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Constitutional Court
Johannesburg, Gauteng

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DESIGNWORKSHOP : SA: Architect
URBAN SOLUTIONS ARCHITECTS + URBAN DESIGNERS: Architect

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Date:2004
Type:Law Courts
Style:Contemporary
Status:Extant


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26°11'20.26" S 28°02'35.43" E Alt: 1783m
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Award of Merit Citation

This project has already received considerable publicity and wide professional acclaim. Therefore, one only needs to highlight its key themes and perhaps link them to emerging international views on public works of this kind. The new Constitutional Court is a remarkable realisation of the essence of small narratives. It incisively suggests South African past requires inverse narratives. It takes the South African Judiciary’s collective view expressed in the competition brief as absolute architectural value. A direct result of this is the airy, light, transparent and open feel of the building. Lightness of touch, not being stuffy and over-bureaucratic, transparency and openness are also the ideals of the Judiciary of the New South Africa.

The project is an ensemble of modest but dignified new buildings with some of the older built structures retained. It is non-exclusive in the sense that even a minor building like the existing and adjacent transformer house is brought into compositional play to create a sense of enclosure for the recreational garden for the staff at the rear. The notorious prison Blocks 4 and 5 are opened up as museums of history with permanent as well as periodically changing exhibitions of topical interest. It is integrated with the Court complex by a gently ascending series of steps, intended not to present a monumental building on a podium but to provide the possibility for a gentle promenade. The gentle African Steps flow into the foyer then becomes the exhibition gallery to be viewed from inside and outside from the steps and eventually culminating in the library. The old Isolation Block in front of the present foyer was demolished to make way for the forecourt and the brick from which it was built recycled to provide a rough wall surface for the court chamber, creating a robust hybrid,as South Africa is just such a hybrid.

The administrative block serves as a buffer or rather a transition between the public exhibition area and the judges’ chambers. The art works in the court are integral to the space, both internal and external and the fabric of the building. They present an inverse narrative of classical arcadia where poets and philosophers strolled through nature reflecting on the nature of art. The judiciary is offered opportunity for reflecting on society as they move through arts collections. The possibilities this project offers for prodigious interpretation are immense.

Award of Excellence Citation

The new Constitutional Court is a remarkable realisation of the essence of small narratives. It incisively suggests South African past requires inverse narratives. It takes the South African judiciary's collective view expressed in the competition brief as absolute architectural value. A direct result of this is the airy, light, transparent and open feel of the building. Lightness of touch, not being stuffy and over-bureaucratic, transparency and openness are also the ideals of the judiciary of the new South Africa.

Urban design, planning, architecture and interior architecture are not seen as separate processes but as one single unified process. Constructional systems are straight-forward. So is the design of the landscape. The passive cooling system is a feature of pride for the client.

Architect's Motivation

The emblem of the South African Constitutional Court in Johannesburg is a tree with branches spreading over the people it protects. This is representative of the old African custom of settling matters and disputes under the protection of an important tree. President Thabo Mbeki inaugurated the court on Human Rights Day of this year [2006]. This was the culmination of a process begun in 1996 when the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa was instituted as the highest authority of the land. Eleven justices were sworn in to protect the Constitution, which incorporated the Bill of Rights, A decision was then taken to build a Court of Justice.

The site chosen is located against the northern slope of the old Fort in Johannesburg. This was the Robben Island of Johannesburg according to one of the judges, Albie Sachs. A new court located there would represent the transformation of an authoritarian system to a constitutional democracy. Although the site was demanding, derelict and difficult to integrate with the city, it was also accessible, prominent and highly symbolical. ‘[The Hill] stands wedged between the vibrant African city which central Johannesburg has become and the historic division of a poor black city ... towards Soweto, and the rich, "white" suburbs to the north. We are at the very centre of South Africa's major metropolis. The Old Fort is on the highest point of the Witwatersrand watershed: the rain that falls in the area flows to the Atlantic and Indian oceans down the northern and southern sides of this ridge. The Constitutional Court will stand at the confluence of these human and natural environments.'

In 1997, a competition was launched by the Department of Public Works for the design of the seat of the Court. This was open to architects and any other person wishing to partake. What was sought was a design combining all the loose-standing structures on the site. The area of the Old Fort was to be a public place within the city and a symbolic space for all South Africans. In the competition brief - to which the Justices of the Court contributed - specific criteria were spelled out: the acknowledgement of local human needs and social values; relationship to physical and cultural/historical landscapes: response to climate and weathering; excellence with limited means and technology employ to make best use of immediate labour resources.

One hundred and fifty-eight entries were received. Among the nine assessors were Geoffrey Bawa. Charles Correa, Judge Albie Sachs, Thenjiwe Mtintso and Isaac Mogase (previously both inmates of the Fort) as well as Peter Davey, editor of Architectural Review. After a second phase, the winners were announced in 1998. They were Andrew Makin, Janina Masojada and Eric Orts-Hansen of OMM Design Workshop in Durban and Paul Wygers of Urban Solutions, Johannesburg.

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THE COURT CHAMBER DOORS

Myra Fassler-Kamstra and I met one afternoon to discuss ideas for the making of the doors and as we looked through images a book fell open on a photograph of a gold and red Kente cloth. The image spoke to us immediately. The design would easily translate into copper or brass to make a flush, modern door that would reflect light - the light of the law, the light representing the highest court in the land. When we were informed that our entry had won the competition for the design, the reality of making the doors set in. I asked fellow artist and jewellery designer Verna Jooste to assist in bringing them to life. We needed to create over 3000 pieces to make up the doors, a scale that immediately discounted some interesting treatments that we had initially devised. We had no option but to etch each metal piece. As we made the plates we wanted to find a way of working that would bring us close to the material, so after some time we dispensed with a more "scientific" way of using clocks and instruments and instead measured the readiness of the copper for transferring images by watching the slowly heating metal until it reached a deep orange. The entire door was made using this method of "listening" to the material so that we had a more direct relationship with it, and in doing so we found an organic, heartfelt and earthy way of making! - Andrew Lindsay

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Noble, Jonathan. Constitutional Court: in Joubert, 'Ora (Ed). 2009. 10 years + 100 buildings: pp 116-119

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