Gauteng’s latest art centre featuring a handful of galleries, something which can stand as a counterpoint to Cape Town’s Zeitz MOCAA and Norval Foundation, is in the process of being built on the edges of the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield and South campuses. Named the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) in honour of its philanthropic donor, work started in 2016 and the Centre is set to open in the first half of 2019. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the architect Pieter Mathews whose firm Mathews and Associates designed the Centre as a link to the people:
Even before we get to the art, which is really what the Javett Art Centre is all about, there’s the building – and according to lead and concept architect Pieter Mathews it is easily the most challenging project his firm has ever worked on.
Keeping in mind that with these grand art projects, the buildings have become as important as the art featured, the fact that the first concept design was penned at the end of 2012, captures the complexity of the endeavour. With the help of project architect Liam Purnell assisted by two project dedicated architects Carla Spies and Jannes Hattingh, their goal has been to create a space that would activate the connection between art and architecture. That’s also why the specific site (one of three options) was selected, because of the proximity of the Boukunde Building and the Visual Art Building that flank the Art Centre. “It makes sense that those three should be linked,” says Mathews.
It also complicated the challenge because it meant that they would be building across one of Tshwane’s main arteries, Lynnwood Road and yet, because of their approach, it will heighten the visual appeal as well as the visibility of the centre. They have turned the bridge into a huge feature wrapped in lightweight concrete cloth that reaches across the exterior and interior based on the much-loved shweshwe fabric. This “cloth” displays many different features including a play of light and shadow also turning the bridge into an expansive feature when it is illuminated at night. “It almost looks like fairy lights glistening in the middle of the road,” explains the architect about this design feature which has strong South African connections which embraces all its people.
But the bridge is also the connector between the public and the students and academics, the two campus sites and the diversity which is embraced on campus
The other reason for the site is that while it has one section on the main Hatfield campus, the section that crosses to the far side of Lynnwood Road will offer the public easy access to the galleries as well as a restaurant which will be part of the complex and is planned as an inviting addition for museum visits.
Apart from the bridge, which is also an exhibition space and offers visual invitations to the other galleries, the Mapungubwe gallery – which will house one of the most important collections entrusted to the stewardship of the University of Pretoria – is the other focal point of the Centre, towering into the sky. It adds to the dominance of the building not only because of the design but also its height.
The building will profoundly change the landscape of the campus as well as the city. When complete, it will comprise nine distinct exhibition spaces, one of which will be housed in the iconic bridge and in addition to the Javett Foundation’s collection of 20th century SA Art and contemporary collections from the University as well as private donors, Director Christopher Till will feature exciting rotating exhibitions and the students, from across the university, will have rolling exhibitions in the dedicated student gallery. The Centre, with its focus on the Art of Africa, will also include a sophisticated restoration department and an auditorium which can be used for performances or public lectures.
Other design features that had to be taken into account were heritage buildings in the vicinity which are reflected in the design of facing walls of the new structure, trees that had to be maintained, the extension of the main artery of the university known as Tukkie Laan and the inclusion of two main squares, the Art Square which embraces both the art and the architecture students on either side and the Museum Square which is the public entrance to the galleries from different public parking spaces.
Before any of this even started, Mathews, who has just been awarded the Medal of Honour for Visual Arts (Architecture) by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, went on a 10 day museum tour courtesy of the Mellon Foundation accompanied by the late Stephan Welz who was also instrumental in the appointment of his architectural firm together with Prof Antony Melck and Prof Karel Bakker from the department at UP where Mathews studied. It was a learning curve, an intense museum tour to different world-class institutions visiting everything from their restoration spaces to their storage facilities. They were also introduced to different curators and the way they shaped their exhibitions, all of which had an impact on the final design.
And with something this all-encompassing as the Javett Art Centre, they had to find a unifying leitmotif to bind the various elements like the bridge wrapping, the faceted concrete shell structure of the Mapungubwe “mountain”, galvanised steel pergolas and all the other building elements. The solution was found in the colour scheme determined by the concrete cladding – a natural light grey. When they want to separate various elements, they will use charcoal as the shadow colour.
Anyone who knows the architect, will deem this a perfect fit – not only because of his innovative design skills, but also because he has always combined art with architecture. “I am an ambassador for the visual environment, “ says Mathews whose firm designed amongst others the Nellmapius Bridge on the N1; the New Mussina Bridge as gateway into South Africa (expected completion date end of this year); Transport Architecture TRT stations in the historic sensitive Pretoria CBD, (for example, Rivonia Trial station opposite the Old Synagogue); and various award-winning educational buildings for city schools, including Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool and a new music centre for Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool. He and his Cool Capital team also hosted and designed the 2017 South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
He is happy that he and his team have a good hold on this massive project. “I am very confident in the collective brain at work here.”
*The building will be completed by the beginning of next year.