Joburg’s freedom architecture

24 August 2005

Six Johannesburg buildings featured recently in a German exhibition showcasing the city’s energy and optimism – and exploring how South Africa’s new democratic order is being reflected in new buildings going up in its commercial capital.

Fast Forward Johannesburg was on show at Aedes Berlin, Europe’s best-known architecture gallery, in March and April 2005.

“The name refers to the energetic spirit of Johannesburg,” said Dagmar Hoetzel, curator of the exhibition. “It conveys the dynamism and optimism with which Johannesburg is evolving, and shows how the city is embracing the challenges of transformation and growth.”

The exhibition featured:


  • The Apartheid Museum
  • The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication
  • The Mandela Yard
  • The Faraday Market & Transport Interchange
  • The Metro Mall and Bara Taxi Rank
  • The South African Embassy in Berlin


While architecture in South African cities is an agglomeration of European styles – Cape Dutch, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco and, more recently, Tuscan – Hoetzel was interested in exploring whether the new democratic order is being reflected in new buildings going up, particularly in Johannesburg.

Hoetzel believes apartheid had a profound effect on the country’s architecture, and is still evident.

“In no other country does architecture and urban planning bear such vivid witness to history, to politics, and to social division. And these deeply embedded traces of apartheid remain ubiquitous in South Africa today.”

Apartheid buildings are almost always recognisable by their closed, exclusive nature, often imposing an uneasy presence not easy to ignore.

The new-style architecture is changing the feel of South African cities. In the exhibition booklet, Lindsey Bremner, honorary professorial research fellow in architecture at Wits University, said: “Many who were confined by apartheid to townships and rural bantustans, or to the countries beyond our borders, have converged on the streets of Johannesburg to claim its promise of a better life. Public space is being occupied in new ways.”

Hoetzel has been visiting South Africa since 1996, keen to observe the “courageous undertaking of constructing a new country after the end of apartheid”. Since she published an article on Johannesburg in a German architecture magazine in 1997, she has followed the progress of the city’s architecture, noticing a change in recent years.

“Only in the recent past I saw something emerge which creates new space. And that is what the exhibition [was] about, not about a style or fashion but about a new culture of planning and building, which creates a new approach to architecture and space.”

The new buildings epitomise a young, open society offering creative spaces that allow people to mingle freely among meaningful African artefacts instead of under Cape Dutch gables or Victorian broekie lace balconies.

“It is more spatial than visual,” says Mphethi Morojele, architect with Mma Architects, one of the firms represented in the exhibition. “The design space anticipates new ways of how people live. It reflects rural habits within an urban setting – a culture going through a transition.”

He says this architecture is more open-ended, giving a sense of identity with the space – allowing for what he calls a “baggy space”.

Constitutional Court

(Omm Design Workshop and Urban Solutions, 2004)
Perhaps the best example of this is the striking Constitutional Court on Constitution Hill, situated in Braamfontein next to apartheid’s notorious No 4 prison and President Paul Kruger’s 19th century Old Fort.

It is no coincidence that it lies next to No 4, a prison dating back to the early years of the city, over 100 years ago. No 4 was kept exclusively for black male prisoners, held there under brutal conditions. Also on the site is the Women’s Jail, an elegant Edwardian building imprisoning women under equally inhuman conditions. The imposing Dutch-inspired Old Fort building housed white prisoners.

These three apartheid reminders act as the perfect foil for the truly uplifting court building, a very uncourt-like structure. There’s nothing formal or stuffy about it – its double-volume foyer with its angled mosaic pillars, artistic wire light fittings and funky orange couches sets the tone for the 200-piece art gallery and people-friendly court room.

The doors are huge wooden slabs engraved in sign language by Durban craftspeople, depicting the 27 themes of South Africa’s Bill of Rights.

Inner courtyard of the Constitutional Court
The inner courtyard of the Constitutional Court. (Photo: Constitution Hill)

The building has airy passages, with wooden-slat floors, looking out on tranquil pools, green lawns and indigenous trees. Each judge’s chamber entrance has an individually crafted metal gate, with artworks lining the walls leading to the chambers.

In a subtle blend of the old and the new, elements of apartheid structures, such as the rich red bricks from the demolished awaiting-trial building, have been used in the interior of the court room, and on the New African Steps, a walkway between No 4 and the court building.

The mix of red brick, bare grey concrete, stone, glass, mosaic and wood finishes combines with the artworks to produce a pleasing, welcoming effect, worthy of the court and what it stands for.

“The building needs to be as active as possible – the court will not be a monument, it will be a people-inviting place,” says Paul Wygers, an architect at Urban Solutions, one of the project consultants.

What lingers in the mind walking around the court and the prisons is that two of the 20th century’s greatest fighters for human rights, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated in No 4.

Apartheid Museum

(Gapp Architects, Mashabane Rose Architects, Britz Roodt Vernootskap and Linda Mvusi Architects, 2003)
Built in 2003, the Apartheid Museum sits incongruously alongside the amusement park and casino of Gold Reef City, whose owners paid R100-million to build the museum as part of their social responsibility obligations.

The harsh and stark contours of stone, rusted and galvanised steel, red brick, wood, glass and concrete of the Apartheid Museum are utterly appropriate for capturing the history of apartheid.

The exterior of the museum is dominated by grey, concrete walls and metal, with seven bare pillars of freedom rising into the sky, in sharp contrast to the green field and small lake alongside the museum.

The concrete theme continues inside the building, with smooth grey walls and concrete floors, offset by minimal windows. The display rooms consist of tall halls, circular silo-type rooms, smaller low-roofed rooms and two windowless prison cells. They provide a perfect backdrop for the multitude of monitors continuously showing apartheid newsreels and interviews, and striking displays like 121 nooses hanging from the ceiling, representing the number of political prisoners hanged during apartheid.

Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum. (Photo: Apartheid Museum)

“This is a minimalist building reflecting the fact that apartheid buildings were born of incarceration,” says project coordinator and architect Sidney Abramowitch. “We wanted to reflect the harshness, crudity and horror of apartheid. We wanted something so different because apartheid was so different.”

The visitor weaves a route inside and outside of the museum, taking in the history of apartheid, being constantly bombarded by sights and sounds.

The curatorial team was appointed before construction began, and the building contractor appointed while designing was still in progress, in a unique collaborative effort to mould the two teams’ thinking along the way.

All communities in the country were consulted, from groups in the Richtersveld in the far Northern Cape, including San bushmen, to groups in the far south, says Abramowitch. In all the projects displayed in Berlin, relevant communities were consulted.

A visit to the museum leaves one with indelible flashes of apartheid and its effects on the nation, captured not only by the images in the museum but also by the powerful architecture.

Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication

(StudioMAS architects, 2005)
The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, half-way complete, is clearly going to add significantly to Johannesburg’s collection of post-democracy 21st century architecture.

Erected in Kliptown, Soweto on the original soccer-field sized square that in June 1955 was the meeting place of the Congress of the People – assembled to ratify the Freedom Charter – the new square is seeped in symbolism.

The square consists of two squares, one symbolising the old apartheid South Africa, the other the new, democratic South Africa. The latter square is made up of nine blocks representing the country’s nine provinces, and decorated with crosses symbolic of the first democratic votes placed on ballot papers.

A winding snake pathway will be built between the two squares, a reminder of the snaking queues of voters in 1994.

At the northern end of the pathway will be a tall tower on the north side, referred to as the Freedom Charter Monument. A flame, inside the tower and called the Flame of Freedom, was lit by President Thabo Mbeki on 26 June 2005 in a 50th anniversary of the 1955 event. The roof of the tower is cut in an X shape, the “mark of freedom”.

The tower has been constructed in a conical shape, a classical African shape – evidenced in the Great Zimbabwe ruins and traditional African fishing baskets. Opposite this tower is a cyclindrical tower which will contain a “kwashisanyama”, a Zulu word meaning “a place to prepare food”.

The square will also make allowance for upwards of 600 hawker stalls, largely along its southern border, in and around the preserved first shops along Union Street.

With the square the architects, StudioMAS, are making a statement: this is a square in Africa, where hawkers are integral to life, where cooking is done in an open area, where shapes are reminiscent of long-held traditions, and where the African sun shines down brightly from wide expanses of sky.

Pierre Swanepoel, founder of StudioMAS, says of the new style of architecture: “It consists of buildings for the people by the people. We are different people with different economic realities.”

Mandela Yard

(Peter Rich Architects, 2005)
This building is in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s early foray into the city in the 1940s, as well as the first real acknowledgement of the community of Alexandra, one of the city’s oldest freehold townships for blacks, now a squalid, overcrowded ghetto, progressively neglected over many decades.

Mandela Yard under construction
Mandela Yard under construction. (Photo: Urban Solutions)

The Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre is directly opposite the backroom occupied by Mandela, where he lived for his first year in the city. Still under construction, it consists of a three-level steel structure containing shops, restaurants, training facilities, a jazz archive, library facilities, an interpretation walkway and two piazzas.

The building is built over Hofmeyer Street, taking in two street corners. Visitors will be able to move through the building, taking in exhibitions telling the story of the lives of Alex residents, and cross over the bridge, getting elevated views of the township through large windows.

Architect Peter Rich says there has been extensive community consultation prior to the finalisation of the plan. “This is the first time the people’s voice will be heard,” he says.

Only residents will be allowed to take up stall and restaurant space. In addition, 10 Alexandrans have been identified as potential members of a heritage team.

The simplicity of the architecture echoes the architecture of the small Alexandra houses, particularly in the provision of public spaces. Backyards are an integral feature of the houses, often with attached seating against the walls of the structures, a feature, says Rich, reminiscent of structures in the rural setting, allowing easy “socialising space” in a central area.

Rich says of the new African architecture: “Apartheid didn’t produce public spaces of note, the new style is trying to reinvent those spaces.”

Faraday Market & Transport Interchange

(Albonico Sack Mzumara Architects and Mma Architects, 2003)
It seems apt that minibus taxis and traditional healers share the same space in this market on the south-western edge of the city – one is much a feature of large cities, the other a long-entrenched feature of African life, easily transported into the city and used by even the most sophisticated city dwellers.

Traditional remedies on sale at the Faraday Market
Traditional remedies on sale at the Faraday Market. (Photo: Lucille Davie, City of Johannesburg)

The Faraday Market in downtown Johannesburg consists of a series of small open halls, divided into 280 separate stalls with pull-down doors, and open spaces planted with striking, indigenous coral trees. There are also consulting rooms available for healers, with attached bathrooms, used for ritual cleansing purposes. The doors of the consulting rooms are low, forcing customers to bend to enter, a sign of respect to the healer.

Stalls spill out into the passageways with an amazing array of dried herbs, roots of all shapes and sizes, and dozens of bright blue packets of bark, laid out on the ground. The pungent smell that emanates from the market comes from the plant matter but also from the range of dried animal organs, skulls and dried small animals like rock rabbits or even complete donkey legs.

The corrugated iron rooftops of the market, held up by steel girders, are constructed in wave-like shapes, providing a sense of being in the veld, with its pleasing rolling hills, in contrast to the angular shapes of the surrounding factories and warehouses.

The tall roofs allow sunlight to stream in; the hard-wearing, simple materials allow the earthiness of the traders’ goods to be appreciated to the fullest.

Metro Mall and Bara Taxi Rank

(Urban Solutions, 2003 – 2005)
Both buildings, the Metro Mall in the Johannesburg city centre and the Bara Taxi Rank in the heart of Soweto, have the same purpose: to cater for a transport and trader terminal in a people-friendly way, by providing spaces to traders which allow them to maximise the passing trade.

Both have been created to be hard-wearing and low maintenance, using robust materials like red face brick and concrete finishes.

The Metro Mall, on three levels and taking a whole block, is designed to accommodate 25 buses serving 35 different routes, with holding facilities for 2 000 taxis, servicing an estimated 100 000 commuters. There’s space for some 800 traders, inside the building and along the ground floor exterior in Bree and Sauer streets.

Exterior of the Metro Mall
The exterior of the Metro Mall. (Photo: Urban Solutions)

The impressive double volume entrances, decorated by local artists in mosaic and tall wooden sculptures, act as “collection baskets” to draw people into its interior.

A range of items is on sale in colourful stalls: fresh fruit, spices, cellphones, kitchenware, and for non-commuters or commuters with a longer wait, pool tables.

With this building, the architects strove to create a mixed use structure that blends with city buildings in the vicinity, allowing easy access and freedom of movement inside the building. The building has also turned a rapidly deteriorating side of the city into a vibrant, people place, at the same time providing a formal home for both taxis and traders.

“The Metro Mall is an demonstration of the passion with which all stakeholders, from client to trader representatives, have addressed the challenges in making a building of civic pride,” says the architects, Urban Solutions.

The challenge for the architects of the Bara Taxi Rank brief was to allow space for buses, taxis and informal traders, at a bustling intersection – directly opposite the largest hospital in the country, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, situated along the township’s main arterial, Old Potchefstroom Road, a thoroughfare that carries 35 000 vehicles each day.

Over a four-year period, agreement with all the parties concerned was reached. Construction started in 2004, and will continue until 2006, in five phases.

The rank stretches over 1.3 kilometres, with a width of 50 metres, with landmark towers, decorated with mosaic by local artists, marking the entrances to the rank. Over 70% of Soweto commuters use this interchange.

Previously, traders and taxi drivers jostled for space outside the hospital, with tourist buses increasingly adding to the space pressure.

The rank can hold 500 taxis in holding bays, with 160 taxi loading bays, 35 long-distance taxi loading bays and 20 bus bays. There’s space for 500 traders, with stalls of varying sizes. Commuters can walk along a long, concrete-pillared arcade which runs the length of the site, along which traders are positioned.

The unfinished concrete look of the complex provides a utilitarian finish, broken by brightly coloured entrances, landmarks for the rank. Its openness allows for plenty of “baggy space”.

South African Embassy, Berlin

(Mma Architects, 2003)
Located in Berlin, this is the first embassy building South Africa has erected abroad in 27 years, and the first to be planned by South African architects.

The architects pulled off a balancing act with a building that blends into the German capital while simultaneously fittingly representing South Africa – both its aspirations to become a pluralistic, democratic society, and its cultural (and especially architectural) identity, one that shifts between the European and African contexts.

About 9 000 people visited the exhibition. “The response was good,” says Hoetzel. “It was well reviewed by national and international magazines and newspapers.”

Source: City of Johannesburg