In the wake of being awarded World Building of the Year 2009 for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in South Africa, the pioneering architect shares his thoughts on the importance of authenticity in contemporary African architecture.
“South Africans don’t need to try and make buildings out of steel and glass. We can’t do them better than the developed world can,” says the South African architect Peter Rich. “We need to find more innovative ideas.” Rich is an architect who practices what he preaches and the ideas to which he refers are encapsulated in the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, a spectacular structure that was awarded World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival, which took place in Barcelona in November 2009.
Located on a sacred 9th century site in Limpopo, South Africa, the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was designed to house prehistoric artifacts from the region. The immediate environment was the inspiration for the design, which made use of as many local materials as possible. A series of vaults, built using traditional African techniques that Rich revived, comprises the main structure, which is topped with rocks and stones found on the site.
“It’s almost as though a seed was planted and the building grew out of the landscape,” says Rich of how the Centre merges with its natural setting. “When you look at the building it’s like an elephant: you see it then you don’t.”
As well as prioritizing ecological and sustainability issues, there was a strong social program about the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, with unemployed local people involved in its construction. Close attention was also paid to the ethnic history of the site. Indeed, it is these issues that are the pillars of the Peter Rich Architecture practice. Fusing modernism with African culture and tradition is Rich’s signature, which creates authentic buildings that sit at ease in their climate, culture and environment.
It’s a fact that was not lost on the judges of the World Architecture Festival. “Mapungubwe wasn’t about fashion and style and I think they were quite relieved about that,” says Rich of the super-jury, which included the architects Kengo Kuma and Raphael Viñoly. “There was something about Mapungubwe that touched them in a very emotive way that showed what architecture can be.”
The first thing that strikes you about the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre is its close relationship to the landscape, something the judges also admired. How did you approach the building within its environment?
Because this is a sacred ancestral site to some 17 different ethnic groups, I specifically didn’t want to make any one ethnic reference; I wanted it to be inspired by the landscape. What I did was look and listen to what the landscape had to tell. Even the organizing geometry of two equilateral triangles that I used can also be found in the stars, up on the ancient sites, and in a number of the ethnic tribes spatial organization of their settlements. I used something that was more subliminal. The rocks that were taken off the site were put back on the roof; they iodized and there is a synergy. We were trying to be very sympathetic and not hurt the landscape.
The actual structure of the Centre is made up a series of vaults. Why did you decide on this?
The vaults are a 1,300-year-old African technique of building, which was picked up by the Catalans and developed by Gaudi, and then at the turn of the last century taken by Guastavino to America where he created 1000 major public buildings, starting with Grand Central Station. This was a time before reinforced concrete, something MIT picked up on. They became our engineers because they found that these buildings have lasted all this time yet have no steel or cement in them. So we revived this technique and brought it back to Africa. The vaults managed to be like raised contours, like something that was just an extension of the landscape. And it has the feeling of something ancient, that it has always been there.
A strong social program was fundamental to the building’s construction. Tell us about the people involved and their specific skills and training.
Part of the money given by the government for this project was conditional that it had to have a poverty relief component to it. We took that seriously and the people who built the vaults were trained by a New Zealander but they were all unskilled laborers who acquired a new skill. Instead of transporting terracotta tiles, we got unemployed local women to make the tiles by hand. That was the level of experimentation we went to as part of poverty relief; we wanted to create jobs.
Sustainability and ecological consideration were also integral to this project. What affect did this have on the design of the Centre?
I didn’t go in hunting sustainability and social commitment because that’s just part of the course of my practice. But on this particular building, because the roof tiles are made out of soil from the site and the stones that are on top of those are also from the site, we have a 90% less carbon footprint than a conventional construction. We also wanted to confront the issue of how few materials can we bring to the site and how much can we get from the site.
You are well known for fusing modernism with African culture and tradition. What, for you, are the pillars of contemporary African architecture?
Forty years ago when I was a young man in my twenties, I went out and lived with African cultures and documented them: measured them up, observed their rituals, noted how they interfaced with contemporary society and reinterpreted things in their practices. So I did my beaux arts training that way; I didn’t go to Rome. A lot of what I learned about African space making comes from the respect I have for other cultures with different values to what we as Anglophile Europeans have. I’ve based my whole practice on that and now I’m getting a chance to do public and symbolic spaces for contemporary Africans.
Your next project will be in Ethiopia – what are you working on there?
We won the contract to do the master plan of the most ancient city south of the Sahara, which is Axum. The Axumite Empire – which included the Queen of Sheba and the seat of everything that means Ethiopian culture – was one of the great empires like Rome, Greece and Persia at some point in time. What we’re trying to do is make it more user-friendly and more informative to a cross section of responsible tourists. It’s intact but it needs to be made more pleasurable to visit. It’s a fantastic project.
Your architecture practice is well known for its research and education regarding architecture in Africa. What are the issues that you strive to increase understanding of?
The problem at the moment is with computers and CAD operators who just churn out buildings across African cities with a concrete frame with blue windows. It’s destroying any sense of place or sense that these places have different climates to Europe or elsewhere. They’re also buildings that aren’t really sustainable because they need air-conditioning. What I’m trying to teach the younger generation is to go out and see what ordinary people do because the trouble is that only 1% of the buildings of the world are designed. If you look at the other 99% you can learn some very fundamental basic issues, like the courtyard for instance, or the threshold of entry, or the importance of the front door. They’re what people respond to and love but have somehow been forgotten.
Which African architects do you admire?
I like the work of FRANCIS PERRY, particularly the schools that he did which try to make much more meaningful educational spaces and involve communities. Gabriel Fagan is my favorite architect. He’s just turned 85 and operates in the Cape of South Africa. He’s a yachtsman and creates a synergy between modernism and the Cape vernacular. In terms of taste making, his work is sublime. Many more of the younger generation are starting to show aptitude too. In South Africa there’s a search for coming to terms with who we are and what’s special about where we’re at from a climate point of view and from a multi-cultural point of view. The outcome of that search is work that doesn’t look over the shoulder of the magazines of the developed world but looks at the particularities of our situation.
You have won many awards in the past but World Building of the Year at the WAF is selected by a so-called super-jury that includes Kengo Kuma and Raphael Vinoly. Is this award important to you?
I went only to share a wonderful story with some colleagues, never anticipating that I’d get this award. We got through the culture category and then went into the grand final. It was interesting because there was something metaphysical about Mapungubwe and something in the process that people were searching for, even though they came from a very sophisticated background. There was something that touched them almost the same way that a ruin touches the emotions because it gives you the ability to imagine. A lot of one’s competitors were only about fashion and style. They were hugely competent but you’d seen it before. The schemes that I preferred tended to be those that had a little more authenticity. What was also interesting was the fact that it wasn’t just the big names, which for me was encouraging.