Paul van Rensburg, grandson of Cole Bowen


(Bowen 1988; ISAA mem list; PWSA 1938, 1939 ff; SAAR Apr 1943:77).

Publ: The birth of a notion, SAAR Apr 1934:108; Krugersdorp's new post office, PWSA Dec 1938:31, 32 ill; Port St John's new post office, PWSA Sep 1939:22-23 ill; Latest principles in the design of the new Johannesburg mortuary, PWSA Oct 1939:20-24.

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

List of projects

With photographs
With notes

House Cole-Bowen: 1947. The Willows, Tshwane (Pretoria), Gauteng - Architect
Post Office: c1938. Krugersdorp, Gauteng - Design Architect
Post Office: c1938. Margate, KwaZulu-Natal - Design Architect
Post Office: c1938. Port St John's, Eastern Cape - Design Architect
Recreational Centre: 1955. Sasolburg, Free State - Architect


Cole Bowen, Robert E. 1957. Fifteen essays in half-tone. Pretoria: Van Schaik

Cole Bowen, Robert E. 1974. World to world on Rhodesia's magic carpet. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia

Books citing COLE BOWEN

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pp 218

Harrop-Allin, Clinton. 1975. Norman Eaton: architect : a study of the work of the South African architect Norman Eaton 1902-1966. Cape Town: C. Struik. pp

Herbert, Gilbert. 1975. Martienssen & the international style: The modern movement in South African architecture. Cape Town - Rotterdam: AA Balkema. pp 162

ISAA. 1959. The Yearbook of the Institute of South African Architects and Chapter of SA Quantity Surveyors 1958-1959 : Die Jaarboek van die Instituut van Suid-Afrikaanse Argitekte en Tak van Suid-Afrikaanse Bourekenaars 1958-1959. Johannesburg: ISAA. pp 89, 183

ISAA. 1927. Register of Members the Institute of South African Architects. Johannesburg: ISAA (Unpublished Record). pp C8-9