Plant a container, plant a SEED

WORDS Nia Magoulianiti-McGregor

Joburg-based Architects of Justice, the designers responsible for reinventing the school library, have been chosen to show their work at the prestigious Young Architects in Africa exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

When funds dried up for a “grand” library at a Jozi township school, it was an opportunity for Architects of Justice to swoop in with a playful shipping container solution.

It could almost have been a game. With Lego-like components, the use of playful, primary colours, and disregard for hurdles and obstacles that bordered on the child-like, two rectangular steel shipping containers were reinvented into a creative library space for children at a primary school in Alexandra.

Architects of Justice, based in Johannesburg, had originally been commissioned by non-profit creative agency MAL foundation to design a library “of international standards” for MC Weiler Primary School. But when funds for the “grand option” dried up, partners Kuba Granicki, Mike Rassmann and Alessio Lacovig, acutely aware that promises had been made to the children, went back to the drawing board.

While containers as a low-cost solution is not new, says Kuba, the group decided to “make a conscious shift away from dropping a container somewhere and cutting a window and door”. Instead, they grappled with how to fuel imaginations – how, with the use of colour, shape and light they could offer a stimulating, creative space for learners.

The ideas came blasting forth with options and solutions that pushed the boundaries: Put the containers at a 90-degree angle. Choose a bold, technicolour effect to create a vibrant, inviting exterior space instead of the low-maintenance face brick that would be cheaper – but also dull. Utilise the outside area around the containers to supplement the interior space. Push out the internal area by putting the glass outside the large window box to create more space and comfort. Play with tectonics, structure and form to rattle imaginations. Fabricate, don’t construct.

The bright red external staircase with its Lego block shapes and visible construction connect the bottom space with the top. The bottom container holds the books with long, thin windows located between the bookshelves. Its roof is used as an outdoor reading area, while a deck on the ground floor is used as a stage for school assemblies or performances. Kids can lounge around reading books on the huge window seat – painted in primary yellow and large enough to let in natural light. The upper container, painted in green and grey, is for reading and has study rooms as well as outdoor reading spaces. Ceilings are trimmed with low energy LED strip lighting.

They called it the SEED – metaphorically for the “germination of knowledge”, and literally for “Supplementary Extended Education Device”. And it took only four months to construct. What’s more, this award-winning project (a silver at the Loeries, a Gauteng Institute for Architects Merit Award last year and shortlisted for the Corobrick South African Institute of Architects awards of merit and for excellence) has the added benefit of it being a prototype that can be rolled out at other SA schools.

While this is imagined as a semi-permanent solution until funds can be raised for the grand library, “the kids are really enjoying it,” says headmaster Gumani Mukatuni. “It’s user-friendly and fun. I can’t yet imagine the impact it will have, but we know it will be a huge one.” 

Containers for the win! Read more article about container architecture here.