Nelson Mandela Square - Retail
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In evaluating the development, one should look back at the Sandton of the seventies and early eighties, a fast developing node with a disparate array of developments springing up without cohesion. In forming the initial urban design proposals, the aim was to use the available land to create a place of such particular architectural and aesthetic character, as to make into a memorable place, a focus of Sandton’s commercial developments, a magnet and a catalyst to encourage further growth and, above all, a place the people of Sandton could identify as centre of their community.

Based on Sandton’s 1979 "Burgher’s Walk Plan", development rights for the current Nelson Mandela Square and adjacent sites were first applied for in 1981. In May 1985, the Management Committee of Sandton initiated discussions on the future of this Council-owned site.

The New York firm of Victor Gruen Associates was consulted together with Co-Arc international Architects and GAPP in initial discussions covering a wide range of options for the site. A development with a memorable sense of place and a strong theme identity was envisaged.

In 1986, Co-Arc international Architects and GAPP were appointed by the Council as urban designed to work on initial concepts for the site. A framework was developed with strong emphasis on creating an urban fabric with high densities, surrounding an open square, which forms the major focal space to the development. The urban design phase culminated in a large-scale model incorporating the Sandton City development as well as sites to the west of the Council land owned by Liberty Life, and the adoption, in 1987, by the Council of a well-defined mandatory urban design document controlling all development for 9 sites. The Square and the elevations facing onto the space were defined, as was the suggested architecture for the bridge over Fifth Street, all of which formed part of the mandatory conditions.

The overall urban design had evolved out of careful analysis on the site. The main pedestrian routes, the development trends in Sandton, the location of civic activities and the links to adjacent retail centres were analysed, and the interventions considered most important to the quality of an active urban environment integrated into the overall plan. Central to the plan was the proposal for the public square, with the following aims:

The square should become the single most prominent element of the town centre, with surrounding developments radiating from it.

The character of the square should make it a development magnet in its own right, and one which would complement the configuration at the time of shopping within Sandton City.

The square should act as a magnet for people by virtue of its human scale, its sense of place and its civic quality

The square should essentially be a pedestrian environment, but with good vehicular accessibility and ample parking.

Inevitably the process had to be driven by private enterprise. Towards the end of 1987, tenders were invited by the Council for development proposals on all nine sites. The Nelson Mandela Square project formed the major component of the tender sites, comprising three of the nine sites. Only one successful tender was initially received for the most vital site, with the major five developers shunning this tender. Successive consortia subsequently attempted to structure a feasible development. During this process Bentel Abramson were appointed as retail designers, joining the architectural team of Co-Arc international Architects and GAPP in an architectural consortium.

After 1988, three years were dedicated to revising the mandatory design elements, to allow development of what was perceived as an economically viable centre. The Square was somewhat reduced, and the bulge on the west added but essentially the original four corner beacon points remained unchanged.

However a lack of financial support from the institutions for this ambitious scheme prevented progress, and by 1991 the project seemed doomed.

During 1992, in a last attempt to revive the scheme, Co-Arc international Architects/GAPP initiated discussions with Stocks and Stocks, who finally agreed to take over as Developers. A series of new designs culminated in a phased approach and created a more realistic and less ambitious retail component. Offices and the banking level on the north wing were eliminated from the first stage. A project valued at R330m was eventually financed by the creation of a consortium consisting of six major financial institutions.

After six months of design development and working drawing, construction of the square started in March 1993 as a commercial, fast-track project, with practical completion of the 120 000m2 first phase of development achieved two years later.

The architectural brief had evolved out of the long process described above. The densities, urban space, and scale of development were denied as part of the initial urban design framework developed by Co-Arc international Architects/GAPP on behalf of the Council. The architectural language, that of a Renaissance-style square, was insisted upon by the developers on the basis of what they perceived as a commercially viable approach. Squares, according to the developers, are synonymous with Italy. The architects were thus faced with the challenge of transmitting memory of a European architecture into a twentieth century South African city, at the same time knowing that the making of "popular" architecture and the short-term positive response to theme settings, virtually film sets for environmental acceptance, crates a negative imbalance to what architecture should be, i.e. a reflection of place, history, society and its time. Eurocentric revival seems to spring from the need to recreate a historical sense of place and security in times of change and economic and social stress.

In response to the brief, the architects thoroughly researched the urban scale of European pedestrian cities, as well as the architecture of the Renaissance. The Renaissance as a reference was approached not merely as a frivolous stylistic theme, but was studies in depth, to do credit to the geometries and proportioning system of the epoch, and to let depth, to do credit to the geometries and proportioning systems of the epoch, and to let these principles guide the sizing, proportioning and ordering of the square as urban space. The stylistic expression itself was abstracted as much as permitted, creating the impression of an "old" facade behind which the steel beams and shop fronts form a second elevational plan, revealing the contemporary use of space behind. Proportion and scale are crucial to the success of urban space, and care was taken to create a pedestrian square that had exactly the right balance of the openness to the sky and sun, yet retained a strong urban scale and a comfortable sense of enclosure.

Apart from retail and office facilities important civic functions were incorporated. The architects’ role as urban design controllers permitted them to ensure the developments on neighbouring sites did not dilute the aims of the overall urban design framework. The library, art gallery, other civic facilities including the council chamber and a new theater form part of the eastern side to the square. Residential components, free of bulk, were encouraged and incorporated into the urban design concept for Nelson Mandela Square, encouraging activities within the square beyond the nine to five syndrome associated with the majority of cities world-wide. The Michelangelo Hotel became part of this residential concept. Currently studies are underway to further apartments to be constructed as set-back storeys on top of the nine southern wing of the square, as part of a future development phase.

The square is the result of a long development process, steered by countless parties and influencing factors. The architectural team experienced many challenges, as one of the players in the process, not least of which was significant financial risk right into final documentation stage. In addition sheer tenacity was required to remain engaged over a period of ten years in an attempt to see the project realised, and to salvage as much of the architectural vision as the dynamics of the development process permitted. The end result is, as much an urban design project of note, as an architectural contribution to Sandton and the project deserve recognition as both, an urbanistic and architectural scheme.

Private ownership of the square, and associated commercial considerations, guide the extent to which the square is permitted to function as the public forum it was envisaged to be. In the time since its completion Nelson Mandela Square has become a major destination with numerous restaurants, art galleries, bookshops and speciality boutiques providing an extended pattern of lifestyle. Public response to the square has been favourable. (In an opinion survey in the local press it has been voted the best recent architectural contribution to the Johannesburg area). It seems to successfully fulfill the need for public open spaces within the fabric of the city, as an interactive environment on an urban scale.