Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

When you drive north up Rissik Street with the Johannesburg CBD behind you, past the old post office and Park Station, you can’t help noticing it at the top of the street.

Or, as you come down Joubert Street, past Constitution Hill and around into De Korte, it looms up like an apparition: a floating golden drum with scalloped edges, a finned glass façade and a spire reaching upwards from the roof.

Set outside the metro centre in Braamfontein, it stands in thrilling and surprising contrast to the imposing neo-brutalist apartheid-era landmark behind it.

This is the new council chamber. It replaces the old one in the bowels of the monolithic metro building, which the city outgrew. With its price tag of R280m, one’s first worry is that this startling new architectural presence might be a vanity project of some sort.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

Much of the rhetoric surrounding it is couched in terms of it being an "icon", a "landmark" and a "beacon" to Jo’burg — what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Various brochures mention "pride of place" and "legacy".

We all know that show-off symbolic structures are much easier and more fun to make than the hard slog of service delivery, and can usefully distract from civic failures.

But could there be something more to this space-age apparition than an attempt to brand Africa’s world-class city with a piece of world-class architecture? (Because, as the brochures and spokespeople will tell you, the chamber building is undeniably cutting-edge, from the smart technology it’s filled with to the fact that it has a five-star Green Star SA design certification in the category for public and education buildings.)

The chamber is instantly noticeable and has presence, but it is no Sydney Opera House or Guggenheim Bilbao

The chamber (and the R2.5bn precinct plan that it kicks off) was designed by Pierre Swanepoel of StudioMAS Architecture & Urban Design, who are responsible for some of Jo’burg’s most exciting urban planning projects and buildings. They recently completed The Trumpet in Rosebank, part of a plan to transform Keyes Avenue into a pedestrianised open-air high street.

And, of course, Circa Gallery on the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe, a genuinely catalytic architectural intervention.

The marketing material makes much of the fact that the council chamber is the first phase of a larger plan not only to revamp the metro centre and add to it, but also to create "a mixed-use civic precinct that integrates with the urban fabric". This partly rebuts the argument that it is a vanity project, but the official interpretation doesn’t begin to do justice to its real achievement.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

You’ll be told that the circular space was derived from the concept of "lekgotla", Tswana for an outdoor meeting space where important decisions are made, and thus represents "African principles of space-making".

The gold colour of the glass represents the gold-mining heritage of the city. The drum shape alludes to the drum as a symbol of communication (which has also found expression in the new Stats SA building in Tshwane). Of course, the glass façade reprises the idea that transparency of material somehow translates into transparency of governance.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

There might be a place for these and other rather literal-minded equations of meaning, but they’re hardly necessary.

Even though the square outside the chamber will have a giant screen broadcasting the goings-on inside, so that it avoids the pitfalls of simply becoming a mute goldfish bowl that emphasises distance instead of the intended sense of proximity, there are other aspects of the building’s symbolism, and the way it fits into the fabric of the city, that are more important and powerful.

First, it is much more subtle and complex than any idea of architecture as branding. Compare it to many of the massive new glass edifices springing up in Sandton at the moment. Each one is designed merely to be looked at — to make a single, didactic visual statement — and that’s where public interaction with them stops.

That’s why they seem so oppressive: they strain to impose themselves on their surroundings and to reduce the range of possible meanings. They’re static, limiting interpretation and leaving no space for imagination.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

The council chamber is different. It interacts with the city and buildings around it and makes provision for history. Rather than turning passers-by into passive spectators, it creates provision for engagement and imagination.

The first way it does this is by creating a narrative. A little like the glass dome on top of the Reichstag, the new German parliament created after the reunification of East and West Germany, by lifting the council chamber out from the metro centre and presenting it to the outside world, it makes a strong statement that something new and different is happening inside the old building.

The old space, and the city around it, is reframed or refracted through a new lens. This narrative dimension incorporates a sense of time, implying that change is possible, which creates a sense of freedom and possibility, which is much more powerful than those literal-minded equations of meaning.

Another central difference between this building and the top-down branding model is the way in which its potential has been harnessed to be instrumental in the transformation of the space around it. Set as it is on top of Rissik Street, and on a square crossed by about 3,500 people each day coming from Jo’burg Station, it has the potential to open up new public spaces.

This consideration of public interest is much more meaningful than a screen on the square broadcasting the councillors debating away inside.

Circa seems very much the prototype for the council chamber in the way it created the first pocket of true public space on the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe, which is now spreading steadily up Keyes Avenue and gradually creating a new high street knitted into the urban fabric of the area.

It’s noticeable how the chamber reprises some of Circa’s physical characteristics, but what is also interesting is the way in which Circa, the Trumpet, The Everard Read Gallery across the way, and inevitably whatever other buildings are built or refurbished on Keyes Avenue, all look so different.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

One of the other ways Swanepoel builds the interests of the public into his designs — the interest of those people walking and driving past every day — is the way he builds time into them. Similar to the way in which the chamber creates a narrative, it leaves plenty of space for variety.

The chamber is instantly noticeable and has presence, but it is no Sydney Opera House or Guggenheim Bilbao. Sometimes it seems quite small and modest for a R280m landmark. But that is because it is designed to make provision for the variety of buildings around it. It allows for texture — the sense that there is always something different to catch your eye and hold your attention.

That way, the chamber allows for multiple meanings. It also creates the conditions for something more important than patriotism and pride: a sense of ownership among a range of groups, individuals and identities or, better, a sense that the building belongs to them as the city does.

Picture: MARC SHOUL
Picture: MARC SHOUL

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