Bentel Associates International began life in 1960, making a name for itself developing the first stores associated with the Pick n Pay brand, which has since become one of the biggest supermarket chains in South Africa. Over its 57 years of trading, Bentel has remained firmly in the retail sphere across Southern Africa, but this has not stopped the architectural firm from branching out into several areas of construction all across the continent, and also beyond Africa’s borders.
In 2004, Bentel opened a second regional office in Mumbai as part of a bold growth plan centred on taking advantage of architectural demand across emerging global markets. Today, Bentel has a total staff compliment of around 150 across three offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Mumbai, which provides the company with a strong engine-room in order to cope with the management of several projects of all shapes and sizes.
In the last two decades, Bentel has been involved in a series of mega-scale projects across South Africa, stretching back to the opening of Cape Town’s landmark Canal Walk and the opening of the Montecasino Entertainment Complex in the early 2000s. However, according to the firm’s business development director Tim Harlech-Jones, Bentel’s greatest strength lies in offering expertise to emerging markets across sub-Saharan Africa.
“The emerging market is where we have our expertise. Whether in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana or wherever else we are doing business, we understand how to deliver in these markets,” says Harlech-Jones.
Having played an important role in the development of a number of projects within the sector across Africa’s emerging markets, Bentel has developed a reputation as a specialist in retail architecture. But, mastering this trade has not prevented the company from growing its business into other pertinent sectors.
For example, Bentel has often worked on commercial projects including office blocks, hospitality and mixed-use developments, offering services that range from architectural and graphic design to urban master planning. This multi-disciplinary approach affords clients of Bentel a holistic project package and also prevents the firm from being pigeon-holed into just one area of expertise.
“Part of our approach is very much a holistic approach, and it’s not just about designing a building but a ‘brand’ which the building will be known for. The logo, what it stands for, the signage, the graphics, the interior design are all part of the architecture which is incorporated and linked back to the branding of that particular centre.
“Consequently, our architecture and graphic design teams are very inter-linked. Architecture is our core business, but within that we have branched out into these other sectors.”
Bentel has also tried to maintain a flexible and studious approach to its work in the field, taking note of global trends and learning from successful architectural practises observed in Europe and North America, before applying them to local environments across Africa.
“We have spent a lot of time understanding international trends, be they from the West or the East, understanding what retail means to people, how design works with that and what good design constitutes from a planning perspective, but also from an aesthetic perspective.”
This willingness to absorb the latest trends emerging out of architecturally and technologically advanced markets has allowed Bentel to position itself at the forefront of global developments in the sector, before passing on this expertise to its clients on the continent.
However, there is also an appreciation amongst the Bentel team that not everything is directly applicable to every country, particularly in Africa, as markets often differ wildly from country to country. Therefore, Bentel makes concerted efforts to adapt what it has learnt from other areas, before applying any external insights to a localised market in Africa.
“Our designs are contextual and unique in all instances which are designed for the locale and the country concerned,” says Harlech-Jones.
Furthermore, Bentel has become increasingly receptive towards the sophisticated technological approaches to architecture made by global leaders in the industry.
Despite often playing catch-up with the more technically advanced countries of the world, Bentel has adopted a number of technological innovations to its own projects, which has allowed the firm to assume a vanguard position in terms of pioneering advances in architectural technology across the continent.
In particular, Bentel is positioning itself in the Building Information Modeling (BIM) environment, to document its projects to contractors and clients alike. As key members of the industry become more accustomed to 3D technology, Bentel is using BIM from early concept stages right through to completion.
Furthermore, in some instances, Bentel also provides opportunities for its clients to use the ‘model’ for its Facilities Management programme, post completion.
From early on in the concept initiation stages, the company will often engage with its clients in a 3D environment, taking them into a world of virtual reality in project presentations. Clients are given the opportunity to ‘walk through’ or ‘fly through’ a proposed building.
This gives the client a great opportunity to understand the spaces and the conceptual approach at design infancy, and permits the client to gain a previously unfathomable insight into the final stages of the project, while providing an inclusionary approach, from design to build.
Technological innovations are also enabling Bentel to streamline its approach to projects, which is increasing the overall efficiency levels at which the company operates, from both time and productivity perspectives.
“By using technology, we are also reducing time and resources we require on the project, so we can get through more projects a lot quicker with the same amount of people. It’s about working smart,” asserts Harlech-Jones.
Over the years, Bentel has played a crucial role in the design and construction of several high-profile retail developments in South Africa and across the continent, which has resulted in the company gaining its reputation as a retail specialist.
Perhaps the standout development across Bentel’s current portfolio is the landmark 155,000m2 Canal Walk Shopping Centre in Cape Town, which opened back in 2000, and at the time initiated several new local trends in mall design. The construction of this large-scale mall ushered in a new era of shopping centres in South Africa, with many similar developments following it.
Now, 17 years after construction was completed on the site, Canal Walk still remains the fourth largest shopping centre in South Africa, which is a testament to the magnitude of the project at that time.
Not only did the Canal Walk development bring a large-scale retail centre to the immediate surrounding area of the site, but it also brought further growth opportunities in different sectors.
“[Canal Walk] was the start of greater development in the surrounding area. Around it was Century City, which became a new corporate destination with a lot of offices, residential and hospitality developments followed. Canal Walk became the focus of this.”
The economic advantages felt within the suburb as a direct result of the Canal Walk project have since served as a blueprint for similar retail development across Africa, as Bentel aims to be part of a greater process of socio-economic progression, beyond just construction of retail centres.
The same process of rapid economic growth has been observed in the Sandton area of Johannesburg (dubbed Africa’s richest square mile), where Bentel was part of the construction of the iconic Nelson Mandela Square.
Like Canal Walk and the subsequent growth in Century City, Sandton’s steep economic rise was born out the redevelopment of the Sandton City mall which combines with Nelson Mandela Square to make one of the largest retail complexes in Africa.
Therefore, Bentel showed a flexibility of approach and aptitude for identifying areas with growth potential when it partnered with Meyer Pienaar Architects and Urban Designers to develop the civic space which has since become the centre piece of Johannesburg’s financial capital, and arguably one of the most eminent landmark buildings of South Africa.
However, the last decade has seen the South African retail market reach saturation, particularly across the nations urban centres. As a result, Bentel casted its eyes towards developing projects in outlying areas of the country.
It is in these semi-urban and rural areas where Bentel’s aim of fostering socio-economic development takes on even greater importance, as projects can have an even greater impact on the local communities.
“Potential developments in these areas provide socio-economic opportunities and access to facilities which were simply not there before,” says Harlech-Jones.
“This could be providing a formal retail centre in the style of a convenience mall, as opposed to an internalised urban mall style. It’s a very different type of market and a different type of architecture.”
Emerging African markets
Despite maintaining a number of South African developments in its current portfolio, Bentel is also heavily committed to a range of projects across the rest of the continent, including a number of large-scale projects.
Bentel has been involved in projects in markets such as Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana, with the 2008 opening of Accra Mall standing out as one of the company’s flagship projects outside of South Africa.
Furthermore, with South Africa’s construction sector reaching maturity and development opportunities becoming sparser, it is in these overlooked but emerging sub-Saharan markets that Bentel aims to sharpen its focus on in the coming years.
“I’m quite excited about the opportunities we are involved with in new markets like the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, the DRC and Senegal. We are looking at various designs in these areas, and are hopeful they will go ahead in the short to medium term.
“I’m excited about them because these are the areas where we can add quite a lot of value with our experience and expertise, particularly in retail and mixed-use developments.”
Bentel is closely following an increasing global trend over the last decade that has seen construction firms gravitate towards mixed-use developments, which place a greater emphasis on the pedestrian.
Examples of these ‘city within a city’ style developments include Eko Atlantic in Lagos, Tatu City in Nairobi and Centenary City in Abuja, which have been planned to become decentralised urban nodes.
“These projects are exciting because there are always opportunities to get involved and work alongside other international architects. You gain a lot of experience working with other international practices as we have a good local knowledge, whilst they offer a more global expertise.”
Over time, Bentel has perfected its craft as a retail architecture specialist across sub-Saharan Africa whilst also developing its business across several other areas in the sector. From landmark, super-regional malls to smaller projects in less developed areas on the continent, Bentel brings a flexible and globalised skillset to all of its work.