Think outside the box...

04 Sep 2012

A versatile venue for the advancement and sharing of arts and culture in the area

The Soweto Theatre is in the heart of the culturally rich Jabulani CBD precinct Soweto, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The precinct is being redeveloped by the City of Joburg Property Company SOC (JPC) into a high density, mixed use and vibrant neighbourhood comprising over 200 000m2 of new commercial and residential development.

The objectives for this project were to provide a fitting and versatile venue for the advancement and sharing of arts and culture in the area, and to assist in furthering the economic and social development of arts and culture in Soweto as a key component of the Jabulani CBD precinct plan.

Theatre requires performance with a disconnection from the outside world, a sealed box to hold an audience and performers. This space is known as the black-box in the theatre world.

Performance spaces in apartheid-oppressed Soweto were historically nomadic. With no dedicated venues- theatres were make-shift, temporary and sidelined: any ‘box' would have to do. In the absence of a formal theatre space, what did manage to develop was a performance-atmosphere that was relaxed, accessible and unintimidating with the focus being on entertainment: precisely the desired escape, or reprieve, needed from the reality and regulations of the time.

A formal theatre space with its specialised facilities would serve a large community of theatre goers in Soweto as well as provide the opportunity for performers to fully showcase their talent. Although the need for this space was obvious, the response to this brief couldn't be. Simply providing generic infrastructure without examining the existing theatre-culture of Soweto (regardless of whether it was previously formalised by a dedicated space or not) would not respond to this communities' expectations of what a theatre should be, and ultimately not be a space that the community (specifically the community of Jabulani, Soweto where the theatre is located) would embrace and feel was theirs to use and enjoy.

The concept for the building needed to allow for state-of-the-art facilities fitting the dramatic echelon of Soweto whilst retaining the freedom of spirit that made performance in Soweto so enticing in the first place. A new-brand of brand-new theatre needed to be invented. The existing theatre typology; the monolithic, impenetrable, secretive-mass with one- almost reluctant- public-gesture (the front door) would exclude rather than include the community of Soweto.

The intention was to demystify and beguile the community to this new facility. The humble performance -box became the focus; it was to be completely visible from both inside and outside of the building.  As the Soweto Theatre brief called for a collection of three performance spaces (seating 430, 180 and 90 patrons respectively), these three spaces were each highlighted and made identifiable on the building's exterior. The inner workings of the theatre complex express themselves outwards to the community as highly visible beacons in the landscape, enticing the audience in.

Separating and giving clear identity to each of these performance boxes offered a design challenge. As buildings comprise of serviced and service spaces (theatres by nature are highly serviced spaces) an architectural device had to be included to separate these elements. The wing walls that flank the building contain the theatre service spaces and frame the three performance venues. Each box was then given its own identity with a different colour using various shades and finish of red, blue and yellow ceramic tiles. The interior remaining the black box that makes theatre possible and the exterior colours representing the vibrancy, personality and excitement associated with theatre in Soweto. 200 000 ceramic tiles adorn the walls of the performance boxes, each tile laid individually by tradesmen from the local community.

A community's voice is too often overwhelmed by more powerful and influential individuals for a project with this history and gravity. The relevance here is however not that the community's voice was heard, but rather the evidence of what that voice has created. The Soweto Theatre is a professional venue unlike any of its class; sophisticated and state-of-the-art whilst remaining approachable and inviting towards the community it belongs to.

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