The Mpumalanga Provincial Government Complex
Mpumalanga Legislature
PROJECT   Images
In the new Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature and Government Complex in Nelspruit local context and culture has been translated into architecture of world quality. The harnessing of natural energy, use of appropriate technologies and the creation of healthy working environments in the 90 000m² Mpumalanga Provincial Government Complex, testifies to a design culture which cares for our planet and its future.

In a rapidly transforming country such as South Africa any major civic building project challenges the architect to consider and give expression to changing frames of reference and to the expectations born from a spirit of renewal. The new government complex for Mpumalanga Province is the first major civic building to have been commissioned in our newly constituted, democratic country. As such it should represent not only a functional design response to a clearly formulated brief and a given site, but should also endeavour to acknowledge the value (and mechanisms) of democratic government and to create an architecture which captures something of South Africa with which citizens across our culturally diverse society can identify. Site response and functionalism are strong architectural generators in their own right, which lend themselves to some measure of reasoned design approach. Cultural, spiritual and emotional identifications in a design are more subjective, and elude analysis on purely rational terms. In presenting their work, architects can only provide elucidation to the extent that reasoned decisions and a conscious approach have generated the design solution. Ultimately the building has to speak for itself and respond to the test of time without the crutches of post-rationalization. In explaining aspects of the project, therefore, the focus here is on a number of generators, which have contributed with varying extent to an integrated design response.

As a newly established province, Mpumalanga was administered from costly rented accommodation in some 15 separate locations. A need to centralize all legislative and executive government functions on a single campus led to a two year process of site identification and compilation of a highly detailed accommodation brief, which formed the basis for procurement of architectural services via a design competition. The project budget was established on the basis of a build-operate-transfer arrangement (changed to a standard building contract halfway through the construction period), calculated to amortize capital expenditure over a ten year term on repayments equivalent to the budget for rented accommodation.

The building site is a setting of rare beauty, on the confluence of the Crocodile and Nels Rivers, each of which cascades down a spectacular gorge fringed by cliffs and dense riverine forest. The bluff of land between the gorges, formerly a citrus plantation, is bordered by the crescent-shaped forest line, following the contours of the edge of the plateau.
The overall layout of the government complex responds directly to this setting. With parking included, 95 000m2 of bulk area is accommodated in a dynamic spatial and formal configuration. In two crescent-shaped lines the various pavilion-type buildings hug the tree-line, stepping up and down with the natural ground line, engaging the forest and connecting to outside ground level from at least two, in some instances three levels per building.
The northern string of buildings follows a gentle curve along the trees, and houses the administrative offices of the executive government departments. The eastern crescent is shaped along a tighter curve, which turns back on itself to enclose a public square. The buildings defining the square house the facilities of the legislature; the square itself is placed on axis with the newly created government boulevard and acknowledges the public role in democratic provincial government.
The chamber of parliament is located at the junction of these two curves, as a circular space under a large parabolic dome, 28m in diameter, constructed from precast ribs and brick-lined panels. Hierarchically the chamber takes up the pivotal position between the clearly separated legislative and executive arms of the provincial democracy, visually it forms the anchor of the overall formal and spatial composition. The dome is at once a contextual reference to the monolithic granite outcrops which mark the Nelspruit landscape, a universally recognised architectural signifier of places of gathering and, in its parabolic shape, expression of pure structural logic.

By aligning the buildings to the site contours two distinctly different edges to the campus are created, which form a transition between the urban and natural realms.

To the west the complex delineates a concave, enclosing space, to the east a convex edge which opens up to nature. The western edge is detailed as a solid, urban edge, relating to the adjacent urban development which is, as a typical commercial satellite node comprising a shopping mall, value mart, casino and convenience hotel, sadly lacking any substantial urban context. This western side of the complex is shaped by horizontal services cores edging each pavilion building as a solid facade, a protective shield to the harsh western sun, their function clearly expressed by the sculptural treatment of vertical circulation and services shafts which form entrance portals to each building. The large brick walls, of a colour selected to blend with the hues of the landscape, are subtly patterned to create a play of light and shade as the sun passes across their planes, each at a different angle along the curve.

To the east of the cores open plan office floor plates radiate out to the riverine forests, affording panoramic views across treetops from upper levels and opening into the foliage and over the river lower down. Arranged around internal courtyards, and fully glazed along three edges, the individual floor plates step in and out to meet dictates of particular spatial requirements for each department and to simultaneously engage the natural environment in a varied configuration of stepped, projecting or recessed planes. Interiors are flooded with indirect natural light entering from internal courtyards and the generous panoramic windows, shaded by deep roof overhangs, sunscreens and projecting timber decks at all levels.

The western curved space houses the parking area, detailed as curved decks which follow the contour lines to mimic the slight knoll formerly occupying this location on site, and the central facilities building which houses shared staff facilities (library, canteen etc.) and the central services plant. A colonnaded walkway links all buildings along the western edge. This colonnade is placed above a services tunnel, which follows the same interconnecting route as the main walkway for highly efficient and accessible services distribution across the site and up each core, from where services are reticulated through access floors and ceiling voids to their point of delivery. Floor plates are completely open and services systems optimally flexible to meet demands for long-term adaptability and upgradeability of space planning layouts and servicing installations. All space planning has been done to optimize efficient collaboration within workgroups, with sizes and locations of workstations determined by the task to be performed and the rate of occupancy of a desk, rather than by organizational hierarchy or personal preferences.

Sustainable approaches to building contributed significantly to the architectural response. Solar shading was calculated throughout the campus and integrated into the building aesthetics. Energy-efficient climatic control systems, using mechanisms, such as BMS monitoring and management, and individual control of small localised air handling units served from a central chiller plant are supported by passive measures such as efficient thermal screening, insulation and selective application of three different types of glass to meet varying conditions of exposure. Renewable, cultivated timber is used extensively in balconies and roof structures. Clay bricks selected to blend with the landscape are complemented by stonemasonry, using granite harvested and recycled from quarry wastage.

An environmental management plan was in place during the entire construction period to protect identified tree specimens on the building site, and above all to ensure that the pristine watercourses and forests were left undisturbed. These measures were amplified by active rehabilitation of the riverine environment in previously disturbed areas.

A focus of sustainable approaches in architecture inevitably also leads to a re-assessment of architecture as process. Ambitious empowerment targets challenged all parties involved in the project to create opportunities for business development, skills transfer and collaboration of historically disadvantaged individuals on site. Significant levels of equity sharing in contracts, formal training courses, informal hands-on training programmes and job creation were achieved on a project which was marked by enthusiasm and shared pride among all participants. Among the many positive results with these initiatives, with a direct bearing on the creative solution and execution of the architecture, are arts and crafts initiatives which achieved hands-on integration of individual artistic contributions into the building fabric. Carved and textured plasters, beadwork panels, embroidered tapestries and a wealth of arts and crafts, collected in a two month long, widely publicized, arts and crafts roadshow were treated not only as embellishments, but as an integral part of ongoing design development in which, through workshops and within overall guidelines, groups of individuals were given the opportunity to leave a mark on truly crafted buildings.

The contribution of arts and crafts on the project add to the South African character aspired to in the building. This is amplified by an approach to construction detailing with appropriate technologies and local materials. In assemblies such as the many timber and steel structures each building element retains its integrity as a functional object, yet in its material selection, shaping and the visual effects achieved in its repetitive application, textures and patterns reminiscent of an African iconography are generated without having to resort to pastiche.

External finishing materials, predominant among which are facebrick, roughcut granite blocks and timber assemblies, with highlights of coloured plasters in places, have been selected to blend with the natural environment. This approach is complemented by the landscape architecture, which is fully integrated with the buildings. Only indigenous plant species are used. An unforced, natural transition is achieved between the eastern forests and the gardens, while more formal landscape designs are confined to enclosed courtyards and the built-up western environment.

The African landscape also inspired conceptual themes of finishing elements, which could roughly be termed earth, reed and grass. “Earth” elements are the building mass, the claybricks, stonewalls and richly coloured and textured plasters. “Reed” elements are battened timber panelling and assemblies of turned poles as roofprops, balcony structures, balustrades and sunscreen masts. “Grass” elements are manifested in numerous variations on the theme of weaving. Woven stainless steel meshes form draped ceilings and external sunscreens. Basket motifs have been used in natural stone mosaic carpets which adorn public foyers. The interior lining of the dome, too, is treated like a woven basket. Here acoustic ceiling panels, woven from Lloyd Loom paper-covered wire, are applied in basket-weave geometry as a unique aesthetic solution to a beehive enclosure.

One could point to the beehive shape as a traditional African form of enclosure, or to the colonnade walkways as typically South-African verandahs with origins in indigenous cone-on-cylinder homes, later adapted for colonial farmsteads as an appropriate response to local climate.

Many individual details could be highlighted – the rising sun motif, symbol of the province, recurring in various guises throughout the complex; the paperback acacia in the enclosure of the civic square, recalling the “gathering tree” of the traditional kgotla, precursor to the modern legislature; the formal water feature on the square, with patterns inspired by those on iron-age pottery-sherds unearthed on site, recalling the dished shape of an overflowing bowl or basket, or even a gold-mining pan; or the sunken garden with a water feature celebrating the lovely riverside setting ...

In the final analysis the building is a synthesis of a diversity of considerations ranging from functional needs, financial constraints and pragmatic decisions, to an appropriate response to a given setting of inspiring beauty, a given climate, a context of local materials, appropriate technologies and a desire to interpret and meet the expectations of a culturally diverse people. It is also the result of a collaborative effort. Maybe the circumstances of its making, and a sincere effort to apply with integrity the generating considerations which inform the design, make this a South African building, insofar as such an overriding identity can be captured in architecture. Time will tell. The debate is still young, an appropriate architecture for South Africa still evolving.

Christoph MalanPROJECT   Images