The new extension to the Guga s’Thebe Theatre in Langa, Cape Town was designed and built by international architectural students and local people, providing an example of innovation through participation.

The existing Guga s’Thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa, Cape Town, has attracted local youth and artists as well as international visitors. To accommodate new activities, a more spacious, multi-purpose centre was required.

The new space is designed and developed through a collaboration of three international architecture and design schools: RWTH Aachen (Aachen, Germany), the Peter Behrens School of Architecture (Dusseldorf, Germany) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, US). Together the schools form Design.Develop.Build.

The schools – in conjunction with the City of Cape Town, the local community and other contributors – became involved through a chance meeting with Kristina Bacht, publisher at the German architecture and interior design magazine AIT. Bacht brought them into contact with local architect Carin Smuts of CS Studio in Cape Town, who has been involved with the cultural centre from its inception in 1992.

The functional programme and time frame were defined together with the City of Cape Town. The project has been running for two years and now falls under the World Design Capital 2014 banner.

An evolving design

“Generally”, explains Prof. Judith Reitz of the Peter Behrens School of Architecture, “Design.Develop.Build projects are challenged by availability of time and budget. The design process is not finished before construction starts. It evolves on-site and utilises momentarily accessible and affordable materials.”

The new building comprises 11 re-used shipping containers – double storey and stacked in a square shape so that they form a big space in the middle, with smaller rooms around it.

“At first there were concerns regarding building with containers,” says Smuts. “But the City of Cape Town officials were supportive. Actually obtaining permission to occupy the land was a major achievement.”

This process was not easy as the site is close to an official Heritage Site. According to councillor Garreth Bloor, mayoral committee member for tourism, events and marketing, they had to obtain building permission from Heritage Western Cape as well as building plan approval by the City of Cape Town.

Collaborative building

Community members were involved in the design and construction process. They worked with the students on-site and participated in the development of new building techniques.

All building methods took into account building with unskilled workers. “Self-build, labour-intensive building techniques on the one hand reduce the costs that come with buying specialised materials,” says Reitz. “On the other hand, it is very time consuming.

In order to keep the spaces warm in winter and cool in summer, the containers are clad with straw-clay panels produced on-site. These panels are constructed from recycled pallet wood and were developed for this project.

The plan to use containers for the theatre proved favourable for acoustics, according to Klaus-Hendrik Lorenz-Kierakiewitz, acoustic engineer on the project. “An acoustic problem was posed by the absence of upholstered seats.” This was compensated by using curtains to absorb sound.

Discussions and interdisciplinary workshops with German and South African experts, the City of Cape Town, future users, local artists and different student groups made the team re-think the design steps and make necessary adaptations.

“The local community councillors have been a big support in keeping an ongoing discussion with the local community. As a result, the team has now integrated a recording studio in the upper level of the building.”

Elements of sustainability

The project uses recycled and sustainable materials. Vernacular architectural methods, where local traditions, needs and construction materials are considered, have been used. “We use as much local materials as possible and most materials are ‘lowtech’ and/or recycled: like the clay panel walls made from local clay and straw, or the recycled timber facade made from old fruit crates,” says Reitz.

This meant a learning curve for many. Georgia Tech student Dillon Mertens says this requires improvisation and flexibility in his approach.

Local labourer Theo Qoboke praised the work ethic of the overseas students: “They work very hard, even when it’s raining.” He says it’s interesting to see what the students come up with in terms of unusual building methods.

Once the project has been completed, Qoboke will receive a certificate and references.

“We also try to set up a network for our local labourers, so they can use their newly acquired work skills in the future,” says Reitz.

Challenges

“The financial budget is very tight and we work hard to get a lot of the building material donated from overseas companies that work in South Africa, as well as from South African companies,” says Reitz.

“The funding that we have raised so far is based on our continually updated cost calculations.”

A remaining challenge is connection to the municipal grid. “The building is still without water and electricity. Without these, the project cannot be completed,” says Smuts.

“We are dealing with this,” says Bloor. “The land on which the theatre is being built was levelled and compacted, a storm water canal was moved, an electrical pole had to be moved, a fence was moved to include the theatre, and the sewerage connection has been completed. The water and electrical connections are still due and the application thereof is being processed.”

This article appears in full in the October – November 2014 issue on page 96.