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Wits Art Museum (WAM)
Braamfontein, Johannesburg, Gauteng

William Andrew MARTINSON: Architect
Fiona GARSON: Architect
Nina COHEN: Architect

Client:University of the Witwatersrand
Type:Art Gallery
2013GIfA Award for Architecture
2014SAIA Award of Merit
Street:cor. Bertha/Jorrison Streets


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26°11'34.97" S 28°01'59.41" E

William MARTINSON with Fiona GARSON and Nina COHEN won an architectural competition to design the art museum for the University of the Witwatersrand.

The museum will comprise of three existing buildings.

Construction started in April 2010 and is expected to be finished around the middle of 2011.

[from The Times, Friday July 23, 2010, p. 13.]

March 2012

VISI has announced the winners of the annual Absolut VISI Designer of the Year awards. The awards, which aim to recognise and reward South Africa's top designs, were handed out at a jungle-themed ceremony and party held at Wembley Square Two in Cape Town on Friday 2 March.

And the winners are…

The Architecture category went to Nina COHEN, Fiona GARSON and William MARTINSON for the WITS Art Museum, recently opened in the burgeoning Braamfontein district in Johannesburg. "The success of its resolution resides, not simply in the compelling spatial resolution of its architecture that is aesthetically pleasing, but more so in the creative design translation of a problem of considerable complexity," said Professor Iain LOW of UCT, one of the judges in this category.


Pierre Cronje for Simply Pierre range
Amanda Haupt and Lise Butler of Design Team for Young at Heart
John Vogel for the Corn Circle table
Adam Levin and Alex Albertyn for the Ball and Neon Upcycling range

Nina COHEN and Fiona GARSEN with William MARTINSON for OSMOND LANGE ARCHITECTS, Wits Art Museum
Martin KRUGER for House Cruise
Richard STRETTON of KOOP DESIGN for the Midlands chapel

Karen Roos for Babylonstoren
Cecile & Boyd for Singita Explore
Tonic for Slow in the City
LUPINI ARCHITECTS and Dakota Interiors for Hotel Lamunu Braamfontein

Michaella Janse Van Vuuren of Nomili for her 3D printing designs
Amanda du Plessis and Elizabeth Pulles for school chair project
Philip Nel for the Inizio modular home
Laurie Wiid van Heerden


Nico BOTES, of the department of Interior Architecture at University of Pretoria

Roy Jones, of the department of Interior Design at the University of Johannesburg

Shelley Street, stylist and creative consultant to Weylandts

Gerhard Swart & Anthony Harris, previous winners and designers and owners of Ceramic Matters

Philippe Van Der Merwe, interior designer from Tonic

Chris Zimberlin, owner of Limeline design boutique

Hugh FRASER, architect, inveterate architectural photographer as well as general manager of PG Glass

Alta STEENKAMP, Associate Professor and Director of the UCT School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics

Iain LOW, UCT Architecture Academic and editor of the Digest of South African Architecture

Trevyn & Julian McGowan, the owners of Source, a company taking this country’s designs to all corners of the globe.

Dion Chang, the owner of Flux Trends as well as one of South Africa’s best-known style commentators and writers.

Cecile Froehling, the head of buying at Woolworths home department.

Greg Gamble, interior designer from Tonic

Adam Levin, owner of Imagine Nation and African design consultant

Joining the judges from the VISI side were:
Annemarie Meintjes – VISI Deputy Editor
Etienne Hanekom – VISI Art Director
Klara van Wyngaarden – VISI Décor Editor

Visit VISI

Award of Merit citation

Artistic expression in all its forms is intrinsically part of the human condition. It remains one of the most trustworthy barometers of all human development and the way we perceive the world, as well as the way we want the world to be.

The University of the Witwatersrand has, since its inception, built up an African Art collection. The quality and size of this collection has given it a value and a reputation beyond estimation, both inside and outside of South Africa. This collection might belong to the University, but it is also there to be shared with all who might be interested in it. Additionally, it is there to be researched by scholars/researchers/academics wherever they are, as part of the generation and sharing of knowledge.

Art collections at universities are accepted internationally as part of the primary elements that constitute such institutions. Within this pattern, there are many famous and valuable collections that come to mind. In the same way, there are an equal number of very inspired buildings that house these collections. All good and responsible universities worldwide also understand that their art collections are an excellent way to share their treasures and essential mission with their respective societies, of which they are an intrinsic part.

The University of the Witwatersrand also believes that it has this responsibility, as the custodian of this remarkable collection. When the University decided to do something about the inadequate accommodation where the collection used to be kept, it was also decided that it should be important to house it in the best possible manner. For this purpose, the University arranged a competition in 2005 for architects, in order to find the best and most inspired design. The winners of this competition were Nina Cohen, Fiona Garson and William Martinson. The University decided, in terms of the urban design guidelines operative at the time, to use for this purpose three buildings on the edge of the campus on the corner of Bertha and Jorissen Streets.The most prominent and well known of these was Lawson's Corner - up to that time a petrol filling station and car showroom. Due to the fact that all three buildings were built for different purposes, to different standards and to different design parameters, the architects faced a difficult task from the start. The University, in terms of its own idealism that was expressed through its urban-design vision at the time, required that the new facility should have a 'presence' on the street. It should be entered directly from the street and should make a contribution to street life. Thus, it would have to constitute a new 'face' of Wits in order to physically become part of the greater community, and for the collection to take up its rightful role as part of the city's many cultural institutions.

Functionally, the new entity also had to cope with equally difficult and contradictory demands, namely exhibition space, storage and curatorial space, research, delivery, security and climate control. The three buildings also each had their own structural and spatial systems. Their 'deep' plans furthermore complicated daylight provision to the exhibition spaces. Spatially, the architects had to overcome these problems while focusing on the primary objective of providing a high-quality viewing and exhibition experience. The process, from the time of the competition till the time of completion, took about ten years. The whole project was achieved with private donations.

The architects managed, in an inspired way, to fulfill all the main requirements that the University had initially set. The University now has an institution that is one of its 'faces' onto the street and its facilities for art viewing, research and restoration are as good as it was possible to make them. The main entry is from the street, there is activity (a restaurant) and art viewing (a gallery) that activates and animates the institution/street interaction. Movement through the exhibitions is logical and spatially exciting. Varied conditions for exhibitions have been created, both by design and by necessity. The architectural space that has been created forms a positive background to the art - it is neutral, but not so neutral that it 'disappears'. The movement through the space becomes part of the viewing and spatial experience. The storage and work space that do not require daylight have been placed above the exhibition space. Their presence is made known with a new form introduced on the facade, projecting over the entrance - emphasising both.

As a Gesamtkunstwerk the detailing, the spatial experience and the thoughtful way that the architects have dealt with the architectural history and legacy of the individual buildings in a restrained and subtle manner, creates a tour de force. The key to understanding the achievement of Cohen & Garson with this building is to look at the relationships that they have established between the art, the viewing public, the researchers and the genius of the architecture itself. Against overwhelming odds, they have managed to create a serene, beautifully crafted and lit gestalt that naturally comes to rest in the mind of the users. The spaces they have shaped create an instantaneous memory for those who use it, and for those who consciously experience the pleasure of being there. The instantly positive popular and critical reactions with which the Wits Art Museum was received, upon completion, underscores also its architectural value.The irreplaceable art collection of the University of the Witwatersrand has, at last, received its worthy 'home'.

(Paul Kotze - 2014)

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

South African Institute of Architects. 2014. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2013/2014. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 56-57