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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

LIGHT ON A HILL (article first published : 2006-12-13)

Light on a Hill: Building the Constitutional Court of South Africa has recently been produced by David Krut Publishers.

Once upon a time this is how buildings were made. It has taken five hundred years since the Renaissance for architects to begin to get to grips with the wisdom that they cannot do everything themselves. Buildings are better when artists and craftspeople are brought in at the start of the thinking and not at the end to repair disasters, or to pretty up a dull space. And this is the revolution of this remarkable building.

We have never had a public building like it – accessible, friendly, welcoming, un-pompous and informal. Our tradition, seen best in the granite monoliths in Pretoria, is for such buildings to intimidate in order to make us aware of our smallness .This is most particularly true of architecture for the Department of Justice, the very word “court” conjuring fear and awe, loathing and resentment. For our new country, a building had to speak another language.

Janina Masojada, one of the architects writes, “We wanted to design a place in which all people would feel welcome, where South Africans from urban and rural areas, the young and old, could gather without inhibition and have a connection, a sense of belonging and identity. We imagined parades, protests, concerts and celebrations attended by presidents and school children, together and proud.”

Beyond the bricks and mortar is something else, an intangible symbol of the democracy. Something which, in retrospect, could not have been achieved in any other way. Just as the Constitution was made by many people so this building was made by many. Reading the captions to the photographs of who made which mosaic, who which doors, which screens, chandeliers, carpets, paving, sculpture, wall hangings and dozens of other things, one is struck by the length of the list. How did these people come to be involved? How did they know about it?

Simple, really. They advertised. Competitions were arranged for every part of the building that needed artworks. As each person who was commissioned touched the lives of many others – their family, their community, their town even - the word spread, and so, in the end, thousands were caught up to a greater or lesser extent in the making. The result is a building that really does belong to the people. And this makes it unique in this country and sets a model to be followed.

And yet for all the groups of experts, advisors, judges and others - and the democracy involved in bringing in the traditionally skilled and the academically trained, the established and newcomers, the famous and the unknown - the building did not become a victim of design by committee. This is, because the architects, Andrew Makin and Janina Masojada, had such a strong vision of their goals. And that in itself, keeping track of all the disparate strands and weaving them into a coherent whole, was their genius.

One dispute is worth remembering for it shows the resolution of the architects. Chief Justice Pius Langa hated the angled columns in the foyer, as did several of his fellow judges. “The pillars were quite awful and disordered on the drawings.” “A meeting took place, the architects dug in their heels, and perhaps, reluctantly, the judges agreed to the design.” Later, everyone was happy. “We can’t imagine the building without the Pius Pillars,” writes Justice Albie Sachs.

Light On A Hill is a book of photographs interspersed with interviews and anecdotes from the architects, builders, judges and others. By its very nature, three dimensional space has to be walked through to be enjoyed. Capturing this experience on the flat pages of a book is not easy. Angela Buckland manages brilliantly by using natural light and, apparently, casual glances this way and that to duplicate the feeling of actually being there. Her photographs are intimate, the detail immaculate. The perfect choice for such a sensitive project.

Paging through, one sees how well the mix of different aesthetics works. In this is a cautionary signal to those who constantly talk of the need for a South African style. It cannot be manufactured in some ad-agency hot-house. It will eventually emerge organically from thousands, indeed millions, of personal responses to ideas that are in the air in this particular part of the continent and off which the creative mind feeds.

Building the Constitutional Court of South Africa is produced by David Krut Publishers and edited by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen with photography by Angela Buckland. It is available in major book stores or on www.davidkrutpublishing.com/dkp/2006/09/forthcoming-light-on-a-hill/ – Andrew Verster




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