The Colosseum Hotel
The Colosseum Hotel, Pretoria
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At only half the cost of a new building a mothballed apartment block was transformed into the Colosseum Hotel, voted Pretoria's 'par excellence' hotel in 1999. SA Architect magazine praised the project for the respectful architectural treatment of a city landmark and the exemplary countering of inner city neglect.

Situated on the edge between the centre of Pretoria and the nodes of Sunnyside and Arcadia to the east of the inner city, the Colosseum building has for nearly four decades been a landmark in Pretoria’s cityscape. After nearly forty years the building had become run-down and was eventually mothballed. But rather than succumbing to inner-city decay, the owners explored redevelopment options with Meyer Pienaar Architects, and during the past year the Colosseum was refurbished and converted into a hotel.

Designed by architect Paul Voutsas in 1960, the building initially housed shops on groundfloor, parking behind the glazed screenwall on first floor and eight wedge-shaped apartments on each of the five floors of the cylindrical superstructure.

While the building has on occasion been superficially likened to Frank Lloyd Wright’s project for a parking garage (1957) and his Guggenheim Museum (completed in 1959), Voutsas dismisses suggestions of stylistic influences, and explains how he arrived at his design on the basis of pragmatic reasoning:

On a site with only western and southern street frontage, the cylindrical apartment block permitted a larger percentage of more favourable northern and eastern exposure. With coverage of the superstructure calculated on the lowest apartment level, the increase in radius of upper floors by tapering the sides of the drum was a way of harvesting more lettable area out of development rights (council drawings having shown a true cylinder with vertical sides). The stairwell was placed in the southeastern corner, to form a screen to a neighbouring high-rise planned at the time.

The resulting massing makes for a bold, if idiosyncratic architectural statement, which stands out as all the more striking through skillful modernist treatment. The most significant features are the taper to the drum, and the uninterrupted glass screen wall which runs along the entire western and southern front of the podium, and turns unbroken into the full height of the stairwell, effectively framing length, width and height of the space containing the drum. Passage-links between stairwell and drum are dog-legged, adding to the dynamism of the composition, while horizontal banding of the facades, strengthened by the introduction of upper window ledges in the apartments, is purely modern. On completion of the Colosseum, both Norman Eaton and Paul Rudolph are said to have described the building as among Pretoria’s best.

Meyer Pienaar approached the building as a landmark that, in spite of its relative youth, deserved conservation of its essential modernistic character. External modifications aim at reinforcing this character in a subtle way: the new groundfloor shopfront has been set back from the perimeter columns, thus expressing in functionalist manner the podium as being raised an piloti; the rooftop service yards gave way to new penthouse suites; the toplights above the window ledges were bricked up to permit routing of new services into individual apartments, but the external recesses were retained and painted deep blue to retain the shadowline-effect of the original; and redbrick infill panels in the stairwell were painted white to strengthen the functionalist appearance, the panels having been left unplastered to retain a memory of the original.

The most significant interventions were done internally where, in stark contrast to the exterior, original finishes were of a rudimentary nature and gave evidence of the low-budget finishing brought about by the contractor’s insolvency during the original construction project.

Throughout the interior of the building finishes and fixtures were upgraded, and new services were installed. Here the approach has been to give the building the interior its outside appearance seemed to suggest: Generous, clean and bright modern spaces. The open well of the original building was converted into an atrium enclosed under a rooflight. This atrium was extended down into the first floor parking garage, which was converted into the public floor of the hotel. Here reception, a lounge and a restaurant, all accessed from a porte cochère off the vehicle ramp or via a pedestrian lobby off the pavement, are located behind the new aluminium and glass screenwall of the podium, proportioned as in the original. The bulk of the ground floor areas has been retained for retail.

A new parking garage was constructed on the adjacent site to the north, over newly built back- of house areas, and accessed via the original vehicle ramp, now diverted and extended into the new double-level parking decks. This neighbouring site also houses Elem Court, a three-level shopping- and apartment building designed by Oscar Hurwitz in 1949, which has been converted into an annexe to the main hotel, housing additional hotel suites, a conference facility, and a roof terrace with swimming pool, snack bar and gymnasium. Elem Court’s new façade is designed to blend with the Colosseum, but without fully disguising its separate identity.

Within the Colosseum the apartments have essentially been retained in their original configuration, but internal walls were freed of doors and glass louvres, and now form freestanding screens within a space that affords generous window frontage over the surrounding cityscape.

Unfortunately insistence by hotel management, the restauranteurs and the interior decorators prevented the modern idiom from being carried through into the furnishing. The building however, has not only been conserved but, the architects believe, also been enhanced, thanks to a Client committed to actively countering urban decay and to preserve a landmark for Pretoria.