SA’s first post-‘94 varsity

2013-11-24 14:00

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When the University of Mpumalanga’s first 140 students enter the new premises for the first time, they’ll be walking into a fascinating mix of entirely different architectural ideas.

That’s because the department of higher education and training’s jury, set up to choose who will design South Africa’s first new post-apartheid university, has chosen four firms to create the institution from scratch.

Cohen & Garson Architects, Conco Bryan Architects, TC Design Group and Gapp Architects & Urban Design have made the cut to collaborate in designing the R10.3 billion university from January 2014.

“We’ve got the best four ideas selected by the jury. Although not identical, these are the best architects for the project,” said Spencer Hodgson, an architect in the department’s university project management team.

Hodgson said the architects would be given different buildings to design as the project team did not want a “uniform type of architecture”.

“We want a variety of architecture, but a synergy of thinking. The idea is to work in portions and it’s important that whatever we do, the first buildings are as flexible as possible to accommodate new designs and shape the university as we go forward,” he said.

It will be built over the next 10 years on a site called The Hill outside Nelspruit, alongside the existing Lowveld Agricultural College. The college will become the university’s lower campus.

Interim university council chairperson Dr David Mabunda summarised the final design: “The four firms will work on a seamless product to reflect the heart and soul of Mpumalanga … a symbolic expression in architecture.”

He said the university would have 20 agricultural science students and 120 teaching students on the Siyabuswa campus. It will also absorb the Mpumalanga Regional Training Trust’s hospitality and tourism academy.

Here’s how each company explained its designs:

»?Fiona Garson of Cohen & Garson Architects:

“We saw the library as an underpinning spine of knowledge and it helped us to structure other buildings. As one navigates the university buildings, one will be aware of the library. The history of the place, culture, climate and accessibility were some of the factors we considered as we believe that South African architecture should be contextual. We’re looking forward to collaborating with the other architects … Surely, there will be a design thread that links all our designs.”

» Nelile Conco of Conco Bryan Architects

“The focal dome, formed out of steel elements, was intended to become an orientation landmark of the university. It acknowledges the nearby Mpumalanga Legislature building, capturing and allowing vistas and view to this significant building. The dome includes feature lighting, creating a vibrant and recognisable identity to the spaces around it.”

» Ludwig Steyl of TC Design Architects

“The company also noticed the proximity of the Mpumalanga Legislature building to the campus’ central building. The vertical scale of the library as a symbolic centre of knowledge and learning is sympathetic to the prominent scale of the Legislature Assembly building, being the symbolic seat of government. The most important factors that influenced and guided the design are how pedestrians move through the external public spaces and how they are filtered from public to semipublic to private spaces; how the building(s) respond to the local environment both in terms of scale, climate and cultural identity, which in turn inspired and influenced the choice of materials.”

» Caron Schnaid and Stacey Leader of GAPP Architects and Urban Designers:

“The existing agricultural landscape in Nelspruit inspired us to look at nature, and the way nature uses fractals to create beautiful structures and patterns. We used these fractal geometries and principles of self-organisation to create an environment that encourages people to move through the buildings and the campus in a fluid and natural way. We wanted the campus to be

about more than just the buildings. We wanted to create an environment that encourages people to linger in the ‘in-between spaces’, creating opportunities for spontaneous meetings and ‘cross-pollination’ of ideas between different fields of expertise. We believe this will produce a campus that is socially and culturally integrated.”

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