UJ Art Centre

UJ Art Centre

Project Team
Client: University of Johannesburg (UJ)
Architects: Mashabane Rose Architects in association with ARC Architecs
Landscape Architects: Green Inc
Civil and Structural Engineers: Pure Consulting
Quantity Surveyors: De Leeuw
Landscape Contractors: Life Landscapes

Life Landscapes recently won a silver award for this project in the SALI Awards of Excellence 2006. It was entered in the Landscape Construction with Design by Others category. Karyn Richards spoke to Ida-Marie Ehlers of Life Landscapes and Stuart Glen of Green Inc about the project.

Glen worked closely with the architect, Jeremy Rose, and the landscape design was in fact an extension of the architecture. The philosophy is essentially “minimalist and restrained, with a tentative link between the art centre and the main campus,” according to Rose. The complex consists of two buildings, the theatre and art gallery, which are linked by a courtyard acting as a gathering place.
The landscaping follows a linear plan, its main aspect being that of the space spilling out from the theatre and gallery, and the landscaping response to this, which is equally minimalist, but with variations in colour and texture. “The use of materials within the landscape was quite brutal, with large amounts of concrete making a link to the main campus,” says Glen.

The focal point of the landscaping is a staircase leading to the main entrance of the art centre: it is flanked by vast areas of terraced lawn (All Seasons Evergreen). These lawn levels are “the only bit of whimsy in the design” according to Glen, and form a type of simple green bowl which encloses the space. At the same time, however, the view to the main campus is kept open. The terraces and a curved boardwalk are the only counterfoil to the straight lines that dominate the project. The steps are concrete, the boardwalk is timber, showing good contrasts in texture. “The steps have a certain solidity and sculptural quality,” says Glen. The landings in the staircase are practical, but where steps end and the timber deck begins, ‘clipping’ onto the piazza, an aesthetic aspect is presented. Rose describes this aspect as follows: “The serene, gently designed landscape is articulated by a simple concrete and timber stepped pathway that links the old campus building to this new scheme. It folds gently down the lush green slope and curves playfully before delivering visitors into the arrival court.”

Landscape installation

The art centre consists mainly of a lawn landscape and is soft and clean. In the front section parking area, Combretum sp have been chosen as street trees. They have not been encased in tree rings but rather in square blocks. Concrete slabs surround the trees and tree stakes made of gumpole double as tree guards.
In general there are very few bedding plants but all are indigenous and consist mainly of grasses and aloes. Alongside a ramp for the disabled, Aloe cuperii, Combretum krausii and Bauhinia galpinii have been planted. Says Ida-Marie Ehlers of Life Landscapes: “This project has been a type of journey. As is usual with landscape installation, there was little time and the project ran late. There was no space in which to work as all the contractors were on site at the same time. The project happened so fast.”

Topsoil was stockpiled from the site prior to the art centre being constructed, but as it was not a good quality, over 200m3 of compost and vast amounts of fertiliser were used.
The main contractor, Stabilid, provided Life Landscapes with rough levels for the stepped grass area and “we just had to make it work,” says Ehlers. Additional soil was brought in to create the terraces; the first two are equal in size and the third one is larger.
Irrigation water was initially municipal but thereafter water from a borehole on the campus was used. Should the borehole ever dry up, the municipal line is still connected to the irrigation system as a back-up.

The challenge for Ehlers with this project was that a high degree of precision was required and its minimalist nature left no margin for error. “It had to be perfect; it’s not the type of project where you can hide your mistakes,” she says, adding that working with Stuart Glen was very enjoyable as he was always open to her ideas and suggestions.
Life Landscapes maintained the site for six months after completion.

Art in the landscape


There are three artistic aspects to the landscaping: poetry, a water feature and artwork in the lawn area. In the first instance, the poetry was selected by the client to support the arts and has been worked into various places on granite strips. It consists of quotations in different languages from different poets including John Adams, Jan Blom, HC Groenewald, Don Maclennan, SN Tseke and EJ Mhlanga.

The water feature is entitled “Tidal Bodies” and was designed jointly by Green Inc and artist Marco Cianfanelli. Its long, narrow form continues the linearity of the landscaping and it is a zero depth structure. Says Glen: “The concept is that it almost breathes; it is calm with moments of drama when the spouts come on. It is understated.”
The castings were done in concrete and there is a light in each casting. As the pool becomes filled with water, it laps up to the incremental castings to form a still calm sheet of water. The spouts come on once a sheet of water has formed and remain on for three minutes. They then switch off and the water feature is emptied half way.


The spouts then come on again for one minute and the water drains slowly – all this occurs within a period of 25 minutes. “It was quite tricky to get the timing right,” says Glen.

Cianfanelli explains his concept as follows: “ The main conceptual thread of this artwork was to use the flow of water as a metaphor of the interaction between various ‘bodies’, from university or faculty, to society or popular culture, to the individual or a community of people. In a sense, it is a playful reference to the transfer or clash of ideas, dogmas, origins, histories and other stimuli between these bodies.”

These ‘bodies’ are represented in the concrete relief-work and contain a variety of references ranging from the transition of RAU into the University of Johannesburg, to the arts and multi-culturalism, to popular culture, to gender and the human form, to the origins of mankind and to South Africa’s socio-political history.

There are 11 pre-cast elements to the fountain artwork which serve as water inlets to the fountain (11 as a reference to South Africa’s official languages). Each cast has a laser-cut steel cover plate which refers upward towards the moon; the different word on each cover plate is the name of a sea or body of water on the moon.

The art in the lawn area was the work of land artist Strijdom van der Merwe. He marked out the patterns on the grass (which had already been planted) and bark chips were placed in the marked out shapes. The lawn was cut out manually in order to place the bark chips and this occurred one week before the opening of the art centre. Van der Merwe’s original idea was that the grass would eventually grow over the images, leaving no trace of them (this is part of his philosophy about his work) but it is now expected that the images will remain as part of the landscaping.

As a land artist, Van der Merwe uses the materials provided by the selected site and his sculptural forms take shape in relation to the landscape.
The images that were cut out on the grass of the art centre were from a photographic documentation in the gallery, as well as an installation on the floor. Van der Merwe provided the work for the opening exhibition of the gallery. It was entitled “Messages from the Southern Earth” and his inspiration came from the rock engravings found at Driekopseiland near Kimberley.

Less is more

The minimalist premise that “less is more” is entirely appropriate for this project. It is straightforward. Its starkness speaks volumes.

Text by Karyn Richards. Photos by Gerry Mulford, Whitecliffs Photographics, and courtesy of Green Inc