Back to business

What used to be an unused car park in a rundown area on the south-western side of Johannesburg is now home to one of the city’s most remarkable buildings and is set to become part of a vibrant business precinct By Loren Shirley-Carr

Just a few streets away from the birthplace of Johannesburg, where Colonel Ignatius Phillip Ferreira first set up camp during the gold rush of 1886 and set in motion the development of what was to become South Africa’s largest city, a rebirth is taking place. On the corner of Marshall and Miriam Makeba Streets in Ferreirasdorp, a suburb marked by years of urban decay, the first landscaped office park in the city is being constructed under the auspices of The Johannesburg Land Company (JLC) which is set to rejuvenate the area and its surrounds and bring business back into the city centre.

The office park will comprise a large indigenous garden surrounded by a number of brand new office blocks, one of which is already built and occupied by Zurich Insurance Company. Though unreservedly modern, this first building strongly echoes the city’s rich history and is at home among the older buildings in the area, which was of primary concern to The JLC. Project architect and associate with TPS.P Architects, Gray Todd, explains: “After an initial briefing by The JLC, TPS.P developed a master plan including a number of multi-tenancy buildings, each which would be individually designed to meet the specific tenant requirements whilst still maintaining a contemporary style and relate back to the old Johannesburg mining era and to the current environment. In addition, all the buildings within the business precinct were to have complementary design themes, despite a definite focus on the originality of the individual projects.”

In June 2007, digging commenced on the first building and the team of architects from TPS.P, lead by directors Guy Steenekamp and Clive Jearey, set to work on the none-too-simple task of designing a modern structure that would fit snugly into an area of the city which is well over a century old. “The design challenge was to evolve an aesthetic both fresh and exciting, but which would also acknowledge its unique location on the western edge of the city, immediately adjacent to the magistrates courts.” says Todd. The result is a six-storey office building, comprising 12 500m² of office space, featuring an elliptical core growing out of a solid block, giving the western façade of the structure the appearance of a ship’s prow.

This ‘prow’ or core is separated from the main office compartment or block by a large, multi-volume atrium encased in glass curtain walling, and is accessible to tenants from different floors via bridges and stairways. “One of our main planning principles was to create a building that can be occupied easily and efficiently by multiple tenants or a single organisation. The separation of the core from the office space with two alternate access bridges across the atrium works equally well in both scenarios and in addition provides an exciting, dynamic common space (the atrium) where the continuous circulation of people is exposed like the throbbing heart of the building.” explains Todd.

From the outside, the core’s striking shape needed to be seen almost as a separate building to the more reserved office block, and as such it is expressed differently in terms of shapes and textures. At night, the opaque glass that wraps around the front of the core is lit up from the inside by lights which remain on for several hours past sunset and then turn off automatically. “These bands of light transform the structure into a highly visible and attractive feature, at its best when seen from the M1 highway,” says Todd.

The office block, meanwhile, is more formal in style and has a stabilising influence on the core, with its rigid shape and smaller, square windows on the northern and western facades. Honed sandstone from Naboomspruit gives a clean, polished look, while the darker and harder-wearing Giallo Duna granite provides a plinth for the building. Flame granite tiles, also very hard-wearing, provide a change in texture and colour and give depth to the design.

What takes the office block’s design from the ordinary to the truly remarkable is its main façade of sandstone, which is created in a separate layer and fitted over the face of the building like a veil, allowing the building to step backward and forward within it. On the eastern and southern façades, glass curtain walling from the first to the second floor wraps around the building and gently undulates behind the sandstone columns, which brings the sandstone façade into sharp relief, and adds an unusual element to the structure. This ‘veil’ also provides shade for the offices when needed and creates a softer dialogue between the building and the surrounding streets.

Depth and movement is further expressed by creating smokers’ balconies at the corners of the office building. “These balconies allowed us to play with solids and voids, and by changing the depth of the building at these points, we were able to provide the structure with an aesthetic and functional aspect,” says Todd.

The inside story

The interior of the structure is no less impressive. The open and airy atrium, which allows light to pour in from glass curtain walling right up to the top floor, serves as a meeting point for various entranceways leading from the basement and executive parking bays.

Linking this space, which is at the juncture of the office block and the core, to the office areas above are three glass vision lifts as well as a simply styled hanging staircase, one of the atrium’s most striking features. “The integration of the structure surrounding the main staircase into the atrium was a difficult aspect of the space that needed some serious thought just to work structurally. In order to maintain a light, uncluttered space, we decided to hang the cantilevered slabs and the main staircase landing. This allows the staircase, with its stepped soffit, to become an important detailed node in the larger, more open atrium that is expressed separately from the larger geometric shapes within the space, yet still adding a distinct functional and sculptural object,” reveals Todd.

To keep the atrium as uncomplicated as possible, the architects focused on emphasising the larger elements in the space, and used the forms of the fireman’s lift lobby and connecting bridges to guide them through what is quite a complex open space, with the core’s distinctive shape peeping suggestively through. There is a distinct lack of large structural members in the space that enhances the simplicity. “The focus was on the volume of space in the building, which we wanted to keep light and open. Supporting columns would have completely changed this dynamic,” says Todd.

The theme of light and wide open space recurs throughout the building, allowing for a brighter and less constricted office atmosphere. Far from the dark and stuffy environments of offices past, all workstations benefit from a view to the outside world and natural light bathes the areas thanks to calculated window positioning and design. Each floor features a double volume pause area reaching to the floor above it, which are arranged so that they are in alternating positions on the floors, in effect giving each floor the benefit of the lower floor’s pause area. These are linked to two smaller atriums that each house a communication staircase. The effect is that light and openness is brought further into the building, providing easy vertical circulation within the office space, and reducing the dulling effect of the wide floor plates. The steel communication stairs are again hung from the underside of the fifth floor slab, showing a degree of continuity through the design of the staircases, and allowing for slimmer structural elements to be used to form the stringers.

But, it is on the building’s upper two floors that the structure’s unique design really comes into its own. The executive offices on the fifth floor boast a higher specification of finishes, more open space, and feature a circular focal area planted up with wild olive trees looked on by skylights. The executive boardroom has access to a large balcony, which will be greened in time. On the sixth level, the strong shape of the core comes through more obviously, with a large balcony that commands spectacular panoramic views of Johannesburg and its surrounds. This is the entertainment area, complete with bar area, two dining rooms, a kitchen and bathrooms. From the outside, this floor has a lighter feel to it than the rest of the structure and comprises wider panes of glass and less solid material, giving it the appearance of gently sitting on top of the core structure, and is then used to connect the dynamic shape of the core back to the rest of the building through a series of beams and spaces over the glass curtain walls and the atrium.

Green considerations

Environmental sustainability has become a vital aspect of any new building development in the current age, an ethic taken seriously into account by The JLC and TPS.P when planning this development. Says Todd, “The main green design principle we employed was to optimise the thermal efficiency of the building envelope to gain the most from the natural surroundings.” And so, windows were positioned strategically around the structure to control the amount of natural light and heat coming into the building, designing smaller, punched windows for the western and northern façades, which receive a large portion of direct light, and creating recessed windows on the eastern façade with fin columns to provide protection from heat as the day progresses. All of the windows have blue-green Eclipse Advantage performance glass, which has all the advantages of double-glazing – cutting glare and minimising heat gain and loss, thereby saving on energy consumption.

The most visually pleasing of the environmentally sound design elements will be the large area set aside for greening on the site. The plants used will be exclusively indigenous and so attract insects and birds back into the area – an almost alien but utterly delightful idea considering that the location is bang in the middle of a bustling city centre. “The garden is only the first phase to a larger master landscaping plan that is an important aspect of the precinct plan. The end result will be a large garden within the CBD, which will have an immensely positive effect on the city centre,” explains Todd.

It is this commitment by the JLC to rejuvenate and bring life to the inner city that was and continues to be the driving force behind the development. “Just up the road, the development of Main Street Mall was just the start of JLC’s vision for the rest of Johannesburg, and this precinct is its continuation. It is very exciting to be a part of that vision,” smiles Todd.

Zurich1.jpg: The Zurich Insurance building which is set to change the skyline of the Johannesburg CBD.
Zurich2.jpg: A preliminary sketch of the building which is uncannily similar to the completed structure.
Zurich3.jpg, Zurich4.jpg or Zurich5.jpg: A striking elliptical core which seems to ‘grow’ out of the office block is the western façade’s focal feature. sandstone.
Zurich6.jpg: The new business precinct in Ferreirasdorp, Johannesburg will comprise five buildings, the first of which to be built is Zurich House. The buildings will surround a large indigenous garden, a green belt designed to attract insects and birds back into the CBD.
Zurich7.jpg: The architects had their work cut out for them designing a modern structure that would relate back to Johannesburg’s beginnings as a mining town and blend into an area of the city which is well over a century old.
Zurich8.jpg: From the outside, the core’s striking shape needed to be seen almost as a separate building to the more reserved office block.
Zurich9.jpg: The office block’s main façade of sandstone was created in a separate layer and fitted over the face of the building like a veil, allowing the building’s glass curtain walling to step backward and forward within it, adding a playful element to the structure and also providing shade for the offices.
Zurich10.jpg: The staircase, with its stepped soffit, is an important detailed node in the larger, more open atrium.
Zurich11.jpg: The open and airy atrium, which allows light to pour in from glass curtain walling right up to the top floor, serves as a meeting point for various entranceways leading from the basement and executive parking bays.
Zurich12.jpg: The bathrooms, housed in the ‘prow’ make a statement of their own.
Zurich13.jpg: The common spaces are all spacious and elegantly finished.
Zurich14.jpg: The executive offices on the fifth floor boast a higher specification of finishes.
Zurich15.jpg: At night, the opaque glass that wraps around the front of the core is lit up from the inside.

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