Almost forty percent of the population of the windswept former black township of Zwide, a poverty-stricken suburb of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, is infected with HIV. Over the past two decades, HIV and AIDS have convulsed the community, decimating families and derailing children’s lives, including their schooling. In 1998, a young American tourist and a local teacher teamed up to form the Ubuntu Education Fund, a nonprofit focusing on getting children access to higher education and employment. The fund provides prenatal and child healthcare, HIV testing, counseling, and treatment for mothers, along with initiatives such as after-school programs, exam study sessions, university scholarships, and an array of counseling services. The foundation’s original offices were housed in an old shipping container, the building of choice for those who are starting a business in the townships—because they are cheap, portable, and secure.
In early 2006, Jacob Lief, the American co-founder of Ubuntu, interviewed 17 South African architects to find the right one to design a new facility for the growing foundation. None were selected because none understood that Ubuntu wanted something more than a serviceable building. “I told them,” Lief says, “that it had to be a fantastic building, that it must win architecture awards, that the access to such architecture is not a privilege, but rather a right.” In April, Lief was referred to Stan Field, Intl. Assoc. AIA, and seven minutes into their first phone call, Lief hired him. While Field practices in Palo Alto, Calif., he was born in Port Elizabeth and embraced the opportunity to work in his hometown. And the project came along just as Field was forming his own firm, Field Architecture, with his son Jess Field, Assoc. AIA.
On his first trip to Zwide, Stan Field met one-on-one with the entire staff of Ubuntu. He knew the organization needed new clinic and education spaces, offices, and a community meeting hall, but each person he spoke with added to the program his or her desires and aspirations. Field also noted how people moved within the township by using an informal network of paths that spider across the landscape according to the shortest distances between transit nodes, shops, and other centers of daily life in a place where people cannot afford cars. Along with an agenda for low energy consumption, these paths formed the program and influences for the building.
Field convinced the foundation to forego a compound wall around the building; the tall broken-glass- or razor-wire-topped walls provide security for most township institutions. Instead, he thought the building should reinforce a path across the site, making it part of life in Zwide and ensuring that getting a still-stigmatized test for HIV can happen as part of a daily routine. The path—defined by pavers that echo the intense red of the local soil—begins as a plaza at grade along the sidewalk on the township’s main road, winds through the building, and out to the street again. It passes a reception area, the entries to the clinic and the education and empowerment wing, and the huge hand-textured wood doors that open to the soaring community room. Then it slides out into a desert-landscaped yard where it expands once again into plaza.
But making a $6 million, 21,000-square-foot building at ease in the township fabric of tiny, one-story houses on little lots requires a nuanced solution. The Ubuntu Centre has a clear presence, yet is scaled not to overwhelm the neighborhood, and it avoids creating an intimidating presence. Field Architecture accomplished this by breaking the program into three main masses, each defined by lofty folded and angled concrete forms: The education wing occupies the street corner, while the clinic tucks behind a low entry piece along the main road; the community hall sits between the two. Second-floor spaces in the education and clinic blocks include offices, classrooms, and study areas. The concrete masses are stitched together by circulation spaces framed in light steel and glass, and each mass sits casually on the site.
In a locale where plaster, swathing rough brick, or concrete block is the usual finish material, poured-in-place concrete was not a logical choice, but it works. “Here, the final finish was the concrete, so everything had to be done with more care,” Field explains. “And this level of attention began to become the ethic of construction. It was not a new skill the builders had to learn, but rather a new approach.” While the builders, including low-skill local laborers, gained new expertise with concrete, other materials and details were chosen specifically to benefit from local skills. Glazing at the ends of the concrete structures is covered by a trellis of horizontal gum poles—a local building staple—that screen the sun and provide security. “We were using something that was so familiar, that has been used there for generations, so we could just design the method of fabrication to suit skills the community already had,” Jess Field says.
A number of smaller moves embed foundation staff’s desires into the building. On the roof of the entry, one staff member is growing a vegetable garden; the yield is used to feed children at the center. Benches invite people to sit along the sunny edge of the building on the main road, as well as at the edge of planters in the back garden. Local artwork and crafts are incorporated throughout the center. But much of the space is designed to be flexible, allowing for Ubuntu to adjust it to fit whatever needs arise. Already, a space originally intended for offices is being used for childrens’ craft workshops.
Jacob Lief has not been disappointed by his decision to hire Field. Not only has the building been successful in supporting the agenda of the organization, but the Ubuntu Centre won a Progressive Architecture Award from ARCHITECT in 2009. The new center embodies Ubuntu’s innovative and uncompromising attitude toward everything it does. As Lief was fundraising for this project, some people challenged the idea that Ubuntu, as a socially minded nonprofit, should spend such large sums on a building. Why not use that money for programs instead? But Lief rejects this logic forcefully. “Buildings are symbolic,” he says, “and this building shows the children of Zwide that they are worthy of everything the world has to offer”—including ambitious architecture.