Sumit Singhal loves modern architecture. He comes from a family of builders who have built more than 20 projects in the last ten years near Delhi in India. He has recently started writing about the architectural projects that catch his imagination.
Forum Homini in Cradle of Humankind, South Africa by Activate Architects11
March 11th, 2011 by Sumit Singhal
This 14 roomed boutique hotel by activate architects (Edward Paes-Brooks & Michael Magner makes an important contribution to the architecture of the post apartheid period through the exemplary ways it explores two architectural themes – firstly the relationship between architecture and landscape, a preoccupation of a number of other buildings completed since 1994, and secondly, the relationship between architecture and iconography, also a frequently rehearsed theme.
In her recently completed PHD thesis ‘The Frightened Land’, Jennifer Beningfield shows how modern ideologies of the land in South Africa are constructed around two recurring notions – that of the land as a site of spiritual meaning and renewal, and that of the land as site of racial division, conflict and violence. She argues that what is at stake in the transformation of South Africa is not only the physical form of the land and its habitation, but also how it is re-imagined and represented. It seems to me that the architects who are working with land and landscape in the contemporary period are trying to figure this out – what are the new relationships with the land that the end of the politics of racial division has opened up?
At Forum Homini, this takes the form of a reconciliation between architecture and landscape. Landscape is reclaimed by architecture, as site of spiritual meaning and renewal. This is done, quite literally, by blurring the boundaries between the two, by creating habitation in the in-between. So, for instance, most of the building is submerged under concrete roofs covered in natural veld grasses; one enters the complex through what is experienced as a cleft in the rock; many of the walls of the hotel are faced with stone gathered from the site itself. At the same time, the wooden beams and decking of the restaurant area simulate an archeological landscape, marking the land for reference purposes. The site and its habitation are mapped with complex, overlapping layers of meaning that oscillate between the natural and the cultural and suggest new alliances between the two. This utopian vision contrasts sharply with the prevailing image of the South African landscape, given expression in architectures of closure and interiority, as violent, dangerous and threatenin
In thinking about the ways in which iconography has been incorporated into the contemporary architectural imaginary, reference to Federico Freschi’s work on the politics of ornament in 1930’s South Africa is useful. Freschi reads the decorative programmes of selected public and commercial buildings of the time as important indexes of competing ideologies of national identity. He argues that the use of Art Deco versus a stripped classicism versus the use of African icongraphic elements were all bound up with competing notions of national identity.
At Forum Homini, extensive use is made of sculpture and decoration to construct the identity of place. Sculptures by metal artist Marco Cianfanelli, sandstone carvings by Dave Roussouw, a Paul Du Toit mural, ceramics by Peter Mthombeni and furniture by Christel Antonites, all identify the hotel with the four million year history of its site. While, on the one hand, these can be seen as serving the commercial function of giving the hotel its identity, of branding it in the highly competitive hotel industry, at the same time, they are bound up with the contested project to re-imagine our collective identity – regionalist (e.g. The Northern Cape legislature) nationalist (e.g. The Constitutional Court), or in this case, Africanist. Forum Homini echoes Thabo Mbeki’s words
“ At times, and in fear, I have wondered whether I should concede equal citizenship of our country to the leopard and the lion, the elephant and the springbok, the hyena, the black mamba and the pestilential mosquito”.
A human presence among all these, a feature on the face of our native land thus defined, I know that none dare challenge me when I say: I am an African!.
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