On a blistering day in the small Eastern Cape town of Kareedouw, about 50 pupils from three of the area’s main schools packed into the current cramped municipal library.
Less than 100m away, builders powered on, working at wrapping up a project which has been several years in the making: the town’s first dedicated, modern library building. The R12-million project is set for completion during the second half of this year.
Instead of the current library which has make-shift pine shelves and a couple of computer terminals crammed into a 200m² room in the old municipal offices, the town’s new 1,000m² stand-alone community library will boast an airy atmosphere and an open-plan design. There will be room for children’s reading areas; study areas; breakaway rooms; reading spaces in an open-air courtyard; a dedicated area for online research and computers; as well as a conference room.
The pupils were gathered, in part, to breathe artistic life into the new building, but also – importantly – to ensure a community buy-in on what will be one of the largest public spaces in the town. A creative workshop to bring to the fore their designs – which will be used as murals, mosaics, fabric designs, sculptures, or other artworks in the new building – was headed by celebrated Johannesburg cultural activist and artist, Marcus Neustetter.
Debbie Wintermeyer, who heads SVA International’s Eastern Cape office, explained that art was often an afterthought for clients and developers when in fact it is becoming an essential tool – especially in public architecture where the community endorsement is critical to the success of the project.
“There is not enough art being incorporated into projects like these,” she said. “As a public space, we as architects, need to create an emotional connection with the community.
“Bringing in artistic designs which emanate from the community also ensures that there is a symbolic transfer of ownership from the developers to the community.”
Although civic projects usually undertaken for the Department of Roads and Public Works tended to be heavily prescriptive in design, Wintermeyer said the firm managed to convince authorities to allow for more of a creative licence on the library – a move, which would ultimately be to the benefit of the 5,000-strong Kareedouw community, she said.
SVA International has a long relationship with various government implementing bodies, having been at the helm of renovations of Port Elizabeth’s North End Prison, which were completed last year.
According to fellow SVA International team member, Ilse Danev, the value of incorporating art into architecture was often overlooked.
“The process of incorporating community-inspired designs is one which, in its very nature, organically invites a greater public buy-in of the project,” said Danev. “It’s a powerful process. The space moves from one which is purely bricks and mortar to one which reflects the community’s heart and soul.”
For architects, this meant getting the client’s buy-in from day one, rather than raising the option of incorporating art only towards the end of the project, once budgets and timelines had already been allocated.
“Understanding the budgets and time requirements of these interventions are essential to managing client and community expectations, and it is something we have become adept in,” said Danev.
The Kareedouw community art will also be incorporated into a library courtyard area – an element of the project which not only enabled a lengthening of the building amid a tight budget, but which also served to add additional usable space, variety and increased usability, explained Wintermeyer.
“As South Africans, we are cultural and we are diverse. With all these cultural energies which exist, buildings are canvasses to show respect for our diversity. And there’s nothing better than art, as a universal language, which represents us,” said Wintermeyer.
“A library is already very rich in content, so we don’t need a whole lot of colour, but if you pick strategic areas to engage with an art canvas, it becomes a celebration of the building and of the community. Parents and adult users can then begin to take ownership of the building through the work of their children.”