BANNIE BRITZ ARCHITECT and URBAN DESIGNER: Architect
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Thaba Nchu is a long established town with a tradition of strong community leadership. Although the community is served by a number of good to excellent schools, the town only had a small one-room library. Serviced by a dedicated librarian, it was situated in the heart of the business centre of Thaba Nchu. A site for a new provincial library was made available on the extensive grounds of the relatively new Civic Centre. The Civic Centre sat in splendid solitude on a vast site. Nowhere were there signs of urbanity. The original client had in mind placing a building on one of the three streets that surround the site. The architect saw that, disconnected as it would be from the actual urban heart of Thaba Nchu, the main use of the building would in fact be to provide a study facility for the learners of four surrounding schools. Access would not be from the streets. The site was crisscrossed by clearly identifiable footpaths, none of which linked with the proposed siting. The architect managed to persuade the client that the building should be placed along an intensively used footpath, and located in a way that would form a courtyard with the Civic Centre. The resulting space was then furnished with tables and seats and planted with trees that would one day form an umbrella over the area. The library itself is a long low building placed alongside the footpath parallel and close to the walls of the side of the Civic Centre. The architect states that this configuration was intended to allow maximum exposure to passers-by of the contents and activities of the building. A tower containing a tuck shop and a security guard's observation point stands close to the main entrance to the library. A showcase next to the entrance and murals contributed by a local artist also help to identify a point of entry and the activities of the building.
It appears that lack of local skills created intense problems for the construction of the building. This required an unusual degree of supervision on the part of the architect, including the improvisation of special interventions to enable completion with an appropriate degree of quality. Another problem was the need to control theft of books. This resulted in high windows being placed throughout the main part of the building to prevent books from being stolen by throwing them out of windows.
The use of 'tree' support columns in the interior allows for large spans, rhythm through the building and an attractive and stimulating environment. The library is well frequented, with a rapidly increasing number of young members, now totalling several thousand. The members of the panel saw with their own eyes how a queue of young people jostled and pushed to get into the library when its doors were opened in the morning. It was also evident to all the members of the panel that the librarians and the provincial officials responsible for library services were very proud of the building.
The building is in many respects a model of how public buildings in poorly-resourced areas of the country can be constructed. It emphasises integration into the life of the community, avoids monumentality, links up appropriately with neighbouring buildings to create organic civic space, and produces a friendly, welcoming presence in inviting surroundings. The architect has with a considerable degree of success grasped what may be regarded as very South African nettles. He used his powers of persuasion to convince the public authority client of the need to move away from the idea of a monumental library being placed next to a monumental Civic Centre that would create an artificial civic space dislocated from the life of the community. As a result of his insistence, the beginning of a useful and frequented space was created by means of appropriate alignment alongside a well-used footpath at the back of the Civic Centre. Then, through strenuous endeavours, he overcame the obstacles created by the fact that the appointed contractor was severely underskilled. Finally, his design has produced a building that has succeeded remarkably in its objective of encouraging free and easy access to knowledge for people from communities that historically had been blocked off from such access and made to feel that libraries were not for them.
Members of the panel noted the reliance on artificial lighting and the operation of fans during daytime usage, which suggested inadequacies in terms of natural lighting and ventilation. Some felt that the interiors were too dark and cluttered, with too many arbitrary divisions. Concern was also expressed that the level of care and detail manifest in the urban design resolution at the entrance of the library did not carry through to the rest of the pedestrian route and at the entrance to the community hall space. Despite these concerns, however, and bearing in mind the sense in which the community evidently took pride in a building which they saw as 'theirs', coupled with the intense vitality of its use, the panel considered the positive features of the facility to be sufficiently strong and inspired to justify a merit award.
Photographs submitted by William MARTINSON
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.
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