The Phase 1 and 2 buildings of MTN’s head office in Fairland, Johannesburg, are situated on a large, north-facing site. This article discusses the recently completed landscaping of Phase 2 which integrates the existing natural environment with the built environment.
Three landscape architect firms competed against each other to create a landscaping proposal for Phase 2 and the concept put forward by Sonja Swanepoel of African Environmental Design was selected by the client. Says Swanepoel: “Whereas Phase 1 was cosmetically landscaped, we proposed a usable outdoor space for Phase 2, promoting outside living with high security.” Terraced gardens have been created on the northern, western and eastern sides of the building and a modern sculpture garden is on the southern side. “Art is extremely important because it adds another dimension to the architecture and landscaping,” says Swanepoel.
The design philosophy is a contrasting combination of functional/minimalist landscape areas close to the building, becoming more wild and natural with veld grasses as one moves away from it.
Acacia xanthophloea trees enhance the sculpture garden and front of the building and from a marketing point of view, they were chosen because of their yellowish colouring which relates to MTN’s logo and branding. Acacia sieberiana trees form avenues, providing strong form and the backbone of the landscaping. A mix of A. karoo and A. caffra trees are planted in clumps, as they are found in this area.
Functional spaces close to the building are defined by All Seasons Evergreen lawn, in particular in the south sculpture garden where it has been placed between and aroundlarge granite slabs. It had to be cut and planted to fit in between the slabs. Ornamental grasses such as Anthuricum and Carex sp. have been used further away, and Plectranthus has grown densely over rocks and retaining walls. Vetiver grass, with its deep root system, has been planted on a steep embankment in an overflow parking area. It is ideal for areas where there is fast flowing water and was an extreme treatment for this slope, according to Grant Rufus of Sonke Landscapes. The slope is covered by a Macmat ® matted plastic which will assist with stabilisation until the Vetivergrass is fully established. The parking area also contains tightly packed rock interspersed with gravel, creating a cobbled effect. Aloe capitata hybrids have been planted amongst the rock and gravel.
Colour is provided mainly by a variety of Aloes, most of which are hybrids. They have been planted throughout the site, in between the numerous large boulders and with them, forming attractive pockets of combined hard and soft landscaping. The use of boulders, explains Swanepoel, was contextual, to tie in with the koppies of the surrounding areas. Aloes have also been placed in containers on a balcony of the northern (executive) terrace. Phoenix reclinata and Erythrina lysistemon have also been used as they are bushy and evergreen, good for screening, accentuating and defining spaces. The former have also been planted on the north-eastern side of the site to break the expanse of a large concrete wall belonging to the Data Centre.
South sculpture garden
The south sculpture garden is an extension of the building, providing an apron from the inside to the outside, almost like an outdoor room, which provided an opportunity to Swanepoel to influence the way the area evolved. It is a striking space where different textures have been combined and offset each other in a complementary way: a timber deck, green lawn, stainless steel sculptures, grey dump rock framing the outer edges of the garden (and covering the storm water drainage channel), and perhaps the most dominant feature, large granite slabs of different shapes and sizes, placed in rows creating an irregular checker-board effect. Ivy, growing over the grey dump rock, will eventually grow up the concrete walls of the sculpture garden and create a “green room”. Swanepoel says that for the design of the sculpture garden, she drew inspiration from Japanese sculpture gardens, “not Zen, but rather contemporary,” she says.
Simplicity is the key element in the south sculpture garden. The large granite slabs create an irregular checker-board effect, with lawn planted in between and around the slabs.
Ornamental grasses, Aloe hybrids and rocks form pockets of landscaping around the site, resembling the koppies just beyond the building
The steel sculptures in this garden were created by Stephanus Rademeyer, who says: “It was a difficult space to work with, in the sense that it will change quite dramatically over time as the trees get bigger and the concrete retaining walls become covered with ivy. With this in mind, I made the sculptures visually very strong to ensure that they have a presence in the future space.”
According to Rademeyer, the sculpture garden provides a space of reflection and tranquility for MTN employees and visitors. The sculptures have been designed for day and night time viewing. The installation consists of five sculptural screens with two and three dimensional properties. The dimensions of the screens are constant in height and length and the sculptures are constructed of anodised aluminium and stainless steel. They are of a highly geometric and mathematical nature, with clean lines and the thickness of the metal sheets creating a rigid, strong structure. Structural qualities have been created by water-jet cutting, laser cutting, bending, welding and mechanically assembling metal sheets and round bars. The sculptures are mounted on stands, ensuring that each one’s middle point is at average eye height.
The sunken garden creates a sense of privacy but the sculptures can also be seen from the ramp at the main entrance, enticing viewers to explore. For sculptures to participate successfully with the visual strength of the architectural space, they need to be strong features within the space. The sculptural pieces are designed as screens to fulfill the following requirements:
- screens can be integrated into the space by echoing the dimensions of the concrete, glass, timber and stainless steel;
- a screen can function as a visual field, creating a strong focal point within the space without being overshadowed by the architecture;
- the sculptural screens can also play a role in the way the garden is experienced by creating subtle interventions in the space. The placement of sculptures within the garden can be strategic to create maximum visual impact;
- defining the sculptural forms as screens is a way of mediating between the surroundingarchitecture and the garden itself. The screens function as a microscopic reflection of the architecture of the building and the larger systemic architecture of cellular communication itself. In a different sense, the organic nature of the screens creates visual parallels with the trees, garden and geological qualities of the surrounding landscape.
Because this is a site-specific installation, Rademeyer felt that it was important to reflect certain aspects of the environment in the sculptures. He looked closely at cellular telephone technology and applied some of the concepts and systems to visual art. The screens are designed to be visually and conceptually layered and to challenge the viewer to engage in an ongoing process of investigation. The five screens can be seen as a systematic exploration of the complex processes involved in cellular telephone technology. Rademeyer envisioned the screens as a narrative consisting of five chapters or sections: dialogue, signal, frequency, landscape and cells.
South sculpture garden
A natural drainage system in the form of a wetland/storm water detention pond has been built on the lowest part of the site.
This is usable outdoor space with a green centre created by steel cables extending upwards from floor to ceiling. Ivy has again been used and, planted up along the cables, will eventually create a wide, green screen, covering the cables completely.
Beyond this terrace, on the western side of the building, Aloes, ornamental grasses and large boulders are attractively combined to resemble the koppies just behind the building.
The large boulders are used in a continuous theme, like building blocks. They lead from this area through to an open grassed space (a transition zone used for functions) and towards an enormous rectangular pool. “It’s like finding one’s way on a trail to the water,” says Swanepoel.This open space is structural and defined on its outer edge by planted berms creating a barrier against the sight and noise of the nearby highway.
The pool is shallow and flat, with a “beach effect”. It has two distinct features, one being its huge, rectangular shape where the water is calm and still, and the other, an eight metre wide waterfall falling heavily in sheets from over a concrete wall and splashing noisily down into the pool below it. Mist sprayers have been placed on the top of the waterfalls, giving a rain forest effect. The pool contains Nymphaea alba and yellow irises, the yellow again making a connection with MTN’s branding. Papyrus reeds have been planted near the irises, in between each water spout.
A short distance away from the large pool, a natural drainage system in the form of a wetland/storm water detention pond has been constructed. It is on the lowest part of the site and is surrounded by the same grey dump rock as that found in the south sculpture garden. Beyond the pool area, the large flat boulders continue to create a pathway so that there is not a “sudden ending” to the boulder trail. All large boulders were individually placed by front end loader and crane.
Landscaping around the Data Centre was carried out first and a long wooden ramp, similar to the one in the south sculpture garden, slopes downwards towards the entrance to the this building. Tree ferns have been planted extensively in this area and Phoenix reclinata palms break the vast façade on the side of this building.
As part of the competition mentioned earlier, a planted up traffic circle links the buildings of phases 1 and 2. It presents an attractive feature with packed rock, boulders and Aloes.
The pool contains Nymphaea Alba and Irises, with Papyrus reeds planted near them, in between each water spout.
Embankment in one of the parking areas planted up with Vetiver grass. Its deep root system helps to stabilize the slope.
Parking area with Aloe capitata hybrids planted amongst tightly packed rock
Earthworks were hampered by wet conditions in January 2005 when most of the planting and hardscape installation took place. “The site was wet and muddy and we were dealing with bulky rocks and boulders. There was extensive crane work, more than on any other site we have worked on in a long time, and levels and shaping were especially tricky,” says Rufus.
He adds that the most challenging thing about the project was the sourcing of the granite slabs, called “skins”, required for the landscape. Eventually, off-cuts of granite from the local granite mining industry were obtained and in excess of 300 tons of granite were used, in different sizes and thicknesses. They were placed by a Bobcat in the sculpture garden.
The irrigation system was designed by Controlled Irrigation and installed by Irrigation Focus. It is fully automated and comprises cone sprinklers, rotators and gear drive sprinklers. The water supply is primarily from a borehole and is supplemented with municipal water when the demand by the irrigation system exceeds the borehole supply.
The water storage facility consists of four 10 000 litre water storage tanks and it is from these tanks that the water is pumped into the irrigation system. Two booster pumps have been installed and are controlled by monitoring the water pressure in the main line of the irrigation system.
The size of this contract was a major challenge, according to Swanepoel: the sloping site, the storm water situation, and the fact that she worked on the project on her own. The results speak for themselves.
Text by Karyn Richards. Sculpture information provided by Stephanus Rademeyer. Photos by Sonja Swanepoel and Karyn Richards