University of Pretoria, Centenary Building
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The winning submission in an architectural competition organised by the University of Pretoria to mark its centenary, this building is a lecture/examination complex containing six 300-seater auditoria. In the words of one of its architects, it is ruthlessly functional in concept, drawing on Pretoria vernacular and modern tradition especially in central Pretoria, Pretoria West and Sunnyside. Described as a non-building, it has no obvious front or back, nor any imposing signature-style profile. It is envisaged as a place of ad hoc occupation by educators and learners who stream in and out from various faculties. It has no lifts or escalators, but is structured in such a way as to facilitate pedestrian movement at all levels, without undue collision. Thus, what at first sight appears to be an arbitrary and intrusive concrete ramp from the pavement, justifies itself as an elevated pavement the moment students enter and move along it. Indeed, this is a building that standing on its own and looked at from outside may appear to lack aesthetic finesse, but comes alive the moment that it serves its function and is filled with people.
The interior well is equally uncompromising, but also develops a special dynamism when people flow through it and nestle in various convenient spaces of encounter. Good old-fashioned delight is reserved for the lecture halls themselves. Each one makes extensive use of natural light and has a different aspect on the world outside. The acoustics are excellent and extensive use of wood together with the successful incorporation of high levels of natural illumination creates a warm and friendly overall ambience. The one major functional defect we were informed about is that noise from the central foyers seeps into the lecture rooms. From a design point of view it was felt that the sudden end of the ramp at the first level was problematic, that fences outside to the north detracted from the open character of the building without providing significant security, and that the decision not to plant trees as intended by the architects on the west side detracted from an appropriate balance between organic use of concrete and organic natural sculpture. The views from the back of the lecture halls into the ceiling panels revealed unsightly service items and glass wool, storage for trolleys needed to be addressed, and the furniture selection in the staff room (a particularly interesting space) appears to have been made without consultation with the architects.
These are relatively small deficiencies. Looked at as a whole, the building reflects a bold, intelligent and creative response to the accommodation brief. The absence of an established front facade and point of entry will free up planners to develop new areas of circulation around the building. The materials of the building are sensibly used, and the spartan spaces in the interior could easily accommodate artwork to highlight the human dimension of the learning/teaching activity involved. By avoiding the straitjacket of formal monumentalism frequently associated with centenary commemoration, the building creates space for an active and mobile community of educators and learners interacting freely and comfortably with each other. In our view, the Centenary Building meritoriously adds a fresh feature to the University of Pretoria landscape, complementing well the elegant and light-filled law faculty building that lies alongside.
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