Ambitious: The Javett Art Centre in the making. The first concept design was produced as long ago as 2012, but the complex is now set for completion early in 2019. It will comprise nine distinctive exhibition spaces. Picture: LIAM PURNELL
Ambitious: The Javett Art Centre in the making. The first concept design was produced as long ago as 2012, but the complex is now set for completion early in 2019. It will comprise nine distinctive exhibition spaces. Picture: LIAM PURNELL

Gauteng’s latest art centre, featuring several galleries, which can stand as a counterpoint to Cape Town’s new Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art and Norval Foundation, is being built on the edges of the University of Pretoria’s Hatfield and South campuses.

Named the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP) in honour of its philanthropic donor, work started in 2016 and the centre is set to open in the first half of 2019.

Before we get to the art, which is really what the Javett Art Centre is all about, there is the building — and according to architect Pieter Mathews, it is easily the most challenging project his firm has worked on.

He designed the centre with the aim of enabling it to forge a partnership between the university and the public.

Keeping in mind that with these grand art projects the buildings have become as important as the art featured, the fact that the first concept design was penned as long ago as the end of 2012, gives a hint of the complexity of the endeavour.

Aerial view: The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria reaches across Lynnwood Road. Picture: HEIN DEDEKIND
Aerial view: The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria reaches across Lynnwood Road. Picture: HEIN DEDEKIND

With the help of project architect Liam Purnell, assisted by two architects dedicated to the project, Carla Spies and Jannes Hattingh, their goal has been to create a space that would activate the connection between art and architecture.

That is also why the site (one of three options) was selected, because of the proximity of the university’s sciences building and the visual arts building flanking the centre.

"It makes sense that those three [buildings] should be linked," says Mathews.

It also complicated the challenge because it meant they would be building across one of Pretoria’s main arteries, Lynnwood Road.

And yet, because of their approach, it will heighten the visual appeal as well as the visibility of the centre. They have turned the bridge into a huge feature wrapped in lightweight concrete cloth, based on the shweshwe fabric so loved by all South Africans, that reaches across the exterior and interior. This "cloth" displays many features, including a play of light and shadow, also turning the bridge into an expansive sight when it is illuminated at night.

"It almost looks like fairy lights glistening in the middle of the road," says Mathews about this design feature, which has strong South African connections embracing all its people.

The bridge is also a connector between the public and the students and academics, the two campus sites and the diversity that is embraced on campus.

The other reason for the site selection is that while it has one section on the main Hatfield campus, the section that crosses to the far side of Lynnwood Road will offer the public easy access to the galleries, as well as to a restaurant that will be part of the complex and an inviting addition for museum visits.

Apart from the bridge, which is an exhibition space itself and offers visual invitations to the other galleries, the Mapungubwe gallery, which will house one of the most important collections entrusted to the stewardship of the University of Pretoria, is the other focal point of the centre, towering into the sky. It adds to the dominance of the building not only because of the design but also its height.

The building will profoundly change the landscape of the campus as well as the city. When complete, it will comprise nine distinct exhibition spaces, one of which will be housed in the iconic bridge and feature the Javett Foundation’s collection of 20th-century South African art and contemporary collections from the university as well as private donors.

Anyone who knows the architect will deem this a perfect fit — not only because of his innovative design skills, but also because he has always combined art with architecture.

 

Director Christopher Till is planning exciting rotating exhibitions and students from across the university will have rolling exhibitions to visit in the dedicated student gallery. With its focus on the art of Africa, the centre will include a sophisticated department for restoration of artworks and an auditorium that can be used for performances or public lectures.

Other design features that had to be taken into account were heritage buildings in the vicinity, which are reflected in the design of the facing walls of the new structure; trees that had to be maintained; the extension of the main artery of the university known as Tukkie Laan; and the inclusion of two main squares. These are the Art Square, to be used by art and architecture students on either side, and the Museum Square, which is the public entrance to the galleries from different public parking spaces.

Before any of this even started, Mathews, who has just been awarded the Medal of Honour for Visual Arts (Architecture) by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, went on a 10-day museum tour courtesy of the Mellon Foundation. He was accompanied by the late Stephan Welz, who was instrumental in the appointment of his architectural firm with Prof Antony Melck and Prof Karel Bakker from the department at UP where Mathews studied.

The intense tour of various world-class institutions was a learning curve. They visited everything from restoration spaces to storage facilities. They were also introduced to curators and studied the way they shaped their exhibitions. All of this had an influence on the final design.

With something as all-encompassing as the Javett Art Centre, they had to find a unifying leitmotif to bind the various elements, such as the bridge wrapping, the faceted concrete shell structure of the Mapungubwe "mountain", galvanised steel pergolas and all the other building elements.

The solution was found in the colour scheme determined by the concrete cladding — a natural light grey. When various elements need to be separated, they will use charcoal as the shadow colour.

Anyone who knows the architect will deem this a perfect fit — not only because of his innovative design skills, but also because he has always combined art with architecture.

"I am an ambassador for the visual environment," says Mathews. His firm designed, among others, the Nellmapius Bridge on the N1 highway, the New Mussina Bridge as gateway into SA (expected completion date at the end of 2018); Transport Architecture Tshwane Rapid Transport stations in the historically sensitive Pretoria central business district (for example, Rivonia Trial station opposite the Old Synagogue); and various award-winning educational buildings for city schools, including Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool and a new music centre for Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool. He and his Cool Capital team also hosted and designed the 2017 South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

He is satisfied that he and his team have a good hold on this enormous project. "I am very confident in the collective brain at work here."

The building is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of 2019.


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