The model of Mbombela Stadium in the foyer at R&L Architects in downtown
Cape Town would look out of place almost anywhere else. True, the 1:333 scale is
eccentric, the vivid patterning of the seats candidly mirrors zebra skin and the
structural pylons resemble- to use their collective noun- a tower of giraffes.
But it is the bright weave of myriad tiny glass beads from which the model is made
that positively locates it in South Africa. Mike Bell, a partner at the firm, gave an
explanation of the making of this homespun model that could serve as an
analogy for the architectural project it describes. The model-maker was found
working on a Cape Town street corner. He was given the plans, sections and 3D
images, a quick lesson with a scale rule and then left to work it out. The result is
not only an accurate representation of the building in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga
Province, but a beautiful work of art that captures something of its unusual
evolution and distinctive character.
" Quite quickly the form started to happen…and started screaming out 'I'm a giraffe!' "
Superficially the African symbolism in the building is very explicit and that was
always the intention. The zebra-patterned seats follow a rectilinear plan that is
bevelled slightly at the corners to maintain an intimate sense of enclosure. In
keeping with a very tight budget and a FIFA brief that requires a smaller, 40,000
seat capacity, the levels are very simple and the sight-lines clear throughout.
Between the seating bowl and the roof a continuous six meter gap allows natural
ventilation and frames a view of the surrounding bush and mountains.
Supporting the roof 18 four legged pylons are minutely modified to resemble a
ring of abstracted giraffes standing smartly around a canopy of acacias.
The design process reveals a
correspondence between the architect's desire to “maximise the
and the structural lessons of the form that inspires it, however contrived that may sound. “It's one of those great
things where the form and the function really are not parting from one another and
are in fact assisting each other. Quite quickly the form started to
happen…and started screaming out 'I'm a giraffe!' It came together so nicely
from there; we had to do very little to make it look like that. Even to the point
where it was the engineer who wanted it to have four legs. It is a very stable
structure and I guess so is a giraffe.”
(CONTINUED FROM PROJECT PAGE...)It should be added that being so close to the
Kruger Park means it must be one of the few buildings on earth that can get
away with using a structural form that conjures so uncannily one of the nature’s
most elegant animals.
Also in the foyer is a wall painted in bright chevron patterns reminiscent of those
seen adorning huts of the Ndebele tribe in the neighbouring Limpopo Province.
The effect is carried through to the stadium's internal spaces, from designs on the
car-park walls to bold colour-coding to the circulation routes and changing
rooms. This reference to the region is as honest and unsentimental as the
response to the savannah site; “[the Ndebele patterns] are not very old- I think
from about the 50s when the domestics would go home for Christmas and their
madames would give them pots of bright paint.”
However, the site has seen its fair share of controversy, particularly concerning a
wetland that was bulldozed as the site for schools which were themselves
flattened to make way for the stadium. The failure of the municipality to begin
rebuilding those schools in the former wetland and claims of internal corruption
have not helped answer the critics who insist that the impoverished province has
better claims on the R1.3 billion budget. Nonetheless from a design perspective
the budget has been a real success, coming in at a fraction of Cape Town's
projected R4.3 billion. The smaller size is an advantage as is the consistently
warm climate. But the insistence on using durable (the design team demanded
'bulletproof') local materials, South African expertise and a range of
environmental innovations demonstrates the money-saving utility of
architectural design and creativity. The use of local materials was a 'green'
constraint that the design team placed on itself: “When we were designing the
roof we asked the question: ‘what is the biggest pipe we make in South Africa?’
We found it was a 320mm pipe and so we decided - that is as big as we are going
go!” In the
longer term the use of solar panels, water and heat harvesting and a
simple, hardwearing construction will reduce maintenance and running costs.
"I just had this feeling that at the moment when Mandela appeared in the stadium the movement dissolved because the reason for its existence just stopped for the bulk of those guys"
This added value is matched for the architects by the implicit worth of the
building itself, not least since they experienced at first hand the 1995 South
African rugby world cup victory which has recently been dramatised in the film
Invictus. Mike Bell remembers that being in the stadium allowed him to witness
'an incredibly powerful event.' The return on investment in South Africa is
clear; “There was a political movement of staunch conservative Afrikaners called
the AWB [the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging]. And I just had this feeling that at the
moment when Mandela appeared in the stadium the movement dissolved
because the reason for its existence just stopped for the bulk of those guys.
Apparently when one of them saw Mandela walk into the stadium he said in a
thick Afrikaner accent “I think I'm crying!”
This potency places responsibility on the designers; “[the experience] taught me
the power of the stadium - it actually goes beyond the mundane and takes you
into another level. That's why the memory is important because you can connect
the memory with a physical element - which is where the giraffes came in. There
was always a desire to have some memorable feature, so when you leave there is
a recognisable image in your mind.” This theory seems to hint at another local
influence since it corresponds to the form of totemism by which indigenous
tribes seek to connect a physical entity with the memory of their origins by
splitting up into clans that are personified by animals.
The result is as an honest and successful expression of African architecture as
may be found anywhere on the continent. The proof is in the fact that, as Mike
Bell says, “You cannot easily put this stadium into any other country.”
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