Printer Friendly

Centre court: South Africa's Constitutional Court is the highest judicial body in the land. A young practice won the competition to build an icon for the free republic.

The emblem of the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg is a tree with branches spreading over the people it protects. This is representative of the old African custom of settling matters and disputes under the protection of an important tree. President Thabo Mbeki inaugurated the court on Human Rights Day of this year. This was the culmination of a process begun in 1996 when the Constitution, of the Republic of South Africa was instituted as the highest authority of the land. Eleven justices were sworn in to protect the Constitution, which incorporated the Bill of Rights. A decision was then taken to build a Court of Justice.

The site chosen is located against the northern slope of the Old Fort in Johannesburg. This was the Robben Island of Johannesburg according to one of the judges, Albie Sachs. A new court located there would represent the transformation of an authoritarian system to a constitutional democracy. Although the site was demanding, derelict and difficult to integrate with the city, it was also accessible, prominent and highly symbolic. '[The Hill] ... stands wedged between the vibrant African city which central Johannesburg has become and the historic division of a poor black city ... towards Soweto, and the rich, white suburbs to the north. We are at the very centre of South Africa's major metropolis. The Old Fort is on the highest point of the Witwatersrand watershed: the rain that falls in the area flows to the Atlantic and Indian oceans down the northern and southern sides of this ridge. The Constitutional Court will stand at the confluence of these human and natural environments.' (1)

In 1997 an open competition was launched by the Department of Public Works for the design of the seat of the Court. What was sought was a design combining all the loose-standing structures on the site. The area of the Old Fort was to be a public place within the city and a symbolic space for all South Africans. In the competition brief--to which the Justices of the Court contributed--specific criteria were spelled out: acknowledgement of local human needs and social values; relationship to physical and cultural or historical landscapes; response to climate and weathering; excellence with limited means and technology employed to make best use of immediate labour resources.

One hundred and fifty-eight entries were received. After a second phase, the winners were announced in 1998. They were Andrew Makin, Janina Masojada and Eric Orts-Hansen of omm Design Workshop in Durban and Paul Wygers of Urban Solutions, Johannesburg.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The assessors' commentary (2) was short and to the point. 'More than any other submission, this design has an image which is deemed to be appropriate to the aspirations of the competition brief. It will be the preeminent building on the north slope of the site, not because of monumental scale, but because it has the potential to express a new architecture which is rooted in the South African landscape, both physically and culturally.

'The fragmented nature of the design de-segregates the built form to the scale of surrounding buildings which are among the most important in the history of South Africa. It is a conscious response to context and the need for construction methods which give opportunities for the utilization of informal and alternative building procedures, technologies and materials. The handling of the public, semi-public and private space, both open and contained, is of quality, variety and character.

'The great attention paid to passive environmental control, landscaping and planting is noted with approval.' (3)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Constitutional Court forms the focal point of the design and is surrounded by a number of buildings of historic importance. The Fort started its life as a jail but was converted to a defensive structure at the time of the Jameson raid at the end of 1895. Works were completed within months of the outbreak of the South African war in 1899. After the war it once more served as a prison, and began even then to serve as a place of incarceration of prominent internees. Among these were mine workers, Boer rebels, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela. To protect the footprints of history and make them legible to visitors, the site and building were documented and previous prisoners took part in a workshop to recall and record their memories.

The Awaiting Trial Block, directly to the north of the Old Fort, was partially demolished to make way for Constitution Square, bounded on one side by the Fort's massive earth ramparts and on the other by the court building. Parts of this building have been retained and incorporated into the new structure. The stairwells stand free on the square as viewing towers. One has been incorporated as a focal point in the foyer. They are topped with lanterns as landmarks on the Johannesburg skyline. By descending the original stairs you can view the prisoners' graffiti in the otherwise inaccessible basement cells. At a higher level you get views of the foyer and Constitution Square. Access to the entrance foyer and court chamber is gained from the square.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The so-called Number Four prison now functions as a museum. The public open space between Number Four to the west and the court is known as the Great African Steps and leads visitors down the hill in a northerly direction. From the main public foyer, a gallery with the art collection of the court steps down the site in a series of terraces, parallel to the Great African Steps outside. Administrative offices are located between the gallery and a private circulation route linking the court chamber on the south with the law library on the north. The judges' chambers are housed in five three-storey blocks on the eastern side of the complex. They stand within a reflecting pool as if moored to the main structure and this symbolic severing from the public is further enhanced by a multi-storey space that can only be traversed by means of narrow bridges. The library on the north side makes an obtuse bend to create a quiet court between the building and an existing substation.

Bright yellow, blue, red and green letters announce the 'Constitutional Court' in all 11 official languages of South Africa. The words 'human dignity, equality and freedom', again in the 11 languages, are inscribed on the concrete beams over the entrance to the foyer and are reproductions of the handwriting of the constitutional judges.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

From the square, the entrance to the building is deliberately clear and direct. It is approachable and freed from the pomp and inaccessibility usually associated with justice buildings. The 9m high timber doors leading to the foyer are made up of 27 carved panels representing the 27 basic human rights as enshrined in the Constitution. These can be opened in their entirety, in contrast with the other buildings on site which are all functionally self-contained. Thin rectangular slits in the concrete roof of the foyer create a rich, textured quality of light. The angle at which the slits were cast allows for maximum solar penetration in winter and screens the harsh Highveld sun in summer. The quality of light, coupled with the slanted columns, covered in mosaics, creates an atmosphere reminiscent of being under a tree: a direct reference to the emblem of the court.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The hall of the Constitutional Court is simply articulated and enclosed by a curved wall constructed of bricks from the demolished Awaiting Trial Block. These have been carefully cleaned and apparently loosely stacked without mortar. The entire wall floats above a glass strip. It is symbolically open or can seemingly readily be broken apart, again in stark contrast with the surrounding solid walls of the prison.

Within the public space with its high lightweight roof, the main building is stripped of a sense of place and the newly arrived visitor is unsure of the arrangement and meaning of spaces. With the openness and clarity of public spaces outside, the feeling of being under a tree becomes evident. It is the landscape and other buildings that restrict spaces, make places and give meaning to the site, its history as well as that of the new building. This building is both powerful and fragile. The feeling is one of lightness and somehow strange to the Highveld landscape, as if the building might be taken away at any time. This reflects the power and fragility of the constitution and the building, the place where the rulings of lower courts are tested against the constitution time and time again.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

1 Dept of Public Works, 1997. Competition for a new constitutional court of South Africa Pretoria: Dept of Public Works.

2 Among the nine assessors were Geoffrey Bawa, Charles Correa. Judge Albie Sachs, Thenjiwe Mtintso and Isaac Mogase (previously both inmates of the Fort) as well as Peter Davey. Editor of Architectural Review.

3 Anonymous, 1998. New symbol for a new democracy. South African Architect, August 1998: pp.34-35.
COPYRIGHT 2004 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Design Workshop; Urban Solutions
Author:Du Toit, Devilliers
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1515
Previous Article:Scotland the brave: operatic in both conception and execution, Scotland's long awaited new parliament will help a fledgling institution to mature and...
Next Article:Clear Finnish: an annexe to the Finnish parliament building helps heal rifts in urban fabric and throws new light on the democratic process.
Topics:


Related Articles
Radical engagement.
Colonial outpost.
Poetic pragmatism.
WEST SIDE STORY.
Reinvesting inherited capital.
Letter from Johannesburg.
COMMON GROUND.
View from Singapore: Under economic pressure from other Asian cities, Singapore is reinventing itself for the twenty-first century.
Tradition and innovation John McAslan + Partners.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters