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University of the Witwatersrand, Main Building, foyer of the Great Hall
Johannesburg, Gauteng

Johann Max Friedrich (Jean) WELZ: Architect



In 1937 the University Council decided to complete the Central Block and build an Assembly Hall. Only the front portion of the block had been erected and this consisted of an entrance hall flanked by offices served by a corridor with stairs at each end. Though the facade was faced with pre-cast concrete blocks the offices were of brick and the back of the building was of wood framing covered with weather boarding. The library had been housed over the entrance hall and the floors and partitions were of wood. A disastrous fire took place there at the end of 1931.

The Council was not very happy about the appointment of the University architects, WILLIAMSON & COWIN, to carry out the completion of this block and suggested that another architect should be appointed. The plan of the original design of this block showed a large octagonal hall carried up through the building and finished with a tower and dome. This was to house the library. Beyond this was to be a large semi-circular assembly hall. On either side of this were open courts flanked by offices on the eastern and western sides. The Principal approached me and asked for my advice. I told him that as the design for the Central Block had been won in competition by Frank EMLEY and that Messrs. COWIN & POWERS had been appointed as associate architects it would he very difficult to suggest another firm of architects more particularly as the front portion of the building had been designed and erected by COWIN, POWERS & WILLIAMSON, It was very doubtful whether another firm could or would accept the commission. It was then suggested that I should be appointed as consultant or associate architect and this proposal was put to the architects, Messrs. COWIN & WILLIAMSON; Mr EMLEY had died and Mr POWERS had retired and settled in practice in Durban. The proposal was turned down by the architects, but after consideration they agreed to work with me as consultant. I suggested that we might each prepare sketch plans for the completion of the building as the library was now housed in a separate building and the octagonal structure was redundant. The University was anxious to have two halls, one for assembly, concerts and theatrical performances and one for examinations and social functions.

My staff and I prepared a scheme which was approved by the architects and the University. A drawing office was provided by the University and the drawings and details were prepared by a staff appointed by the architects and myself. I was fortunate in having Jean Wels [sic WELZ] on the staff. He was mainly responsible for the replanning of the entrance hall and the situation of the stairs. It was agreed that the external treatment of the building should follow that of the portion already erected, i.e. in pre-cast concrete.

We spent some time preparing the drawings for the hall, now known as the Great Hall and working out theoretically the plan and sections to obtain the best acoustics. The drawings were sent to the Sabine Laboratories in the U.S.A. and to Mr Adshead, an acoustic consultant in England. The former were quite satisfied with the design and had no comments to make but Mr Adshead, who was opposed to what he called modern architecture, recommended that we should introduce classic pilasters and panelling in the interior to break up the sound and thus prevent echoes. Professor Kirby, our Professor of Music, who had just returned from Europe, suggested that we should get in touch with a firm in Paris, Gustave Lyon, who had been commissioned to design a number of famous buildings in Europe acoustically. This was done and we were very pleased to get a favourable report from there making minor alterations in the design of the ceiling and erecting a cyclorama or curved wall at the back of the stage. I took long leave in 1938 and went to Paris to discuss details of the hall and the use of acoustic materials with M Carpentier, a charming Frenchman, in Gustave Lyon's office, He had made a large model of the hall. I had visited all the studios in the B.B.C. London and found they were using a new acoustic material, rock wool, samples of which I took to Paris. Gustave Lyon was most impressed with this material. He had always used fibreglass and we decided to use rock wool at the back of the hall.

On my return I found that my department had moved into the eastern wing of the Central Block and that the Hall and western block were nearing completion.

The 1939-45 War broke out in September 1939.

The Great Hall was completed in 1940 and was opened by the Governor General, Sir Patrick Duncan in June. It was a great success acoustically except for one bad spot and became the centre for graduation ceremonies, concerts, cinema shows and theatrical performances.

(Herbert 1975:267; Welz 1985)

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.