Moruleng Cultural Precinct
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The settlement of Moruleng is situated northwest of the Pretoria/Johannesburg region. It is also located northwest of the Rustenberg/Marikana platinum belt. Moruleng is due north of Sun City and the Pilanesberg National Park, while topographically the site is dominated by the Pilanesberg Mountains horizon line to the south and west.
In a way, the site and settlement can be seen to occupy the edge of the more formal and powerful world that is represented within the Pretoria/Johannesburg nexus. Moruleng is a largely informal settlement, with its own profound urban and social structuring devices — for all to see, should they care to do so. It is also a place with its own particular and precious cultural power and references, occupying the heartland of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela community. It is as important, for this group, as the Mochudi settlement in Botswana.
Despite this lengthy and powerful cultural focus, the Bagatla-ba-Kgafela community has been subject to various extraneous influences - i.e. a range of global cultural experiences. All of these influences combined create a range of new realities that are sometimes conflicting and contradictory. No individual or group is immune to this change in reality. By exposing these constantly changing forces, and by acknowledging them for what they truly represent, we are able to address the sometimes unequal relationships inherent here, and to meet and interact as equals.
This is what the community of Moruleng and their architects, Office 24-7, have achieved with the Moruleng Cultural Precinct. In its design, the team has consciously endeavoured to create a '...tapestry and exposed palimpsest of the multiple layers of historical influences in the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela community, spanning from a pre-colonial epoch' (Architect's Report).
This work was done on a site with two heritage buildings a 1889 Dutch Reformed Mission Church and a 1937 school. Another church building on the site still enjoys an active congregation.
The palimpsest, referred to earlier, actualises itself as an overlay of historical and cultural forms over what has previously existed on the site. The stone walling is a reconstruction of a nearby iron-age Tswana settlement pattern, which is complimented with the introduction of indigenous and traditional medicinal planting.
These local and cultural references extend to the way in which the amphitheatre - or kgotla —has been detailed, and how traditional materials and finishes have been used, reintroduced and reconfigured to serve as decorative elements in the museum.
The interior plaster was stripped during the restoration of the Mission Church, which is now used as an exhibition space. This has had the interesting effect of removing a great deal of the building's colonial power and references, making it somehow way more humble and vulnerable. All new buildings added to the site are designed to be experienced as such.
An architectural stroke of genius was to construct a new bell tower, close to the old mission church, in the spirit of the old. The view from here explains the concept best. The biggest visual impact of the architects' layered palimpsest approach is to be seen in the previous 'backyard' space between the school and the mission church. On eye level, the various architectural forms, routes and plant material might seem confusing, contradictory and too difficult to negotiate or of which to make sense. However, the view from the bell tower clarifies it all. Just like much in life, perspective and distance brings clarification and resolution.
The approach to history introduced in this project permeates the exhibitions in the old school building. The design is such that the material has been presented in a way that brings it in close range of the viewer. Descriptions are therefore in the form of 'tweets' and the material has not been structured in a hierarchical or linear manner. This frees the viewer to construct his/her own narrative and to draw his/her own conclusions from the information provided.
The architects and their clients have launched a brave and successful attempt at reconfiguring a collective and mostly contradictory past into a collage that would, hopefully, create a more egalitarian and freer platform. What's been created could serve as the basis for a more egalitarian and tempered vision of the future. For this, they deserve recognition. It should also be noted that theirs is largely a counter narrative to the many museums and memorials, both pre- and post-1994, that set forth far more singular and less accepting views of our country's past and future.
The Moruleng Cultural Precinct, though both small and humble, is powerful in the way in which it is embedded in its local community, as well as in how it showcases a unique and more worthy way in which to view the past and future.
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