Sixty-one regional winners were entered into the Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards. Six projects received Awards for Excellence, the highest distinction that SAIA can confer on a project in South Africa; Sasol Place, Sandton, by Paragon Architects, was one of them.
To understand something of the nature and magnitude of a building like Sasol Place, it is important to briefly look at the history of the company as well as the historical development of the urban context where the building has been placed.
As we all know, Sasol has been born out of a beleaguered South Africa. Sanctions on every front were imposed on the apartheid state by the international community. These sanctions also applied to oil. Sasol was created to produce oil and petrol using the abundant coal supplies of the country. From these beginnings a giant petrochemical behemoth developed that is now operating globally.
Before this building was constructed, the company operated from 14 different buildings, situated mainly in Rosebank in Johannesburg. Not only had the new building to unite the company on this level, it also had to be the device to create a new corporate culture. It furthermore had to be energy efficient while, above all, it also had to create a physical symbol for the ‘home’ of Sasol as company. The size of the building had to be approximately 68 000sqm in order to accommodate approximately 7 500 staff members. The professional appointments were made on an open call to developers for the provisioning of this building. A process of elimination was used until the eventual developer with the architects, Paragon Architects, were appointed.
The urban context of Sandton has its own particular history that ultimately influenced the form of buildings in its CBD. Generally, the topography of the area where Sandton is situated is sloping away towards the north from the watershed ridge in the south. ‘Old’ Johannesburg is closely associated with this ridge, while its northern suburbs occur on an undulating landscape of shallow valleys and ridges formed by geology and water erosion. The Sandton CBD, the context of this building, is on one of these subtle ridges in the landscape. This rise in the land enable the dominance of the Sandton skyline over areas like Randburg and even Rosebank, despite Sandton being on a lower altitude. The Sandton skyline has, in turn, become the competitor of the older Johannesburg CBD skyline. It has also become the symbol of many new South African multi-national companies that has made it their home. It is, sadly, also the symbol of the changing fortunes of these two areas. Historically Sandton has had much larger land subdivisions than what was to be found in the older CBD of Johannesburg or many other cities. This had the result that the built form of Sandton did not develop into mere extrusions of the land parcel as is the case of so many CBD’s with a different morphology. From inception, buildings in Sandton could have a more three-dimensional form as its distinctive characteristic. Form is now used in this manner to distinguish the one form from the other. The urban language of this part of the city is thus, a ‘forest of forms’, each mostly self-referential with little concern to a shared typology or communal urban space. What little urban space there is, has largely been taken up by transport with not much concern for the pedestrian and the concomitant-built fabric that comes with caring for the common man.
This is the general character of the context where the Sasol Headquarters Building has been built. It was also within this context where the architects tried everything in their power to actually address the making of a public and urban interface – much to the contrary of the general spirit of Sandton.
The form of the building took its cue from the company logo, which in turn is based on the chemical nature of their products and processes they use in making their products. When the building is viewed from the outside as a sculpture, its distinctive form is impressive and highly memorable. The complexity of form leaves the viewer in awe. This sense of wonder is intensified when the impressive interior atrium is experienced. This is the space that holds the building together. The atrium is filled with daylight and the internal facades of the atrium is reminiscent of the outside facades while it creates another sculptural quality – as if it is a rockface ready to be scaled. This experience of complexity is reinforced by the complete section of the building that includes the basement parking. However, the successive plans of the building reveal a profound and rational simplicity. Here there is a logic present, that only highly experienced and talented architects can create. On ground level the architects have demonstrated again their concerted effort to engage as well as possible with the public realm in a positive manner. On this level, they have created a series of open spaces, each representing a different biome for the staff to enjoy.
The building takes up its rightful role within the wide variety of building forms that have come to earmark the Sandton CBD, also known as the richest square mile in Africa. It is equally shiny and expressive in form like many of its neighbours. However, once the buildings impressive intellectual underpinnings, its rationality and its courageous form making is thoroughly understood it distinguishes itself from its more form and fashion inspired neighbours.
In the Sasol Place Building there is a thoughtful and careful expression of form and function in a relatively uncontrolled and ‘wild’ urban context that portrays a deep and sensible knowledge and professionalism. It might just be that the multi-national conglomerate, Sasol, has finally found itself a ‘home’ from where it could now approach the future from. If anything expresses South African intellectual and corporate ingenuity on the world stage it might also just be this building as the new symbol for Sasol.
The Corobrik SAIA Architectural Awards were held concurrently with AZA18, Africa’s premier urban cultural festival focused on architecture.