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South African Airways Terminal - Rotunda
Johannesburg, Gauteng


Type:Airways Terminal


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26°11'46.98" S 28°02'25.65" E


The Rotunda was built as part of a far-sighted development for public transport in Johannesburg, which involved two new railway concourses, a vast increase in the number of platforms serving commuter and long distance routes, a number of administrative buildings for South African Railways and also South African Airways, and a new high speed bridge taking traffic out of the centre of town to the northern suburbs.

The complex engineering was matched by a very high standard of architecture. The Rotunda was part of seeing Johannesburg from the air – a new dimension. The circle which was adopted to create a turning circle for buses was echoed on the east side of the bridge in the traffic circles as well as the circular gardens. These are shown in the early photographs and postcards.

Architectural Description

The Rotunda has a circular plan set out on an east-west axis. The circular planning clearly responded to the envisaged circular movement of buses around the building. The Rotunda was placed at the original level of the generous plaza in front of the Johannesburg Railway Station - albeit separated from it by the Rissik Street over pass. The circular motif was repeated on the plaza in the landscaping design. The Rotunda formed a counterpoint to the tall SA Airways Administration block directly to the south.

Externally the curved building facades were defined by a series of narrow vertical steel mullions. These were arranged with a regular beat of narrow : wide : narrow : wide bays repeating around the full extent of the perimeter curtain wall. The bays were clad with full height glazing, deeply recessed from the front face of the mullions. At eaves level each of the mullions was extended to form a right-angled radial cantilever, terminating at the angled fascia line. This device formed a broad eaves overhang accentuating the shallow saucer dome. A substantial cantilevered canopy defined the position of the entrance on the west side.

This also made the building essentially airy and transparent, giving an initial experience of space and moving up into the sky. This has been partially obscured with later security introducing solid walls concealing as much as possible from view, but the structure is still there and should be restored.

The saucer dome was clad with standing seam sheet copper roof, using tapered panels and substantial expressed seams. A total of 18 tones of copper were used - laid over a closely boarded timber substrate. A deep box gutter - also in copper - was provided around the entire perimeter of the roof at a position coinciding with the glazed facade below. The apex of the dome was closed with a single annular copper ring - forming a shallow finial to the roof.

Internally a substantial double volume was formed, with a narrow band of office and support accommodation on portions of the perimeter, at both ground and first floor. The curve of the saucer dome was expressed internally with a domed ceiling.

Plane trees were planted at regular intervals around the Rotunda in close proximity to the facade, shortly after completion, accentuating the circular planning and providing a green backdrop to views out of the building.

Statement of Significance

The Rotunda is a good example of 1960's architecture, influenced by the architectural trends then prevalent overseas;

The Rotunda is an excellent example of the technical skill in the construction of the glazed steel frame and the cladding of the saucer dome;

The Rotunda forms a group with the main Johannesburg Railway Station and the small SAR memorial chapel constructed to the east;

The Rotunda is a landmark building in Braamfontein, and indeed Johannesburg;

The Rotunda is a good example of the design and detailing of a respected firm of South African architects;


CHIPKIN, Clive: Johannesburg Transition 2008
Hartdegen, Paddy: Our Building Heritage 1988
MARTINSON, William: Architectural Description 2012
SA Architectural Record Sept-Oct 1961
Shorten, John R: The Johannesburg Saga 1976

Adapted from document compiled by:

Flo Bird
Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust
May 2012

Heritage activists have reported that the Rotunda in downtown Johannesburg is being vandalised. (The Heritage Portal, January 15, 2020)

Writings about this entry

Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 149-150