Ekurhuleni Council Chamber
Ekurhuleni Council Chamber
PROJECT   Images
THE ORGINAL BUILDING

The Germiston Civic Centre was built in 1985, following the design of a winning entry in an architectural design competition held twelve years earlier.

The competition brief was for a civic facility which was to house not only a council chamber and mayor’s accommodation of the former Germiston City Council, but also civic facilities including a municipal library, a municipal clinic, a community hall, an art gallery and a large theatre. The theatre was never built, and the art gallery, placed on ground floor under the Mayor’s wing, was never used as such, having been converted into office spaces from the outset.

The omission of the theatre has resulted in a building with an extraordinarily generous allocation of circulation spaces.

At a contextual level the architectural design at the time responded to its urban setting in a number of ways. Serving Germiston as an industrial powerhouse of the country, a modern design idiom was selected: clean horizontal lines, shaping an unadorned, pure expression of the architecture, strengthened by a strong expression of the sculptural shapes at the Council chamber wing. The starkness of the modern aesthetic was softened by the use of a golden facebrick.

In its planning, the Germiston Civic Centre is structured around two axes, which are a direct expression of the two urban grids of the Germiston inner city which meet on the very site of the centre. As a predominantly public facility, the civic centre design allowed for a free flow of pedestrians around and through the building on two levels, giving expression to openness and accessibility. Lush landscaping around the building turns the spaces around the civic centre into a public park, which compliments the public facilities within the building.

The interiors of the original building were themed around the corporate blue of the former Germiston City Council, and were enhanced by a number of works of art, including tapestries, a large mobile in the main foyer, a mural and loose artworks.

CHANGE OF USE WITHIN AN EXISTING SHELL

An unfortunate side-effect of the state of semi-completion of the building and its partial changes of use in the past has been the transformation of much of the intended open and public character of the building into a rather incoherent agglomeration of occupancies, marked by the underutilisation and in places unsightly neglect of spaces which serve no clear function.

A positive effect of the selection of the Germiston Civic Centre as the site for the new Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Headquarters is that this brings about an opportunity to look at the building afresh, and achieve a functional renewal with concurrent shift in architectural focus.

What was previously a predominantly public building, will from now on increasingly serve the legislative and executive governance of the Metropolitan Municipality. Whereas previously the more symbolic office of the city mayor was accommodated in the building, it now houses the Executive Mayor of a large metropolitan area under a new political system.

Similarly the smaller Germiston Council chamber is now relegated to a conferencing venue subordinate to the larger new Metropolitan Council Chamber.

The conversion of the former public hall into the new Council chamber sees a clear change of use from a facility formerly used by the public to a facility used by the metropolitan legislature. This need not be seen as a loss to the People of Germiston, since the old city hall can now be re-activated as a more vibrantly used community facility.

Of the originally planned collection of public facilities (theatre, art gallery, library, clinic, community hall) at present only the library and the clinic remain as freely accessible facilities in the building, the remainder having never been used, or having seen a change of use as the headquarter of metropolitan governance.

The functional changes within the building are, of course, the direct result of a new, all-inclusive democratic dispensation, and specifically new structures in local government. The spirit of the new national constitution of South Africa, and the adventure of renewal on all fronts of social and political life during a first decade of true democracy brings with it the opportunity to also express in art and architecture the spirit of our new African democracy.

THE ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN CONTEXT

The detailing of the new Council chamber, while respecting the existing architectural context of the Germiston Civic Centre, brings in fresh detailing which signals new beginnings.

The golden facebrick exterior is retained. Contextually it links into the Germiston cityscape by echoing the use of golden facebrick in older civic structures. Its colour is a reference to the gold mining industry, and softens the modern lines, giving the modern style a distinctly local character.

In the interior finishing, though, new themes are introduced in order to assert a break with the past, and give expression to a new era in local government heralded by South Africa’s newly won democracy.

In keeping with the modern architecture of the Germiston Civic Centre building, the new palette of interior finishes retains a modern thrust, while introducing African and Regional contextual themes into the architecture. The African and Regional references are applied in a modern manner, in order to give simultaneous expression to both African cultural and political concepts, and to the modern times in which these concepts experience their Renaissance.

Against this background, the following considerations have generated the architectural design solution:


1.    The existing community hall dictated the shape of the space for the new Council Chamber. Within this space a horse-shoe shaped seating arrangement was inserted. This seating lay-out softens the Westminster-type confrontational arrangement of ruling party and opposition facing each other from opposing benches. The horse-shoe still allows for opposing views to be debated across the floor, but its curves mould the seating into a more African notion of collaborative gathering, suggesting both in symbolic and in practical terms the benefits of consensus over uncompromising confrontational politics.

2.    The red African Earth is celebrated in the carpet of the chamber and foyer. Breaking with the old corporate blue of Germiston, a rich and warm red carpet has been specially woven for the project.

3.    The rich texture of the African landscape finds expression in the quartzite rivens applied to prominent walls in the foyer and the chamber. This natural stone introduces a silvery colour, and a texture which will be brought to life by light fittings illuminating the wall surface from a steep angle from above, highlighting the sheen of the stone and generating a play of light and shadow.

4.    Ekurhuleni is one of the industrial powerhouses of South Africa, benefiting from extensive mining and manufacturing industries. This cutting-edge industrial side to the metro is celebrated by contrasting the colours of the raw earth and the textures of the natural rocks of South Africa with highly polished and sophisticated finishes: slotted, silver painted acoustic walling, metallic grey desks, elements of exposed steel beams, stainless steel gallery hangers and perforated metal pan acoustic ceilings. The sophisticated electronic systems add to the assertion of Ekurhuleni as a 21st century metropolis on par with industrialised cities across the world.

5.    In effect, the finishes of the chamber are a palette which recalls the full natural/ industrial contrasts, the full cycle from the raw materials of South Africa to industrially beneficiated end products of a modern country. This is made symbolically manifest in the central carpet feature, at the radius point of the chamber. Here carpet colours are graded from the predominant red through hues of browns and greys to a centre-point of vivid silver. This simple, abstract pattern is a visual expression of the process of harvesting wealth from the soil of our rich land and adding benefit through our human endeavours.

6.    The central carpet pattern also gives a distinct highlight to the interior, and can be seen as a celebration of the radiant African sun. This theme is echoed in the ceiling above, where the central portion is a shallow bowl-shaped ceiling disk, slightly tilted for added emphasis and feature-lighting of its shape. This is a large abstract feature introducing the circular shape of African spatial arrangements into the chamber, hovering over the chamber like a giant sun or a waxing moon.

The devices described above have deliberately been kept abstract. The chamber forms a palette of African colour, texture and spatial interpretation within the context of a modern building, and avoids the pitfalls of superficial appropriations of African cultural expressions. It is African and modern alike.

(Text by Christoph Malan)