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University of Natal, Womens' Hall of Residence - Mabel Palmer
Durban, KwaZulu-Natal

HALLEN and DIBB: Architect
Maurice George DIBB: Architect

Client:University of Natal (now Kwa-Zulu-Natal)


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29°52'11.37" S 30°58'47.69" E

In the sixties, one of Durban's own graduates, Hans Hallen, then in partnership with MG Dibb, designed the John Bews and Mabel Palmer (1968) Women's Residences. These were done in raw off-shutter concrete, direct geometric forms following influences from America, chiefly those of Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph, to which post-World War II South African architects turned their gaze for inspiration and further education. However they always gave due regard to the post-war works of Le Corbusier particularly in India. Hallen had spent time in the Architects' Office of the London County Council in 1956, which gave his work what PETERS calls the London trajectory.' There is thus a multiplicity of influences of the time. These are cerebral exercises, unrelenting in the pursuit of the designer's objective, with no concession to what might be thought of as attractive. Barrie Biermann obliquely and metaphorically referred to Hallen's buildings as having the thrill of spotting rhinoceroses glimpsed amongst the foliage. The harshness of the aesthetic has been tempered over time by the lush plantings of the landscaping scheme, and by the application of a palette of vibrant hues in strategic areas, meant to soften the impact. Hallen himself elucidates his concerns as a designer saying that buildings stand still while people move. He explores architecture in the Classic Modern mode -as offering a phenomenal experience of space-time. Hence he liberates the circulation spaces serving the double banked and loaded residential accommodation and uses the circulation as generators of the spatial experience. Also, as build-ings-in-the-round, they are objects in space; and with the topography sited on an incline, discovered from different elevations of observation, they also allow for an incremental understanding of their spatial qualities. He regards the experiential as generating the memory of the built artefact, and hence that which is culturally significant.

Greig (1972: 113-114) reflects that these set of residences show a ‘controlled, romantic kind of Brutalism which declares itself in the organic, anti-formalism of the shapes and relationships between the segments of the buildings and of the three buildings themselves in relation to the landscape. Also in the frank, aesthetic use of basic materials, particularly in the reproduction of the carefully chosen and arranged faces of planks used for offshutter concrete - "warts and all”. …

It is fashionable to design in the spirit of the past using the materials of the present … Fashionable or not, these are among some of the most interesting buildings to be seen on any South African campus and the university authorities showed an enlightened interest in modern architecture when they gave two young, idealistic architects a chance to express the aspirations of their own years of endeavour in such important buildings. Time will prove their architectural qualities but, at present, certain aspects stand out - the harmony of colours between furnishings, concrete and timber, the dreamlike transparency of the Mabel Palmer pavilion and, a quality not always conspicuous in our architecture, the wit displayed in the handling of the services - the shapes, colours and positions of water tanks, chimneys, heating systems and pipes of all kinds.’

Books that reference University of Natal, Womens' Hall of Residence - Mabel Palmer

Fisher, Roger & Clarke, Nicholas. 2014. Architectural Guide : South Africa. Berlin: DOM Publishers. pg 65
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 113-114