Architects: studioMAS architects + urban design
Location: Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa
Structural Engineers: Vela VKE Consulting
Main Contractor: Murray-Dickson
Project year: 2009
Photographs: Tristan McLaren, John Hodgkiss & studioMAS
Imagine a place in Johannesburg where you can enjoy music, film, talks, natural history exhibits, and art…. From early on, it was evident to the architect, Pierre Swanepoel of studioMAS, that CIRCA was to be ‘the’ venue to go to, a place to enjoy the best contemporary art on offer in Johannesburg; it would therefore need to function as a cultural gathering place. Forming an art precinct in the north western corner of Rosebank, its design focuses on a comprehensive way of looking at art and in so doing, creates a flexible, multi-purpose building, that gives the visitor complete exposure to all types of art within the ambit of supporting amenities.
Circa, when viewed together with the existing Everard Read gallery is conceived as more than just a gallery and is therefore equally considerate about the public realm around it. It integrates itself with the city and offers more user variety, like a coffee shop and bookshop which are within the open ground floor and spill onto the sidewalk. It contains exhibition spaces for crafts and mixed media and large meeting places for public events or smaller private functions. The purpose is to create a building responsive to the art on show, offering something physical and real; something that alters perspectives of everyday life. The space between the galleries creates an opportunity to enjoy and exhibit large scale sculptures much like a sculpture garden or park or square, thereby making more of our shared public space; not just road surfaces for cars and hiding places for criminals.
An underlying purpose of the design is to encourage the gallery goer to rethink what is defined as “art” and an “art gallery”. No longer is it simply about a picture hung on a wall in a forgotten so called “white box” hall, in an out of sight building. The vision is for Circa to become a cherished city landmark in an impressive art precinct on the prominent intersection of Jellicoe and Jan Smuts. Located on the corner of this highly visible intersection, it marks a prominent public intervention within the existing urban fabric, offering 360° views. Art has evolved, and this gallery sets out to include these advances using various media, such as music, film, large scale sculpture and the architecture itself. The architecture is therefore a sculptural artwork, moulding itself around the art it contains.
Johannesburg beats to the pulse of many themes. To drive along its streets is to be continuously exposed to inventive craft. This tradition is born of natural media, under the care of a well trained hand. Artists engage with their patrons through informal side walk “galleries”, where despite difficulty, sidewalks fight to sustain their function as public connectors. Moving forward on the vision to reclaim public space, the gallery establishes very open and fluid areas outside the building, which connect it prominently to the existing Everard Read Gallery. A ‘square’, big enough to house various large artworks, is created and provides an outdoor space to gather in.
One can say that Circa is a small building, with a big attitude. It is not just another commercial building, nor is it by any means, just another gallery. It is inspired by the new world economy where commercial gain and philanthropy are tempered by a concern for urban and natural environments. While its main aim is to conduct business, it uses its prominence to create an interest in art. It does so by forming a community landmark and reference point that emphazises the importance of art, in an unexpected urban environment. Therefore, it is integrated with functions in its surroundings such as the existing Everard Read Gallery, while still functioning autonomously.
Consider the Pine trees growing on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town. Their bent trunks are not characteristic of their structure, but are reflective of the harsh, windy context in which they have adapted their form to survive. These Pine trees, appear very different from their relatives growing in Mpumalanga, principally, because they have had to adapt to a very different context. This metaphor illustrates the importance of context in denoting form to a building.
The Circa site can be described as harsh and challenging to design in. It is located on a noisy and busy intersection, next to a filling station and within an undefined urban environment. The site is narrow and difficult to accommodate a standard building. It therefore creates a unique opportunity for some ingenuity and adaptive design. The architectural form can be appreciated for adapting to a narrow site, while creating a sculptural landmark form. The fins and scrims create visual linkages into and out of the building into the surroundings, while the main gallery remains private and removed from the hustle and bustle. Circa would not look the same were it to be built somewhere else. Partly in response to rational limits, a large part of the design of Circa stems from intuition, complimented by common sense. As its name suggests, it is not specific or defined, it is Circa.
The design is based on an elliptical plan. An ellipse, unlike an oval, does not represent an unsurprising constancy, but rather something of more natural origins; something organic. It speaks of that which comes from nature, through handmade and not machine made methods. In essence, this is the creative process from which art is crafted: “… once the size of an ellipse has been fixed then its exact shape is mathematically determined. In other words, the line forming the perimeter can be drawn in only one way. This is distinct from an oval where the perimeter has only to be a concave curve, and there are many possibilities. Simply, an ellipse is an oval, but an oval may or may not be an ellipse.” (Dr. Sarah, The Math Forum)
The Circa design philosophy reflects the abstract nature of art: it does not replicate realistically what is out there, but rather stimulates a thought from which it is to be understood. While the fins represent the randomness and variation of colour in nature, they do not reflect the internal functioning of the building. Thought and exploration are required in order for an appreciation of this is to be achieved.
For studioMAS, the architecture of Circa is one in which enclosure and spatial experience are paramount, where the lines of architecture become blurred. This has been achieved by using a number of long aluminium elements attached to the facade. These elements, or fins, are a means of partitioning the inside and outside space, while when read together, their repetitive placement along the facade create a monumental sculptural form. The fins, as singular elements, become apparent with the play of light and shadow along the edges of the building.
Evolving, with the time of day and seasons, the experience of the filtered space in the northern edges of Circa accentuates the experience of space in a completely different way; more than just a sculptural object, Circa’s architecture is about creating atmosphere. The sensory experience of space in Circa is demonstrated in the play of shadows, the reflection of sunlight off the fins and their glittering in the water of the sculpture pond. The harmony created by these elements evokes a sense of vibrant playful architecture, where movement and the process of experiencing space creates architecture that is fluid and evolutionary.
Poetry is interpreted in the façade of the gallery by creating a system of narrow vertical anodized aluminium fins that are equal neither in length, nor in colour. Nature and natural processes inspired the facade design. Consider the implied order and chaos typical of the protective fences of Zulu Kraals and the vertical elegance of reeds and grasses. These elements create both ‘enclosure’ as well as maintain views through them.
These concepts have served to inspire the facade of fins that serve as a screen, through which activity can be observed within the building from the street or where gallery visitors can experience glimpses of the city from within the gallery edges. This visual interface between user and context, changes along the perimeter by virtue of the elliptical façade. No two views from the building toward its surroundings are the same. The carefully developed process of colour selection for these panels was as follows:
- Images of natural scenes and colourscapes were sourced to act as the base images for the fins in order to simulate the randomness and variation of colour in nature.
- A single pixel strip of colour through the images was extracted with a focus on colour variation and contrast.
- The strip of colour was then colourised in Photoshop to simulate the range of colours able to be created and in line with the desires of the client.
- The single pixel strip of colour is then extruded to simulate the elevation of the fins as they would be seen once installed.
- In order to achieve the correct scale and grain of colour variation throughout the fins a degree of interpolation between the colour bands was required.
- Once the correct scale and variation was achieved the colours needed to be reduced to a minimum number for ease of manufacture yet retain the visual effect which had been developed.
- The final number of colours settled on was 7 and the colour sequence was applied onto the entire elevation of the façade and the colours mapped to each individual fin for construction.
The use of scrims in the facade as well as the external fire escape forms a major component of the architecture. The planted box within which the fire escape is located, creates an opportunity on which creepers can grow. It emphazises the importance of encouraging conditions for nature to develop in harmony with manmade things. Greening of this urban building in other parts of the design is also evident, albeit in a very subtle manner. The dialog between handmade product (the facade) and natural growth (the green scrim) aims to evoke an appreciation of the poetic and functional importance of scrims in our cities, a design feature that studioMAS actively promote.
Circa consist of three floors. The ground floor is named Speke and consists of about 106m2 of exhibition space for crafts curiosities. On crossing the public threshold, users are drawn in via a perimeter ramp that connects ground and first floor exhibition spaces and promotes access to the mobility impaired. Its double volume first floor, consist of 177.76 sq. multi-purpose exhibition space, with 7 movable display screens which can be dropped through the floor into the ground level below, realizing the full extent of the multi-purpose floor.
The top floor consists of the Darwin Room, an 85 sqm private lounge that can be rented out for functions and that spills out onto a 20sqm deck, overlooking the impressive North Western Johannesburg views . The gallery has two small kitchens for catering as well as AV technology for projection and public address.
Security is tackled by a bold site intervention. Circa promotes the seemingly forgotten concept of designing an inviting building with “good manners”; one that does not resort to perimeter fencing or a 3m high wall. By that we mean that the building utilizes level differences, overlooking features and robust materials, to create secure internal environments; breaking down barriers between the public and art. Boundaries create psychological barriers between people more than they create physical protection. Circa intends to break these barriers, bringing art to the public in everyday life.
If it is true that buildings are poetic yet rooted in logic and crafted though the creative process, then Circa not only responds to the poetic composition of a building within a vibrant urban context, but also to the logic of the needs of the art it houses and of its public. Circa is a building that is built upon a desire to be part of this city, its art and its people; it is a fluid point in time, that will morph and evolve as South Africa, and its art does.