Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre / Peter Rich Architects


Location: Mapungubwe National Park, Limpopo, South Africa

Architects: Peter Rich Architects
Awards: Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction, Acknowledgement Prize, 2008, Africa/Middle East; Short listed for David Alsop Sustainability Award, Institute of Structural Engineers – Structural Awards 2009; Winner of the World Building of the Year award at the World Architecture Festival held in Barcelona in November 2009.

Related content: Mapungubwe, South Africa’s first kingdom

The Mapungubwe National Park celebrates the site of an ancient trading civilization in the context of a natural setting. The complex landscape was both the inspiration for the design and the source of the materials for the construction of the new Interpretation Centre, resulting in a composition of structures that are authentically rooted to their location. The building is visually contained by two hollow cairns that evoke route-markers found in Southern African cultures. Timbrel vaulting is used to construct billowing forms that expose the arched edges of their thin shells, an analogy of the archaeological revelation of past cultures.

The project’s agenda extends beyond the presentation of the area’s history to awaken an understanding of the vulnerability of the local ecology. These objectives are manifested in the construction process of the Centre in which unemployed local people were trained in the manufacture of stabilized earth tiles and in building the vaulting.

Report from World Architecture Festival 2009: “Designed to house artefacts from the region´s prehistory, the building connects intimately with an extraordinary veldt site in northern South Africa near the border with Zimbabwe. The jury admired the way in which the architecture responded to vernacular African types, synthesising forms, materials and light in a nuanced but unsentimental way to make what is still an indisputably contemporary building of immense resonance and richness. It also underpinned by a strong social programme, using the skills and labour of local people and involving them in the design and construction process. Engaging with tradition and modernity, place and people, it offers a different view of architecture as a subversive and poetic force for transformation.”

Mapungubwe Day Visitors Centre

Located 800 meters north of the Mapungubwe Interpretation centre this is a Place where local chieftains can meet and engage in ritual practice and celebrate their ancestry with their collective constituencies.

Sited on a plateau above a natural amphitheatre meeting and dining facilities for 30 chiefs enjoy wonderful views towards Zimbabwe. Simple linear and L shaped structures enclose a courtyard containing a circular meeting hut and veranda. A simple timber and latte shaded structure ‘Kgotla’ defines the edge of the plateau and functions as a gallery and dining space, elevating the chiefs above the masses. Under the latte canopy sits a roofless sky room, with seating where conversations are held with the ancestors.

L shaped ablution blocks catering for the staff and the public face North, defining a linear stepped street down the hill to the amphitheatre.

Direct community consultation was prohibited to avoid contentious issues with land claims from 17 contesting communities. The architect drew on his extensive knowledge of African vernacular and space making to create poetic spaces, defined by simple rhythms and animated by dancing shadows with the most economic of means.


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