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Government Building
Mmabatho, North West

Barend Johannes (Bannie) BRITZ: Design Architect
Type:Government Buildings
1979SAIA Award of Merit


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25°49'59.36" S 25°36'41.43" E

Secretariat for Bophuthatswana Government – now the Legislature for North West Province

This complex is the centrepiece of Mmabatho (Mother of the People), the new capital of one of the black states that were once part of South Africa. Mmabatho touches the twin historic towns of Die Stad - a centuries-old Tswana town - and Mafikeng (Mafeking of The Siege). Britain ruled her protectorates in Southern Africa from Mafikeng.

The Tswana have a history of building towns in this part of Africa dating from 450AD. These usually consist of cellular conglomerations of oval spaces surrounded by dwelling units. The qualities of the traditional settlements include a clear spatial hierarchy, controlling public and private spaces; successive layering of space, created by walls within walls, with different realms of enclosure; a clearly expressed circulation system.

In the original brief, President Mangope expressed the wish for a 'Tswana' building. A typical slick office building was not appropriate. The history and identity of the users should be recognized at the same time as catering for contemporary functional needs.

The central meeting place, a formal urban square, became the most important element. It is defined on the east and west by the formal facades of the ministries and to the north by the building occupied by the president and his staff. A brick screen forms the south facade and defines a formal terraced garden. Rose gardens, fountains, and a row of wild olives layer the space between the Kgotla (space for gatherings of headsmen) and the facades. In the four corners, low buildings shape places with seating under plant-covered pergolas. These circular fountain areas relate to aspects of Tswana life such as religion, industry, agriculture, and the arts. Indigenous trees, art works, and the sound of water refresh the weary city dweller or traveller.

The President's building serves as the main entrance to the complex as well as the ceremonial entrance to the future parliament building. It has a secondary main entrance on the north, leading to a grand foyer connected to the other entrance. This building also houses halls for functions and exhibitions. Surrounding the ministries is the 600m long four-storey office horseshoe. The ground floor houses services, parking, storage, etc. All levels are reached by easy ramps and stairs. Circulation to office space is by walkways under a huge vaulted verandah structure, keeping main circulation outside offices. This allows users to be aware of their locality in a vast complex at all times.

A first concern was to make a definite place in a flat, featureless landscape. It has to be a place which the Tswana people would experience as a spiritual centre - in the same way as St Peter's Square is understood by a Catholic. Influences were the Campidoglio, the Maydan Square, Piranesi's plan of Rome, and Herbert Baker's Union Buildings. The place also had to act as an oasis in a semi-desert.

A third world building was required. Most important was the intention to keep energy use and maintenance costs low. This meant minimal use of air conditioning (in a severe climate) and lifts. The design of the stepped building section followed from the needs of shading a curved building. On the inside perimeter, the verandah with its sunscreens fulfils the same function. By using adjustable louvres in windows to near floor level, building mass may be cooled at night to help to reduce internal day temperatures by 3-4°C.

For a developing country, technologies with a high semi-skilled labour content were appropriate. This permitted local people to be trained to do the work, acquire skills, and keep the money in the country. Local materials were used as far as possible.

Flexible office space was needed. Open plan offices would be too bland. The cellular open plan of Herzberger's Centraal Beheer particularly influenced the way the space was structured.

From the outside there were two scale-related problems to solve. A simple memorable silhouette was required for a large building mass in a flat landscape. The low arched facade with its pyramid roofs created the large-scale order. From nearby the building suddenly becomes huge. By making arches in the outside screen wall, each acting as a picture frame, individuals may identify with the complex.

To humanize the building further a certain tactile quality was needed. Much attention was given to handrails, brickwork, changes in floor materials - lino, slate, and quarry tiles—and to wall surfaces in glazed tiles, timber, and slate. Local Taung marble was used economically and detailed carefully in the president's wing.

For the worker and the visitor the building had to be pleasant. A simple circulation system, interesting views, changes of level that are easily negotiable, and clear orientation were prime concerns.

Designing a building with so many requirements was challenging and exhilarating. It was very satisfying when the users decided to christen the complex 'Garona' (Our Place) on completion.

Edited from a text by Bannie Britz, Johannesburg, 1984. UIA Issue 8, p 30

This building was chosen as an exhibit at the Pretoria University School of Architecture 50 year Alumni exhibition held at the Pretoria Art Gallery.

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.

Writings about this entry

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pg 30-31
Britz, Bannie Bannie Britz & Michael Scholes. Secretariat for Bophuthatswana Government, Mmabatho (1978-83): in Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8): pp 30-31