Shaping the future

Unisa, which towers over the southern entrance into Pretoria, has undergone a multi-million-rand revamp

A huge new administration centre has been built in Preller Street, the main entrance to Unisa, and is set to alter the Lukasrand skyline. The centre includes an art gallery, a computer centre, library, an exhibition hall and an auditorium. This building forms part of a university project aimed at upgrading and developing all its properties across the country. Construction of the impressive new entrance building to Unisa began on November 14, 2007, when the levelled site was officially handed over to the professional building team.

Speaking at a ceremony to mark the occasion, Professor Barney Pityana, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa, said that although Unisa was situated not only at the heart of Tshwane, but also stood at the gateway to the city, he had always thought that this was not reflected in the building itself. “In line with our intention to reposition and redefine the University, this new entrance will serve as the centre, the heart – a point of convergence and the social core for the people of Unisa,” he promised.

This is the first major development on the campus since 1989, and as Professor Pityana says, it goes to show that the university is client-orientated. Unisa has never had a formal entrance to this campus, but student growth, the change in student profile, the increase in crime, and the merger with Vista and Technikon SA (which saw the relocation of management and staff to the Muckleneuk campus) have made a formal entrance a necessity.

Pityana says that students are now younger and do full-time distance education. The university’s facilities are constantly being used by the growing number of students and the need has arisen to make better use of technology. More students are attending group discussions at learning centres, and more than 6000 students visit the main campus each day. Most of these students use taxis or buses, resulting in congestion on the steep slope leading towards the university.

Along with crime, which has cost Unisa dearly in terms of lost and stolen equipment, higher insurance, productivity losses and personal trauma have also emphasised the need for a security station. Limited parking and the lack of an information centre also add to the need for a more user-friendly campus.

To reach their goal, Unisa bought vacant land from the Tshwane Metropolitan Council. The site is located between Preller Street and Elandspoort Avenue, directly north of the current entrance. Marco Zietsman from HMZ Architects says that two smaller properties down the road were originally suggested, but she convinced Unisa to opt for the current site comprised of residential sites owned by the council, even though it is very long and narrow. A 15m boundary wall rises up from the edge of the site, bordering a busy road, but facilitating the inclusion of a new car entrance which is wider than the previous roads into the campus and which will thus allow buses to enter without any of the previous logistical problems. The large, dominant concrete bridge over the new car entrance could also double as an event area in the future.

“The brief called for the creation of a new face for Unisa as well as a barrier to boost security,” says Zietsman. The new entrance building was designed to house services which interface with the public, such as the Unisa Foundation, Corporate Communication and Marketing and the Unisa Art Gallery. It will also aid in security and access control, provide visitors with a place to report to, and act as an information centre.

Speaking of her design, Zietsman says that the original Unisa building was designed by Bryan Sandrock during the 1960s in an international style characterised by monumental proportions and engineering feats. However, in conceptualising the new building she wanted to give shape to Professor Pityana’s vision of Africanising the institution and reorienting Unisa towards its people.

Zietsman says that her subtle regionalist approach has taken into account an appreciation of the climate and cultural elements as well as of constraints such as local materials, construction techniques and modes of production and supply. “The concept driving this design has been the creation of a dynamic centre core from which all knowledge will flow,” she elaborates, “while the horizontal and vertical open spaces capitalise on expressing circulation and movement to facilitate visual connections and communication between the occupants, thus linking inside and outside. The result of this is that the solidity of the old monumental international style is now transformed into a more human-scaled African composition of layered elements embracing the landscaped surroundings, with the present Unisa building now in the background.”

A shared experience
All these areas aim to create a more accessible environment for the learners. Zietsman explains that Professor Pityana had once said to her that learning best happens when it is socialised and shared, hence the importance of the outside landscaped piazza. “This feature is enhanced by water and natural elements in a true African atmosphere,” she explains, “with layers of levels interlinking with each other and emphasising a progression up to the core of knowledge. The rationale has been that of applying a combination of local stone, raw off-shutter concrete, silver steelwork, natural brickwork, rustic wooden finishes and lively panelled glazing, enhancing the building with the rich and sophisticated character of Africa as we know it today, and thus creating the African University.”

The building consists of five floors with basement parking. The floors interlink and connect spatially with each other. Vertical circulation is facilitated with escalators and a glazed lift, promoting social interaction in the central core. The ground floor features an information desk, security control and the display of public art, while the first floor houses an information hub to assist the public. Further up, the second floor sees access to the outside landscaped recreation area, providing spaces for display, socialising and interaction, and the third and fourth floors provide private entertainment areas and administrative offices.

Paying tribute
“The main focus was never to take away from what Bryan Sandrock did with the original buildings,” says Zietsman. “We didn’t want to challenge what Bryan did – nor compare or compete.” The outcome of the design is a sensitive building, which, although contrasted with the old in a number of ways, also shows its respect by repeating some of the original elements. Concrete is used extensively, and face brick, recalling the tiling of the old building, adds a natural touch to the exterior facade. Internally, the long windows constantly remind the visitor where they are, whether it be the dramatic views down over Pretoria or up towards the university. “When you come here, you need to know where you are, and that both buildings are Unisa,” she says.

The resounding contrast, though, is the round shape of the building, inspired by the calabash prominent in the Unisa logo. “Wherever you are in this building, it is evident that you are in a totally different shape,” explains Zietsman. Based on the idea of a circle, the starting point of wisdom, the higher up you go in building, the more consciously aware of the shape you become. Walking into the building you are greeted by a narrow and high entrance foyer, where you can’t help but look up and be impressed. The foyer was designed as the first point of reference for visitors, and for those beginning to study at the university as a statement – “this is your future”.

With the art gallery, Unisa wanted to create something that was totally accessible to the public. Moveable walls to create walkways, high roofs, spot-lighting and air conditioning lend the space a cool, calm atmosphere. A storage area is also provided for the plethora of artwork owned by Unisa, in a space which could easily double up as an event area. The ground floor also includes a briefing room where a video all about Unisa is aired to offer an interactive introduction to visitors.

Sandstone is used quite extensively in the public spaces, while a neutral palette dominates with charcoal accents. As Zietsman notes, “There is an African feel to the building without bringing in the Big Five.”

The first floor is made up of conference rooms and venues with sub-breakaway rooms, each with a differing theme. A display from the first floor reception up the stairs showcases continuously changing and relevant content pertaining to the university on the walls and monitors. A library depot is also included on the first floor where students can drop off a book without the need to enter the main campus.

The second floor consists predominantly of offices, with a cafeteria opening out onto the piazza, another of the specified congregation spaces which were very important for Unisa. A notable component of the piazza is the group of 15 cow sculptures walking out from the impressive water feature, being led, along with a young boy, up the steps towards the old Unisa building by an old man. “This setting depicts the journey towards wisdom,” says Zietsman. Concrete seating in the form of calabashes accentuates the circular theme.

Offices for the marketing department dominate the third floor, while the aptly named ‘Bamboo room’ adds a sense of playfulness. “We wanted to create something totally different here,” says Zietsman of the 50-seater venue for press conferences and the like. Real bamboo – braaied in an oven and then painted – adorns the back wall, while differing coloured green panels swirl across the roof. “As people will only be in this ‘green atmosphere’ for short times, the colour will not be seen as a ‘disturbing’ colour,” she elaborates. The marketing area consists of offices for the staff, chill areas and breakaway rooms for the public.

The top floor saw HMZ Architects designing an events room for Unisa to entertain guests. Opening up onto a lounge space, which overlooks both the piazza and the university above, it then extends into a large, multipurpose hall where at least 500 people standing or 300 seated can be entertained. Once again, viewing points to appreciate your position are the order of the day. The space then leads into an Nguni-themed bar/cigar lounge complete with an indoor fireplace and a fully functioning kitchen.

Zietsman says that it has been quite an experience working on the building. “It really is an honour to work for Unisa – they are a wonderfully accommodating client and entrust all decisions to the architects,” she says. But the project wasn’t without its challenges. “Any obstacle that we might have come across during the course of construction, we did. We just had to adapt and overcome it. It was, quite aptly, a learning experience,” she concludes.

Photograohs by Chad Cocking

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