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Walkway through Wonderwerk Cave
Kuruman district, Northern Cape


2017SAIA NC Award for Architecture
2018SAIA Award of Merit


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27°50'38.19" S 23°33'18.09" E Alt: 1636m

Award of Merit Citation

South Africa has been blessed with a world-renowned history as far as the evolution of mankind is concerned. In this sphere of knowledge production, we are making a fundamental contribution to the worldwide understanding of the early history of our human ancestry and the artefacts that have been produced.

Wonderwerk Cave is a site that is fundamentally part of this story. The cave has a history of some two million years of use by our human ancestors, which makes it a very important archaeological site in the world. The cave holds evidence of controlled human-made fire that dates from one million years ago.

The cave is about 140m long. It was formed by a subterranean river when the region was below sea level. The rock formations of the Kuruman hills are about two million years old. The sediments in the cave that form the main area of research are about six metres deep. The evidence contained in this cave is very fragile. It is also endangered by the relatively high number of visitors and the increasing number of researchers working in the cave. What was required was a temporary walkway to try to solve this problem.

Detailed surface mappings were prepared by electronic means. With this data, a carefully considered set of tectonic parameters was determined by the project team. The walkway was constructed as a prefabricated kit of parts, that only had to be assembled on site. The walkway could not have any anchoring devices and it had to rely on its own weight for stability while the manner in which the parts connected with each other gave it the required strength. It also had to be constructed in such a way that it could be taken away without leaving any traces.

This cave might be one of the longest inhabited spaces on earth, yet its newest piece of architecture is the most impermanent that has ever been constructed in it. Architecture's impulse towards permanence had to be subverted to create a structure that is impermanent from the start. When the walkway is experienced in reality its quiet logic becomes clear. The user might never be aware of the depth of research that had to be done to determine its placing, but the 'rightness' of its poetic beauty now dominates those rational underpinnings. Being aware of the time span that is represented in this cave regarding our human ancestors, we in contemporary times should be even more aware of our fleeting presence on earth.

Yet this walkway, fragile and impermanent as it is, has a kind of beauty that gives it a permanent place in this important site and in our collective architectural history.

Writings about this entry

South African Institute of Architects . 2018. Awards : South African Institute of Architects. Awards for Excellence, Awards of Merit, Regional Awards for Architecture 2017/2018. Cape Town: Picasso for SAIA. pg 40, 41 ill