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Architectural Analysis of the Ubuntu Centre and Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Updated: May 2, 2023


Introduction

This report is an architectural analysis and investigation into two projects, namely, the Ubuntu Centre, and Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The aim is to gain an in-depth understanding of the makings of these projects, and the resulting dialogues. Finally to conclude the findings, and then find a position which is derived from the conclusions.



Ubuntu Centre


Birth of the project

The Ubuntu Centre was born out of the Ubuntu Education Fund. The fund provides prenatal and child healthcare, HIV testing, counselling and treatment for mothers, initiatives such as after-school programs, exam study sessions, university scholarships, and an array of other counselling services in the black township of Zwide. The original offices were operating out of an old shipping container which was the norm for start-up businesses in the township. In 2009, Jacob Lief, the American co-founder of Ubuntu interviewed architects to design a new facility for the growing foundation. He wanted an award-winning building that was going to be fantastic and ended up hiring Stan Field after interviewing 17 other architects that were turned down. (Findley, L. 2011)


Architect’s Approach

The architect Stan Field embraced the opportunity to work in his hometown Port Elizabeth. He met one-one with the entire Ubuntu staff which developed the program of the building through the aspirations and desires of individuals who understood the day-to-day activities of the centre. (Findley, L. 2011)


According to Stan, once he got there he realized the opportunity for the architecture to resonate with the community and express the whole philosophy of Ubuntu, which translates as “I am because you are”, meaning humanness and support. His intention was to reflect this.


Site and Response

The building replaces a post office that had been burned down as a symbol of apartheid and acts as part of the community's recent transformation, says Stan Field. The building footprint is generated from the pedestrian pathways that move across the site with public and semi-public spaces along these routes. (ECIA) The building mass is distributed so it doesn’t interrupt the routes. Services are strategically placed to enable anonymous visitors and minimize stigmatization of users, it also encourages check-ups as part of daily life being part of a route from or to somewhere. (ArchDaily, 2015) This gives the community a sense of ownership of the building in its township context. (FieldArchitecture, 2011)


Ubuntu Centre Diagram

The building is situated in a rural township context with predominantly small-scale informal residential structures. This poses the challenge of inserting a large public building that doesn’t intimidate or impose its context. The architect responds to this by breaking up the program into three masses of folded angled concrete forms. (Findley, L. 2011)


Building Programme, Aesthetics, and Responses

The building programme is made up of a multi-purpose hall for education, shelter and concerts, a wing for career guidance, a computer centre, and a paediatric clinic for HIV and TB testing. “The education wing occupies the street corner, while the clinic tucks behind a low entry piece along the main road; the community hall sits between the two. Second-floor spaces in the education and clinic blocks include offices, classrooms, and study areas. The concrete masses are stitched together by circulation spaces framed in light steel and glass, and each mass sits casually on the site.” (Findley, L. 2011) An organic rooftop garden also forms part of the Ubuntu neighbourhood gardens that feed students daily. (FieldArchitecture, 2011)


Ubunt Centre Design Development Diagrams

The route through the independent building volumes is covered by paving to reflect the red local soil. The community room has huge hand-textured wooden doors. (FieldArchitecture, 2011) The folded concrete forms lean on one another translating the meaning of Ubuntu “I am because you are.” (ArchDaily, 2011)


The use of poured concrete works well in the context where concrete block, face brick, and plaster are the common finishes found. “Here, the final finish was concrete, so everything had to be done with more care,” Field explains. “And this level of attention began to become the ethic of construction. It was not a new skill the builders had to learn, but rather a new approach.” This taught builders a new skill. Details and materials were specifically chosen to benefit the locals. You see the use of gum poles, a very familiar local building material, used as screens. “We were using something that was so familiar, that has been used there for generations, so we could just design the method of fabrication to suit skills the community already had,” Jess Field says.


Ubuntu Centre Interior Photo

The building also sets a good example of sustainability. (FieldArchitecture, 2011) This is done through passive cooling and heating systems with concrete walls radiating heat and large outside spaces for solar penetration. Photovoltaic panels are also used for electricity. Careful placing of windows is used for cooling the building, like the low ventilation windows and high stacked windows. The rooftop garden insulates the building and is irrigated with grey water.


Ubuntu Centre Roof Garden

Conclusion

The design of the Ubuntu Centre created a perfect platform for a new dialogue to take place and make a statement or set an example for post-apartheid architecture. Intimate community involvement is evident from the outset of the project as, or one of the strongest drivers, and this is seen in the programme, shaping, circulation, material use, detailing, and expression of the building. This intimacy with the community is also what makes it a successful beacon of hope for the community.


In terms of the expression of the building with relation to “white skin, black masks” the building is not made up of copied and pasted African forms, resized to fit the programme and activities within it, with an attempt to “Africanize” the building, but rather made up of forms and shapes directly informed by the context and the users of the building. It breaks away from rigid apartheid planning schemes, maybe not even deliberately, but because rigid planning doesn’t suit the rural pedestrian networks and context. There is a honesty in how the building responds to the context and community, it’s not forced but rather grows out of the red soil it sits on. It grows organically out of its context and is not imposing subjective ideas or approaches. There exists an intimate relationship between building and community.



Red Location Museum


Birth of the project

“In the late ’90s, community leaders developed a scheme to preserve the Red Location. With the goal of attracting tourists and their dollars to the still isolated township.” (Findley. L, 2011) A national competition emerged in 1998 for the design of a civic precinct, of which a museum memorializing the apartheid era in the township was a part of. It’s intended to form part of the transformation of the segregated township into a real town with decent infrastructure such as proper housing, businesses, transportation, and civic institutions. Noero Wolff Architects won the competition, who’s known for incentive projects in townships. (Findley. L, 2006)


Architect’s Approach

Jo Noero’s entry was among the entries of other illustrious architects such as Libeskind and Zaha Hadid and he considered his building as “a little building” in relation to the other huge-sized entries. His design process comes out of the narrative and words in a discussion of or about the project, which then shapes the architectural concepts, rather than through drawings. He works hard to find a central idea, like the “memory boxes” in this project, with that idea becoming a central motif. His view on post-apartheid architecture is that it has moved away from a very rigorous almost functionalist approach to a loosened-up approach and that it’s an evolving thing. (Neoro, J. 2007)


Red Location Museum Concept Design Sketch

Site and Response

The site is in the heart of the New Brighton township which has a lot of anti-apartheid activism history, it also contains barracks constructed by the English where Boer children were imprisoned during the Boer War. The oldest parts of the township consist of shacks with corrugated iron which is rusted red inspiring the poetic name. Neoro’s proposal is sensitive to the context, it is conceived as part of the physical and cultural fabric. Surrounded by only single-storey residential buildings and shacks, Neoro's response is through carefully scaled public spaces that are open but not vast. The new building is used to reinforce the street edge on an urban scale with shaded seating and an area for trading. (Findley. L, 2006)


Red Location Museum Floor Plan


Building Programme, Aesthetics, and Responses

The competition brief asked for a precinct with restored houses, new housing, a library, an art centre, a gallery, a market hall, and an apartheid museum as centrepiece. Noero pictured a lively precinct with taxi and bus ranks with informal trading and open-air vending, formalised shops, and high-density housing. (Findley. L, 2006)



Red Location Museum Exterior Context Photo

A different kind of architecture had to be invented that would be approachable and meaningful to people that had no previous experience with museums. A museum with an industrial aesthetic was developed that was robust, though refined. A concrete frame can be seen with filled-in concrete blocks, and also the use of steel. The industrial factories across the railway line are echoed through the museum's sawtooth roof. The architecture is familiar and fresh. (Findley. L, 2006)


Red Location Museum Memory Boxes

The use of corrugated iron can be seen used for the twelve memory boxes that formed the central motif of Noero’s design. These boxes are monumentally scaled housing different themes and narratives. Visitors are encouraged to explore on their own, weaving through the spaces, instead of following the rigid circulation pattern familiar to museums. (moma, 2005) The conventions of representing history as a single story are challenged through the design of the museum spaces. (wolffarchitects, 2006)


Conclusion

Red Location offers the opportunity to draw together the strands of struggle that mark the attempts by different groups in South Africa to free themselves. (wolffarchitects, 2006) The project brief required an ambitious masterplan for the precinct with an array of civic buildings, which feels forced or imposed onto the community, although the architect’s forms, shapes, and material uses relate back to the immediate context and is sensitive to its surroundings. Noero’s approach and resulting design speak clearly to the cultural history and physical influences, he has successfully communicated his intent and expresses it well with the exterior spaces as well as interior experiences. One does not see any form of “Africanized” elements or architecture but instead a simple use of familiar materials and response to the industrial area.


Final Conclusion

Both projects are in similar township contexts and have to deal with some of the same challenges, such as fitting a large scaled building into a site surrounded by small-scale informal residential buildings. They have to deal with the issues of the communities they sit within, and they have to remedy or uplift these communities. A new architectural dialogue is required with very little or no precedents to work from. The architects are expected to be innovative and explorative with their thinking, ideas and understanding.


The conceptualization of the projects differs, with Ubuntu Centre being a pre-existing entity that already served the community and Red Location Museum an imposed masterplan on a township with a lot of existing problems. This also brings about different approaches in the design. Stan Field is seen to experience the township, site, and community first-hand and interviews staff one-on-one, he gains a much more in-depth and intimate understanding of what the community needs and involves them throughout the project. Jo Noero has to take an ambitious programme and fit it into the context. The programme and needs of the community have been pre-defined by the brief. The current detriment of the Red Location Museum and its failures could be attributed to its initial conceptualization, the pre-definitions of the brief, and the failure to execute Noero’s original plan which contained a taxi and bus rank, both being crucial towards creating his “hustling and bustling city centre” where opportunities are created for trade and business.


I believe both projects have been successful in inventing appropriate architectural dialogues that respond well to their contexts in the way they are expressed physically and how they are experienced. Neither of them has imposed “Africanized” motifs, decorations, shapes and forms to make them “appropriate”. Thus the awards both of these projects have received.


Position of the Author

Analyzing both these projects in detail has given me a deeper understanding of the impacts of a project’s initial conceptualization and formulation of the brief. The importance of community is something that keeps echoing in my thoughts when I think about the outcomes. Derived from the conclusions I believe that the most important aspect of any project and specifically one that sits in such a sensitive context requires an intimate first-hand understanding of “community” and a discovery of the real needs and issues that has to be remedied or resolved. The role of “community” should be the centre or star of the project, forming and shaping it into being. It has to be the fuel that keeps it going when the project is completed. I believe if this is done, the resulting architecture will express it, and thus be true to itself, and its context, and be “appropriate” without the use of “facemasks” to hide any shallow attempts to be contextual.


The architect's idea must also be executed wholly and properly because each part of this whole may seem like an independent part that could be excluded however it may be vital to the success of the whole project. This can clearly be seen with the Red Location Museum where important parts were left out and those parts being crucial to the impoverished community to help uplift them. You cannot expect a community that lacks some of the most basic services to welcome a large building to be placed in their midst while they are probably starving without addressing their very basic needs. Noero understood this, but unfortunately, those that had to execute the project somehow did not. Stan Field's project was executed wholly, bearing in mind that it is a much smaller building compared to the Red Location Museum complex, but if you removed one or two of the much-needed services that this building provides it may very well have faced similar scrutiny from the community.


In conclusion, a public building is for the public and has to serve the community, and in these contexts especially the aim should not be to make an elaborate statement, therefore understanding the needs of the community and addressing those needs is vital to its success.



Bibliography

Field architecture empowers South African township with sustainable Ubuntu center, 2011. Available from: <http://inhabitat.com/field-architecture-empowers-south-african-township-with-sustainable-ubuntu-center/ubunto-center/>


Noero Wolff Architects commemorates the struggle against apartheid at the Red location museum in South Africa, 2006. Available from: <http://archrecord.construction.com/projects/portfolio/archives/0603apartheidMuseum.asp>


.Red and Gold: A Tale of Two Apartheid Museums, South Africa struggles to commemorate a terrible history, by Lisa Findley, 2011. Available from: <https://placesjournal.org/article/red-and-gold-a-tale-of-two-apartheid-museums/>


Red Location’s bold tribute to South African heroes, 2012. Available from: <http://www.nmbt.co.za/news/red_locations_bold_tribute_to_south_african_heroes.html

http://www.nmbt.co.za/listing/red_location_museum.html>


Red Location Museum, no date. Available from: <http://www.wolffarchitects.co.za/projects/all/inkwenkwenzi/>


Red Location Museum of Struggle, no date. Available from: <http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/smallscalebigchange/projects/red_location_museum_of_struggle>


UBUNTU CENTRE, 2011. Available from: <http://fieldarchitecture.com/public-commercial/ubuntucentre/>


Ubuntu Centre / Field Architecture, 2011. Available from: <http://www.archdaily.com/135432/ubuntu-centre-field-architecture>


Ubuntu Centre, Port Elizabeth, South Africa/Field Architecture, by Lisa Findley, 2011. Available from: <http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/buildings/ubuntu-centre_o>


Ubuntu Center, Field Architecture, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, by Clifford A. Pearson, 2012. Available from: <http://archrecord.construction.com/features/humanitariandesign/Africa/ubuntu-center.asp>


UBUNTU CENTRE ZWIDE COMMUNITY PORT ELIZABETH, no date. Available from: <http://www.ecia.co.za/content/12>


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