South Africa’s most famous architect, Sir Herbert Baker, was born in Kent, England, in 1862. Apprenticed to his architect uncle in London at the age of 17, Baker attended classes at the Royal Academy and Architectural Association, where he took care to make the contacts he would use so skilfully in later life. By the time he left for the Cape in 1892, Baker was already a convert to the new so-called Free Style, which advocated an often bizarre, but roughly historical, eclecticism. The young architect’s favourite influences, which would crop up again and again in his work, were Renaissance Italian and medieval Kentish.
Once in the Cape, Baker met Cecil Rhodes, and this connection, assiduously cultivated, established him as a major architectural player. The second Anglo-Boer War began in 1899 and Rhodes, assuming eventual British victory, sent Baker off to study the Classical architecture of Italy and Greece, hoping that he would return fully equipped to create a British imperial architecture in South Africa. Baker returned to South Africa deeply influenced by what he had seen, and was summoned by Lord Alfred Milner, the administrator of the defeated Transvaal, to fulfil Rhodes’ hopes.
Baker took up the challenge enthusiastically, beginning with the homes of the so-called “kindergarten”, the young men, mostly Oxford- and Cambridge-educated, whom Milner had imported to bring British-style “good governance” to the defeated territory. The result was the Parktown mansions, the opulent houses lining the roads of Johannesburg’s wealthiest suburb. In adherence to the architectural creeds he had learnt in England, Baker trained local craftsmen and used local materials for these mansions. He also pioneered the use of local koppie stone, lending a dramatic aspect even to unadventurous designs.
Baker’s major public commissions were the St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg, and the sober, assertive Union Buildings in Pretoria, which more than any other building express the British imperial dream – obsessed with Classical precedent, and in a location chosen because of its similarity to the site of the Acropolis in Athens.
Baker left South Africa in 1913 to design the Secretariat in New Delhi, India, returning to England on its completion, where he worked on South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, London. He was knighted in 1923; he died in 1946, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.