Wits Rural Facility
Kate Otten Architects - South Africa
Some 480 kms away from the main Wits University campus in Johannesburg, is the Wits Rural Facility – a 350 hectare site of indigenous bush close to the Kruger National Park. This existing facility offers a unique learning experience: social science students, medics and teachers in training for example, can have first hand experience of working in rural communities – the community in turn benefits through research programmes, interventions and training; the possibilities for in-situ research into indigenous fauna and flora are exceptional. In addition, merely by being in such an unusual place, creates a platform for students to see life differently. The new buildings are designed to offer even greater awareness of these opportunities. The aim of our project was to upgrade, update and expand this offering of experiential learning and to provide a platform of local as well as international standing. The project included the preparation of an overall development masterplan that would allow the university to expand the facility in phases as finances become available. The location of the Wits Rural Campus in an environmentally protected context was the key design driver. We chose to use an area of the site that had already been developed – the existing Main Lodge site. This, together with adapting existing building facilities where possible, limited any further impact from expansion into the indigenous bush. Except for the two existing vehicle access roads that were retained and re-used, the facility is a pedestrian-only zone – again limiting impact on the environment. This considered approach carries through into the built form. The buildings are designed as individual spaces, linked by covered walkways thus allowing the various parts to shift to accommodate existing terrain and protected trees. The shifting geometry offers opportunities to form a variety of courtyards, gathering places and informal teaching spaces. It also opens up visual corridors to the surrounding bushveldt and allows the buildings to quite literally, breathe, as well allowing the resident wild life to wander through the site. The roofs linking the units respond directly to the landscape by following the natural topography of the site – rising, falling and slipping underneath and between the extensive tree cover. They also cut away to allow trees to grow through the buildings. Only two trees, neither of them endemic to the area, were removed for construction. Through a careful use of colour and scale, the buildings are quiet and recede into the landscape. Economic, social and environmental sustainability were a natural extension of the design approach. Passive climate control, rainwater collection and sewerage purification are all employed to this effect. The construction process was used to create job opportunities for the local communities; simple, regular building methods and readily available materials were chosen but used in unusual ways thus offering up-skilling of local artisans. During construction, a rigorous Environmental Management Plan was implemented. Finally, the landscape design guides the rehabilitation of previously damaged areas and ensures protection of the environment into the future.