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University of the Witwatersrand Rural Campus
Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga

KATE OTTEN ARCHITECTS: Architect

Date:2015
Type:University
Status:Extant
2015SAIA L Award for Architecture
2016SAIA Commendation

Commendation Citation

The topography of the lowveld area is characterised by a series of valleys and ridges. Water drainage is generally towards the east, and the area is also not very far from the great eastern escarpment of South Africa. For a large part of the lowveld, this escarpment creates a dominant horizon line to the west. This line dominates everything specifically man-made objects like architecture, resulting in any building appearing smaller than it might be. Coupled with this scale inversion is the 'blanket' of trees that covers most of this part of the world. Buildings usually disappear below the tree line.

The combination of all of these environmental and topographical factors result in a micro context where orientation, place creation, a sense of dwelling - and more - are therefore primarily dependent on even smaller elements of this context. Furthermore, this area is known for its hot climate, necessitating that all buildings optimise their ventilation. With the heat also comes its characteristically dense vegetation. In this environment, human focus is often on the immediate, on nature in all of its forms, and on the interaction between man and nature.

There is also in South Africa, among some population groups, a particular romanticism coupled to the 'bushveld'. This often manifests itself in the celebration of a certain primordial closeness to the profundity of nature. Examples of this closeness to nature could be exemplified by symbols such as fire, food-preparation rituals, water, stuffed animal heads as trophies displayed on walls, etc. Architecturally, this phenomenon is furthered by rustic elements such as thatched roofs, the boma constructed usually with thin wooden elements, the spatial enclosure of the symbolic fire, and the rondavel, with its references to indigenous building practices.

Before the intervention of these architects, most buildings comprising the Wits Rural Facility conformed to this romanticised version of 'living in the bush'. Most buildings had thatched roofs; there were a number of rondavels and a few buildings reminiscent of English country cottages. From the site layout, which existed before the intervention was analysed, it is clear that the facility existed in a series of unrelated buildings. The layout did not form positively defined spaces between the different buildings, nor did it relate to the small watercourse adjacent to the site. In many ways, this group of buildings was rather 'lost' underneath the continuous canopy of trees.

The architect's inspired intervention changed all of this. Minimal demolitions were undertaken and only a few trees were removed. The new layout artfully introduced positively and defined open space, a clearly defined and easily readable spatial logic, while the natural edge to the site the small watercourse was clearly defined by the next phase of buildings. The architect successfully avoided all established architectural cliches of 'bush architecture'. The buildings have a beautiful and inspired simplicity about them. The structure and building forms are confined to a few elements, constantly repeated in surprising and thoughtful ways. This language manages to create, in a subtle manner, orientation and a memorable place without ever feeling the need to 'hit the drum' too loudly. This simplicity of form and construction must also have aided the economic feasibility of the project - helping to make it a reality. The majority of the buildings are only one-room deep, to enable natural ventilation. These buildings, in turn, are connected by wide walkways that create shade as well as space for social interaction. There is something lyrical about these walkways, in the way in which they connect built elements and how they avoid and celebrate natural elements, like trees. In many areas, filtered light forms roof lights, thus creating thoughtful accents that are reinforced with the memory of sunlight filtered by the leaves of trees.

The new buildings and their walkways have created a dynamic quality of shifting planes, framed views and the celebration of light that is far removed from the rather predictable quality of the old buildings of the Wits Rural facility. The built forms are generously connected to nature. This interaction is now meaningful and celebratory whereas in the previous incarnation, nature was very much left to its own devices. This fundamental and inspired shift between old and new could only have been achieved by a trusting and willing client, and a highly serious and talented architect.


Writings about this entry

South African Institute of Architects. 2016. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2015/2016. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 46-47