Launch Slideshow

The Ubuntu Center, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Field Architecture created a series of connected, trapezoidal forms that house education, health, and social services for the 400,000 residents of Zwide Township, one of the ghettos where the South African government forcibly relocated nonwhites during the apartheid era.

The Ubuntu Center, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Field Architecture created a series of connected, trapezoidal forms that house education, health, and social services for the 400,000 residents of Zwide Township, one of the ghettos where the South African government forcibly relocated nonwhites during the apartheid era.

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    Part sustainability strategy, part organizational tool, the design of the Ubuntu Center consists of four connected trapezoidal forms and interstitial spaces. The forms are oriented to maximize daylight, and each contains different types of facilities and functions, ranging from study rooms and skills programs in the empowerment wing to treatment and counseling in the HIV/TB clinic. Thanks to the careful planning, no part of the center is marginalized.

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    To make the center approachable for residents, the architects used a locally familiar materials palette of concrete, glass, and gum poles. The materials also help to improve the building's environmental performance. The folded concrete skin adds passive solar heating, and a roof garden provides not only building insulation, but a food source.

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    Ground Floor

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    Translated into English, "Ubuntu" means "I am, because you are" and represents the idea of a community surviving and its members drawing strength from one another. In Zwide Township, grassroots community efforts are trying to answer the urgent needs for child healthcare, education, and counseling. Another vital need is the normalizing of HIV testing and treatment. A stigma still surrounds HIV, though it affects 40 percent of the local population. The Ubuntu Center addresses several of these needs and is a model that can be replicated in other towns in South Africa.

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    Before building on site, Field Architecture created mock-ups of the exterior wall system. A section of the concrete wall was cast (top) and raw gum poles (bottom) were finished and installed to form a section of the sunscreen (middle). The sunscreen functions as a security system while filtering the daylight that illuminates 90 percent of the building.

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    Upper Floor

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    The community theater is a large room that can serve as a gathering space for cultural events, meetings, or educational sessions.

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    The Ubuntu Center is located along a major roadway, with access to public transportation and pedestrian walkways, making it a readily accessible resource for the residents of Port Elizabeth.

Site
A flat and bare plot in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a major seaport.

Program
A $6 million, 20,980-square-foot community center featuring an HIV and tuberculosis clinic, a general wellness center, career guidance and computer facilities, a soup kitchen, and multipurpose space.

Solution
Field Architecture created a series of connected, trapezoidal forms that house education, health, and social services for the 400,000 residents of Zwide Township, one of the ghettos where the South African government forcibly relocated nonwhites during the apartheid era. Working within a two-story height limit, the architects deployed a palette of construction materials including a cast-in-place concrete shell and an exterior sunscreen made from gum poles, a common local building material that helps make the center's unconventional form culturally accessible to the community. "The complex of forms is sophisticated and articulate while nonetheless being friendly," Henry Urbach noted. Eric Höweler agreed, adding, "It is extremely elegant, but the formal moves are very instrumental."

While fulfilling the center's service-based mission, Field Architecture attempted to minimize the potential social stigmatization of users: the areas for HIV/tuberculosis testing and treatment, for example, are directly adjacent to community areas such as the cafeteria and the theater and multipurpose hall. "It makes an urban space, a collecting space, a place you would want to walk to even if you weren't going for an appointment," said Georgeen Theodore.

The jury especially appreciated the project's public, architectural recognition of HIV and AIDS. "This is particularly relevant for South Africa, where there has been a denial of the AIDS crisis," Lars Lerup said. "So this is radical, both in its form and its placement in a community where AIDS is a real problem."

56th Annual P/A Awards

Project Credits
Project: The Ubuntu Center, Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Client: Ubuntu Education Fund
Architect: Field Architecture, Palo Alto, Calif.—Stan Field, Jess Field (principals); Andy Lin, Jeff Pilotte, Mark Johnson (project team)
Project Manager/Local Architect: John Blair/NOH Architects
Contractor: SBT Construction
Structural Engineer: ILISO Consulting
Quantity Surveyor: Rousseau Probert Elliott