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Ubuntu Centre
Zwide, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), Eastern Cape


Type:Community Centre
2011SAIA EC Award for Architecture
2012SAIA Award of Merit
2012SAIA Award for Excellence
Street:Qeqe Street


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33°52'08.01" S 25°34'01.65" E Alt: 25m

Architect Notes:

The project was commissioned by the Ubuntu Education Fund to provide a centre of operations for its health and educational outreach programmes serving the township of Zwide, a community with up to 80% unemployment and a 30% HIV rate.

The Fund wanted a building with spaces that functioned efficiently, but it was also important to them that the Centre should make a visual statement affirming that it was possible to provide a building of quality and permanence in a 'township ' environment.

The building is designed to grow out of its setting. The textured slate pathways which begin outside the boundaries of the site and which run through the building as circulation routes are seen as a continuation of the natural pathways of the surrounding township. The various functioning spaces in the Centre become incidents along these pathways and are expressed separately as semi-trapezoidal forms.

The folded off shutter concrete slabs which double as walls and roofs give continuity to the structure, promote a feeling of permanence and give support to each other in the spirit of Ubuntu. They contain glazed external walls draped with horizontal gum poles providing shade and security.

The palate of the building is deliberately restricted with the smooth off shutter concrete used both externally and internally contrasting with the natural slate and timber used for floors, ceilings and fittings.

The Centre houses a wellness wing with a clinic specialising in HIV and tuberculosis prevention services with the emphasis on counselling, together with an education wing for group study, career guidance and computer learning. At the heart of the building and running through two floors is a multi purpose space which can be used for theatre and dance, for after school educational programmes or for workshops for up to 250 people. A rooftop vegetable garden over the reception space provides a source for the Fund's nutrition programme.

Award for Architecture Citation:

Within the genre of community-oriented facilities, the Ubuntu Centre sets itself apart from any similar structures.

Commissioned by the Ubuntu Education Fund, the Centre provides education and health programmes for the Zwide township. Evidently, the client called for an efficient design but one that would simultaneously "make a visual statement, proving that is possible to provide a building of quality and permanence in a township environment".

The footprint of the building was seemingly generated by the pathways across the site, with the various trapezoidal public and semi-public spaces treated as "incidents" along these circulation routes.

Although the continuous, off-shutter concrete wall-roof structure is said to emulate the supportive notion of "ubuntu", it has precedence in international "folded" tendencies of recent years. Yet, this bold gesture provides a refreshing take on the more fragmented morphological approach generally encountered in South Africa, succeeding admirably in achieving a distinct civic presence but without being overbearing, monumental, regimented or overly secured.

The combination of (slanted) galvanised and gum-pole sun-controlling screening devices both soften and modulate the audacious forms and regulate the extensively glazed surfaces. The innovative application of familiar materials - both externally and internally - coupled with highly finessed detailing and animated spatial sensations make for a surprisingly cohesive and exceptionally discerning architectural experience, enthusiastically embraced by a proud community.

Even though the project may have had a sizeable budget, this thoughtful and excellently executed project serves conspicuously as an example of what contemporary South African architecture should aspire to achieve. Congratulations are extended to the internationally renowned architect, Stan Field who was able to apply his extraordinary design skills to his country of birth after many years of absence, as well to the local architectural team who skillfully oversaw the project's implementation.

Award for Excellence Citation:

From a distance, the most striking feature of the building is how the multi-angled glazed external walls are daintily draped with horizontal gum poles that provide shade and security. The building situates itself to geometrically sprout and grow out of its setting. The pedestrian routes that were and continue to exist within the site and its immediate environment have been successfully taken through the building as circulations of textured slate pathways. Strung along these pathways are various semi-trapezoidal volumes of spaces, which are the centre's activity areas.

The folded off-shutter concrete slabs, which regularly double as walls and roofs, give continuity to the structure, promoting a feeling of holistic fluidity. The resultant effect is one of floors, walls and roofs supporting each other literally and figuratively as in the spirit of Ubuntu.

The materiality of the building comprises of a smooth off-shutter concrete as structure, roof and wall, all of which are patterned and interfaced by gum-pole latte that provide security and shading for the spaces within the building. It is worth noting that the gum-pole latte provide security for the building without alienating the surrounding social-geography. Instead, they create an organic texture that softens the harshness of the angular off-shutter concrete and lend a natural humane facade to the building.

What further accentuates the centre's purpose is how the wellness wing with a clinic specialising in HIV and tuberculosis prevention services, together with an education wing for group study, career guidance and computer learning, are harmoniously synergised. This synergy poetically occurs around the heart of the building, which is a 250 people double-volume multi-purpose area, which can stage dance and theatre productions when not housing after-school education programmes and, or workshops.

A rooftop vegetable garden over the reception space subtly gives pedestrians and the surrounding community visual access to the centre's nutrition programme, whilst providing subsistence for the fund's nutrition programme.

The building makes a permanent statement of architectural excellence in the way it contrasts historical design approaches within a township environment, allowing for a culturally receptive iconic building with which the community can associate, as well as derive a sense of dignity and pride.

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.