Sixty-one regional winners were entered into the Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards. The Origins Centre: Rock Art Gallery at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg by Mashabane Rose Associates won an SAIA Award of Merit.
This building, an extension of the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand, is placed hard up against the Enoch Sontonga/Jorrison Street edge of the campus. It is also a few meters south of the watershed line between the Atlantic and Indian oceans that runs through the campus. As an institution it forms part of a more accessible and public edge that the University has been developing for the last few years. This more inviting and interactive edge is the result of urban design principles that the University have adopted some time ago. On the other street corner of this edge is the Wits Art Museum and, in unison, these two institutions form the cornerstones of this endeavor.
In its material choice the Rock Art Gallery is in keeping with quite a few buildings on the Wits campus, also constructed from either off-shutter concrete or finished with pre-fabricated concrete panels. However, in this instance the architects added a new finish to this pallet of concrete finishes by showing the imprint of the horizontal timber slats of the formwork on the surface. It is, as if, the architects had in in mind to portray and mimic the mostly horizontal layers of rock formations that is the bearers of the mineral riches on which the city is based with this design act.
The building houses a priceless collection of South African rock art. This collection comprises of 100 engraved rock boulders of varying sizes. The heavier boulders are displayed on the lowest level of the building while the lighter ones are displayed on the higher levels.
The architects designed the building to mimic a cave. On the outside the building has a fortress-like quality. On these facades there are only a few strategically placed openings, each enclosed with a single sheet of frameless glass set on the outer surface of the concrete walls. The reflections on these glass panes creates a sense of weightlessness countering the massiveness of the building. It also creates a feeling of intrigue and curiosity. Whereas the outside of the building is experienced as a relatively straightforward object in space that reveals its qualities to the observer moving past, either as a pedestrian or a motorist; the interior is a whole different experience. Here the off-shutter concrete is smooth and has a light shine to it. The complexity of the column, beam and slab structure is revealed to its fullest. Movement through the different levels and spaces is dynamic and somewhat unpredictable. Daylight appears in unexpected ways, while the windows on the outside walls focusses on views of the City of Johannesburg. It is also good to remember, at his point, that the rock art exhibited in the building was created long before the city ever existed. In the interior of the building the feeling of weightlessness is even more pronounced, but it is subtly countered by the weight of the boulders and the way that they are exhibited.
These art works have now found a home worthy of their importance to South Africa and the world. The Rock Art Gallery of the Origins Centre is a building of gravitas as well as of a certain sense of controlled playfulness. The building’s careful design is placed by the architects in a respectful and sensitive relationship to these important works of art.