Today, October 7, is World Architecture Day. Tshwane’s latest art centre opened on Heritage Day. Featuring a clutch of galleries as well as offering a brand-new architectural feature on the edges of the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield and South campuses, DIANE DE BEER gets the lowdown from architect Pieter Mathews whose firm Mathews and Associates designed the Javett Art Centre (Javett-UP):
It’s been a long haul for Mathews and Associates with the first concept design penned in 2012, but finally the time has come for the magnificent building and the art to be revealed and to determine that their initial goal to create a space that will activate the connection between art and architecture has been achieved. Time will tell but everything seems to point in that direction.
For lead architect Pieter Mathews (helped by project architect Liam Purnell and assisted by project dedicated architects Carla Spies and Jannes Hattingh) the specific site (one of three options) was selected because of its proximity to the Boukunde Building and the Visual Arts Building which flank the Art Centre. “They should all be in conversation,” he says, which is what influenced certain aspects of the design and the materials used.
It also contributes to the easy nestling of what is an enormous group of structures into the established landscape.
Mathews describes the style as Neo Brutalism. “Brutalism is part of the architecture history of South Africa (and worldwide) and was especially popular in the 60s and early 70s. What it means is to use the material in an honest way. Concrete which has a soul of its own is simply cast and left like that. Aesthetics are determined by the building method and the way the materials are used in its most brutal form.”
American architect Louis Isadore Kahn, known as the world leader in brutalism, most famously captured the concept with the following quote: “Even a brick wants to be something.”
In that spirit Mathews describes the abstract and brutal “mountain” of concrete (created by a local concrete shuttering firm) and representing the Mapungubwe Gallery – which is home to the world-famous Mapungubwe Gold Collection with the golden rhino – as honouring the honesty of the construction methods of brutalism with the natural elements of concrete coming alive as it will show signs of ageing throughout its life. Natural light casts patterns changing throughout the day. It’s the standout feature of the centre.
Perhaps one of brutalism’s strongest features is what captured his imagination specifically when designing the Javett-UP. “Buildings appear as if they have been there forever,” he explains, which is important in especially this university set-up.
Linked to the Mapungubwe Gallery by Museum Square (with a restaurant to the side and an outside exhibition space) are a selection of public galleries (nine in total, together with the two student galleries below Art Square). The public art galleries will display the best from the collections of the Javett Foundation (lead donor on the project) and the University of Pretoria, as well as various temporary exhibitions with arguably a more contemporary slant.
The Centre also includes a 117-seat auditorium, administrative offices, storage, art conservation and quarantine areas.
The Javett-UP was designed to embrace both the space and the surrounding buildings, and while it might achieve iconic status, it shouldn’t stand in isolation. He was also intent on linking the Art Centre with the campus from every possible angle which makes access easy from different vantage points. This was a Centre that had to function for both public and educational purposes.
The gallery space extends across Lynnwood Road via a bridge (Bridge Gallery) which brings together the Hatfield and South Campus. As another outstanding feature, the most visually accessible, it has been turned into an eye-catching attribute wrapped in lightweight concrete panels that reaches across the exterior and interior based on the much-loved “shweshwe” fabric. It displays different patterns and designs depending on the time of day as shadow and light come into play, turning it into a spectacular showcase when it is lit at night.
For the architect it seems as if a bank of fairy lights is sparkling in the middle of the road through this dashing design which symbolises strong, embracing South African connections across a wide spectrum.
If you haven’t noticed the new building yet, it’s fast becoming a landmark as you travel up and down Lynnwood Road. The bridge spills out onto University Square with the student galleries positioned below and then extends into the historic Tukkie Laan linking the Art Centre with the main campus. The squares are specifically placed to gather people. “People attract people,” says Mathews with the one easily accessible to the public and the other gathering the students from the campus.
Mathews wanted a building with no bling or shine, something he has achieved with his design and building materials.
They had to find a method of linking the various elements like the bridge patterned panels, the faceted concrete shell structure of the Mapungubwe “mountain”, galvanised steel pergolas which again repeats the “shweshwe” design and all the other building elements. Colour was the most obvious solution. As the structure is dominated by the hue of concrete – a natural light grey emerged as the leitmotif. When they wanted to separate various elements, they used charcoal as the shadow colour.
Mathews is the instigator of Cool Capitol, the world’s first uncurated, DIY guerrilla biennale that is a place for citizens of the Capital City to collectively contemplate and express their love for their city – and how to improve it. He and his Cool Capital team also hosted and designed the 2017 South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
He has declared himself an ambassador for the visual environment and it is this blend of art and architecture, part of his DNA, which made him and his team, the perfect match for the Javett Art Centre – UP.
Even though they had to survive many hills and valleys with the building of this monumental project, he declared from the start: “I am very confident in the collective brain at work here.”
Now we’re simply waiting for the art to come alive on this spectacular stage.
- Go to https://javettup.art for more information. Open times are daily from 10am to 5pm and apart from the exquisite building also shows collections of spectacular African art.