A true architect of Africa

PHOTOS: Obie Oberholzer |  WORDS: Helen Grange

In February 2010, Peter Rich walked away with the ABSOLUT VISI Designer of the Year Award, the first time ever that an architect has won this prize. We take a look at his winning project.

Before his firm won the World Building of the Year award at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona last November for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in Limpopo, Peter Rich didn’t even have a website. Since then, his site has had over two million hits.

Essentially, Peter Rich Architects, an eight-strong team, won the “Oscar” of architectural awards, the pinnacle occasion when the world’s leading architects are reviewed and celebrated by their peers. There were 640 entrants from 67 countries and, while Rich was thrilled enough to win in the Cultural Building of the Year category, he was “completely overwhelmed” when he won the big prize itself.

The jury found that the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, commissioned by SANparks, was the most architecturally and psychologically powerful project of all.  

“It carries both weight and a message of complexity to the outside world,” commented chairperson of the World Architecture Community, Suha Ozkan. To that, Peter adds simply: “We built a building that is wonderfully authentic, made from the earth and with the help of the local community. That is its power.”

Asked about adding the ABSOLUT VISI Designer of the Year Award to his list of prizes, Peter says, “It is a huge honour, especially given that the designer world doesn’t usually include architecture, though, to my mind, it is the mother of arts. I’ve won around a dozen awards of merit for previous built work but the Mapungubwe project is special to me and I greatly value the accolades it’s received.”

Even further recognition has followed, with the announcement that Peter has been made an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, with the inauguration in Miami scheduled for mid-June 2010.

Site of an ancient civilisation

Located at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers where the borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet, the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre serves as the tourist’s introduction to the Mapungubwe National Park, the site of an ancient civilisation linked to the Great Zimbabwe trading culture and where the famous golden rhino figurine was discovered.

The centre, which took three years from planning to construction to complete, comprises two hollow cairns, while timbrel vaulting was used to construct the billowing forms that expose the arched edges of their thin shells. The vaulting was overseen by the contract engineers, a team from the Massachussets Institute of Technology.

Vaulting is an ancient building technology, used before the advent of reinforced concrete, that makes use of hyperbolic paraboloid geometry (a potato-crisp shape). Timbrel vaulting doesn’t rely on gravity but on the adhesion of several layers of overlapping tiles that are woven together. In this case the tiles were 18mm thick and handmade from local soil, says Peter, who adds: “This old-fashioned method of construction also has a low carbon footprint, which is why architects are looking at it once again.”

Inside the centre one finds zig-zagging walkways. The internal exhibition space is cavernous. Light is filtered through coloured glass and dappled patterns are reflected from the ponds that cool the air. Light is also cleverly tempered with rusted steel screens and slatted timber.

The domed exteriors are covered with loose rubble stones cleared from the site before building. Observers have remarked that the building looks like a seed that simply grew there.

“The centre symbolises Africa before colonisation, its ancient cultures and mythologies,” explains Peter. “It has been designed to evoke the qualities of a sacred ruin, layered with meaning and richness. The feeling I wanted to inspire was of a mystical, sacred place, a place that tells the story of Africa.”

Resourceful use of local materials

The fact that Rich and his team made such resourceful use of local materials and labour made a strong impression on the sustainability agenda at the Barcelona festival, although the emphasis remains firmly on the centre’s cultural contribution.

“When I talk about it, I tell a lyrical, human story, not a windgat story about what a genius I am, and people take delight in that,” he says.

Peter lives in a brightly coloured Ndebele-inspired home-cum-office in Parktown but is never around for long, spending a lot of time in Axum in Ethiopia where he and his team are “master planning” an ancient city after winning a tender geared to enhancing its tourism appeal. He is also working on a similar project in Kigali in Rwanda and at the same time dons his professor’s cap to teach a younger generation of architects and urban planners.

An avid researcher of indigenous tribes and a leading proponent of contemporary African architecture, Peter Rich likes to build on tradition and his buildings resonate strongly in the communities where they stand. One of his most notable local works is the Alexandra Interpretation Centre, which he says is loved and embraced by the community.

“My inspiration comes from the particular cultural context I’ve been commissioned to work in, mostly African, which I then interpret in the architecture,” he explains. “Africans actually have all the solutions… The Ndebele woman is just as talented at architecture as someone trained by Palladio (the Italian Renaissance architect), simply because she is experienced in design and building. You are only as good as how much you practise your craft,” Peter says.

Buildings devoid of style or fashion

With a career spanning 40 years, the architect has an impressive body of work behind him, which includes national buildings as well as humble community facilities in Gauteng and Limpopo.

He likes to describe his buildings as “devoid of style or fashion” but with a “respectful treatment of ethnicity” that rings true to the people for whom they are created. This was exactly what he had in mind when he stood on the dry, unremarkable ridge overlooking what is now the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre.

Ironically, Mapungubwe recently became a hotbed of controversy over the awarding of coal mining rights to Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) not far from the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, presenting a threat to its World Heritage Site status.

“If the centre can be used as a symbol in the campaign to fight this, then I’m happy because the introduction of coal mining will destroy this beautiful baobab landscape,” comments Rich.

The significance of Peter Rich’s World Building of the Year win has perhaps yet to be felt. To date, contemporary South African architecture hasn’t been recognised by the rest of the world, he says. But the recently launched book 10+ years 100+ buildings – Architecture in a democratic South Africa, by Prof Ora Joubert, topped by this victory, will hopefully put it on the map.

“As architects we are wrestling with what makes us special in this place, in the 21st century, how we interpret it and make it personal. We have the chance now to make public spaces that truly reflect our cultural diversity,” he says.

This legacy has already begun. In Mapungubwe, the unemployed masons trained on site are using the remaining tiles from the project for their houses in nearby villages. And so they continue a wonderful South African success story.           

· Peter Rich Architects: 011 726 6151, www.peterricharchitects.co.za