Alexandra Heritage Centre by Peter Rich architects 03.06.10

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The Alexandra Heritage Centre is the first public building in the township (image: Iwan Baan)

"I built a jungle gym out of steel," says South African architect Peter Rich about the Alexandra Heritage Centre, a community space in the infamous township of Alexandra – or Alex for short – outside Johannesburg.

Rich is referring to the structure of the centre, which is built with exposed red steel girders with walls of brick and multi-coloured polycarbonate. The building stretches across a central road in Alexandra, creating an observation bridge that gives a rare overview of the sprawling township.

"It has an ad-hoc aesthetic influenced by the surrounding buildings, but it's not trying to be patronising," says Rich. Seven years in the making, it has developed through careful consultations with the community and the heritage organisation that now looks after the history and preservation of Mandela's Yard, this particular area of the township. "It's a really good example of a bottom-up rather than top-down building," says Rich, referring to the involvement of the residents in the planning, designing and building of the complex, which is now 85 percent finished. Rich hopes the next stage, the completion of the commercial units on street level, will be ready before the World Cup starts in June.

"I wanted the building to have a civic quality at the same time as being integrated with the very domestic buildings surrounding it," says Rich, who spent a long time studying people's living patterns and how the inhabitants organised their own homes before suggesting a design for the centre. Delays caused by government bureaucracy have meant that the building was on hold for three years, but, surprisingly, not a single brick was stolen from the site. "That's proof of how successfully the community has been integrated into the making of the building and the care they show for it," says Rich.

Before this project, the only public space for the community to gather in the township was the street. The Alexandra Heritage Centre is a multi-functional space that serves as a venue for meetings, exhibitions and classes. Perhaps most importantly, it's a space where the older generation of inhabitants can tell their stories and record their memories of one of South Africa's most contested townships.

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The building is made from steel girders, brick and polycarbonate (image: Iwan Baan)

 

Words

Johanna Agerman

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The building stretches across a central road in Alexandra, creating an observation bridge that gives a rare overview of the sprawling township

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The centre is a multi-functional space for the community (image: Iwan Baan)

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