Governmental architectural

WORDS Mary Anne Constable PHOTOS Bruce Sutherland

The striking Human Settlements Contact Centre in Manenberg, home to 80% of the Cape’s famous minstrel troupes, is proof that government buildings can be safe, beautiful, inviting, interactive and green without those typical hostile high fences. 

Driving up Lansdowne Road towards Manenberg one cannot help but notice the large fortress-like building on your left, its walls covered in beautiful murals and stylish graffiti. What makes it even more unconventional is that the vertical walls appear to lean over diagonally while the horizontal roofs slope elegantly upwards.

Imagine then the surprise when you learn that this playful structure actually belongs to the government, who use it as the Human Settlements Contact Centre!

“Unfortunately in the past state buildings were often designed as box-like shapes that sit just like objects on a site, always with high security fences around them,” explains Ashley Hemraj, senior architect at the City of Cape Town, who was the project architect for the building. These high fences create hostile edges that are uninviting to the community that live around them – no wonder these buildings are often the target of vandals who sometimes also burn them down. 

Breaking down the fences

The City of Cape Town followed a completely different approach when designing the Human Settlements Contact Centre. Instead of being enclosed by fences, the walls themselves would create the edges, Ashley explains.

“The Manenberg community face many challenges with drugs, gangsterism and family violence being rife, so the client’s biggest priority was to have a space that felt safe and protected. The challenge was to create this sense of safety while ensuring that the building also interacts with the outside spaces.

“The walls are not really very high – at the highest point it reaches 4 to 6m – but the sloping creates an illusion of them being higher than they actually are,” says Hemraj. However, safety is not only created by closing others out. Isolation also creates vulnerability.

When people on the outside are able to observe those on the inside and vice versa, there is a sense of connection that develops trust. In terms of design, Ashley says that “there is a constant play between open and closed with a blurring between the public and private realms”. For example, the outside walls of the building are “stepped” in order to allow sunlight into the interior spaces through the tall strip windows. This contrasts with the high walls that have no windows at all. In other parts of the building the public is able to see into the private spaces – “this breaks down the sense of one group being more important than the other”.

For the green good

The City also decided to set an example as to how a community building can be made energy and water efficient. The building achieved a four-star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa as 70% of energy is “free energy” provided by solar panels and a wind turbine on the roof. There are also two internal courtyards that allow extra light into the large building. The first provides a space where staff can enjoy their lunch in the warm sun while feeling safe and protected. The second courtyard is accessible to the public and is situated next to the large green rainwater collection tanks. The idea was to allow the public to see what kind of water saving and treatment systems are used in the building, explains Ashley.

Perhaps the most interesting approach to sustainability was the choice to use sandbags to build the walls. This is a very economical technology and the sand to fill them is readily available in the area. The process of making, filling and packing the sandbags is also very labour intensive, which meant that extra labourers from the community could be employed on the project. These labourers were then trained from scratch and were able to take away a new skill that would help them to find future employment. Ashley stresses how sustainability is not just about saving energy but also about enabling people to sustain themselves through having a job. 

Ownership through art

The people of Manenberg have a rich and creative past: This area is home to 80% of the famous Cape Minstrels and therefore music and creativity form a large part of the culture.

It was decided to use the exterior of the building as a canvas to tell the story of this vibrant community. Artworks were carefully chosen to create murals and graffiti that adorn the walls. This helps to give the community a sense that the building belongs to them. To date there has been no vandalism of these walls, except for the gangs tagging each wall to imply proud ownership. The result is that the building is not only inspiring to the community but also to those who visit from afar. The large striking letters of the mural on the east facade tell us to “believe”. There is hope in a new and positive future.

It is clear that this project has faced many challenges, but these have been sensitively considered and the result is that both the landscape and the community feel connected to the building. “We wanted to show the community that a green building is not just for the commercial sectors but that they can have something special too. Everyone is equal,” says Ashley.