Malapa Fossil Cave Cover and Viewing Platform

WORDS Alma Viviers PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes IMAGES Dook

“Touching the earth lightly” has become a cliche to describe almost any building that considers the basics of environmental responsiveness. The sensitive design of the Malapa Fossil Cave cover and viewing platform takes this concept to the next level.

The size of an A5 sheet of paper. That is the total area of the site intrusion – 32 bolts drilled into dolomite bedrock – of the Malapa Fossil Cave cover and viewing platform. Fact is, when you erect a structure on a site where the very ground is of international scientific significance, you cannot be too careful.

Located within the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site, Malapa is the site of the discovery of an extraordinary hominid fossil, named Australopithecus sediba. “The significance of this fossil find cannot be overemphasised,” says architect Krynauw Nel. “The building serves as a prompt in this story.” The client, the University of the Witwatersrand, needed a structure to protect the excavation site from the elements; and the researchers needed a cover to work under, a rock-lifting mechanism and a facility to accommodate a group of up to 48 visitors who needed to be able to observe the work without obstructing it in any way.

“One of the exceptional aspects of the project was working with the passionate, visionary Prof Lee Berger,” says Krynauw. “He was involved in the process every step of the way.” Another vital collaborative relationship was with the structural engineers, Fellows Consulting. “I have a relationship of more than 25 years with structural engineer Peter Fellows,” says Krynauw. “I know him as an innovative person who is willing to explore unconventional approaches.” The structure, which hovers among the trees over the site on eight “legs”, has an insect-like quality. “Structural detailing references skeletal features like the section of the hominid clavicle and scapula bones of the shoulder,” Krynauw explains. “In this way the building language is a nod to the narrative of the site and the paleontological discovery made here.”

The project was nearly four years in the making, but construction on site took only six weeks. “Because of the sensitivity of the site we wanted to limit the time workers and equipment spent there,” the architect says. “And when you are working on such a pristine ‘wild’ site there are other dangers, such as spitting cobras, spiders, scorpions and the odd zebra being chased down by leopard that you need to avoid!” In order to limit the time on site, the steel structure was prefabricated and first assembled on a rugby field to do loading tests before it was disassembled and trucked to the site. Another advantage is that should the research be concluded the structure can be removed with minimal impact.

This innovative, sensitive design has attracted much acclaim, garnering a South African Institute of Architecture (SAIA) Award of Excellence as well as being the overall winner at the Southern African Institute of Steel Construction (SAISC) Steel Awards 2014. The engineering feat was also recognised internationally by the Institution of Structural Engineers (Istructe) with an award for Community or Residential Structures. “The honour is humbling,” says Krynauw. “It is also encouraging that work done by a small practice on a relatively small budget is being recognised in this way.”

This structure received an Excellence Award in the Corobrik South African Institute of Architecture (SAIA) Awards 2015/2016.

“The fascination with and architectural value of this project is situated in the skeletal qualities of the structure – it is there and not there at the same time. It is fragile, impermanent and strong, while it fulfils its purpose in the most elegant and delightful manner possible.” – Prof Paul Kotze of the School of Architecture and Planning at WITS.