New freedom for Women’s Jail

11 November 2005

The Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill has gone to Sao Paulo in Brazil . in the form of Utopia Nowhere Close, an exhibition of contemporary architecture.

The exhibition, the 6th Sao Paulo International Biennale of Architecture and Design, is subtitled “Living in Cities: Reality Architecture Utopia”. It began in October and will run for two months, with some 500 000 visitors expected to attend.

Eleven countries are taking part, including Argentina, Israel, Mexico and Portugal.

The exhibition is curated by Johannesburg architects sharpCITY. “The exhibition explores how people live in the landscape that now has a different meaning,” says sharpCITY architect Anne Graupner, curator of the exhibition, in reference to post-apartheid South Africa.

She says the exhibition explores a number of different aspects of the new South Africa: memory, urban landscape, freedom, education, advancement and suburbia.

That’s why the Women’s Jail, among other Johannesburg buildings, was chosen – as an example of how a building is now used in a different period, with a different meaning. The restored and enlarged jail explores every one of these elements – today it is a place of human rights pursuit, lekgotlas and workshops, while at the same time displaying the recollections of the women’s dreadful treatment and torture.

Other Johannesburg buildings at the exhibition are the Faraday Market, the Brickfields Housing Estate, the Drill Hall, the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Pietersen Museum, the Constitutional Court, the Metro Mall and the Nelson Mandela Yard Interpretation Centre in Alexandra.

All these buildings pay respect to the past but look forward, redefining the landscape in a distinctive way.

In all 50 projects, including a day care centre, a high school, several houses, a chapel and a public space project, have been submitted by 43 architectural firms across the country.

The Women’s Jail

The Women’s Jail, on the western edge of the densely populated Hillbrow, was built in 1909 to house women prisoners and is one of several prisons on Constitution Hill. Its architecture, reminiscent of the stolid structures of the British Edwardian period, sets it apart from the Fort and No 4 prison.

Its attractive oval shape in rich red brick with prison cells radiating off it has been restored and turned into a museum, commemorating the thousands of women who were subjected to degrading treatment by the women warders. It is described by one ex-prisoner as “the devil’s place”.

The unhappiness of the place is belied by a row of six large palm trees rustling in the breeze outside, with two large palm trees in its entrance. Beds of agapanthus plants nestle below these trees, buds ready to burst. Many women say they never noticed the garden as they entered the prison.

It housed both common criminals and ordinary people, the latter often incarcerated with their children after being picked up on the city streets because they couldn’t show police their pass books.

New structure

A new structure has been built on the west and east wings of the original prison, giving it a northerly perspective. Made of glass and steel, its two wings at right angles to the prison, the building’s architecture and function are in sharp contrast to the prison. It houses the Centre for Gender Equality, the Public Protector and several other human rights organisations.

Kate Otten of Kate Otten Architects says all decisions regarding the restoration were carefully made, in consultation with past prisoners, warders and conservationists.

The architects’ brief, entitled Reclaiming history, explains the symbolism of the building: “The horror of the prisoners’ experiences, the injustice of apartheid laws and the silencing of protest had to be felt in the remains of structures and amplified through the architecture.

“It was not only architectural history that was at stake here but the history of human beings, their lives distorted within these spaces.”

The development has been sensitively handled. Some structures were demolished – later additions of no architectural or cultural significance. This helped restore the significance of the original buildings and courtyards.

The demolitions revealed secrets of the prison’s history. On removing a layer of bricks, a partially disintegrated security grille was revealed, put there as a vault to store weapons for a later occupant, the Civil Cooperation Bureau. This was a much-hated body notorious for torture and murder of political activists in the 1980s (the prison was closed in 1982). In recognition of this layer of history, a glass door was placed in the grille, a comfortable juxtaposition of the old and the new.

Several former prisoners have objected to the demolitions and restorations. But there’s a subtle memory trick at play here.

“People’s memories are quite unclear,” says Otten. “Architects’ visual memories are trained.” Prisoners can’t always accurately remember the details of what was in the prison when they spent time within its walls. In fact, less was demolished than what was agreed to by the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

The prison was restored in other ways – the walls were painted a “bland white”, damp problems were dealt with, and the roof was painted. A wall with peeling paint and damp patches was left untouched. It was a case of “maintenance, not sanitising” the building, says Otten.

Part of the permanent exhibition in the jail is a huge pyramid of floor brushes, testimony to the hours the women spent on their hands and knees, scrubbing floors.

The Women’s Jail was probably the cleanest prison in the country. Ex-prisoners recall spending their days cleaning and washing everything in sight: the walls, the floors, clothes, even the male prisoners’ clothes sent over from No 4.

Transparent harshness

The new buildings have a transparent harshness about them – the mostly glass walls reflect the light and offer intense views of the Women’s Jail; the buildings’ angular shape and metal finishes symbolise the cruelty of the place.

Visitors will in fact not easily notice the entrance to the two new structures, seamlessly interwoven with the old building. “The new buildings touch the old building lightly,” says the brief. “They do not seek to imitate the existing buildings – both the new and the old are expressed individually.”

The two new structures are three storeys, the first two fronted by a row of pillars the exact height of the prison, the third storey on the same level as the prison’s roof.

In another embrace of the old and new, the awaiting trial building has been retained and incorporated into the new east wing, its red brick a catchy contrast to the glass and steel around it.

A glass-covered walkway and wall bisects the old exercise yard, once a grey tiled area but now a lush grassy patch, a welcome relief to the hard surfaces around it. It was previously fenced with corrugated iron, several small iron shacks erected on its eastern side. These were gone before the architects started working on the site, but the rectangular shape of a hut is demarcated by a red metal frame on the lawn, complete with two buckets: one for drinking and washing, the other for ablutions. Up to four women were crammed into this suffocating space.

‘Keeping the pain at bay’

During the six months she spent as a political prisoner in the jail in 1976, sociologist and activist Fatima Meer produced drawings that are a valuable record of life there. But it had another purpose. “The art work I did in prison was perhaps a way of keeping the pain at bay.”

The works, naive in their detailed execution, capture the humiliation of women crowded into small spaces, utterly at the mercy of the warders. Meer meticulously records every brick in a wall, an indication of hours in isolation but perhaps also of her need to capture every detail of the torturous experience.

Joyce Piliso-Seroke, chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), a major tenant in the new buildings, has lived there before – in 1976 she spent time in solitary confinement. Now she walks through the prison on her way to work every day, on her way to her “beautiful office” where she enjoys a “beautiful view”.

“My colleagues and staff of the CGE marvel at my composure and excitement about having our headquarters based at the jail. I tell them that coming here represents my final step in achieving closure.

“My being here represents the triumph of our nation over a system that once denied people their humanity and dignity. My being here only emphasises that our sacrifices and struggle for human rights were not in vain.”

  • The 6th Sao Paulo International Biennale of Architecture and Design runs from 22 October to 11 December. The exhibition will be shown in Cape Town at the Design Indaba 2006, and should then travel around the country, depending on sponsorship. For more details, visit the sharpCITY website.

Source: City of Johannesburg