• Mzamomtsha Primary School/ SAOTA

Architects: SAOTA  
Location: Driftsands,  South Africa
Project Year: 1999
Photographer: SAOTA

The Mzamomtsha project from SAOTA is a fresh take on the relationship built between a community and their school building. Located in Driftsands, it branches out and improves on the design brief and style of schools which was previously dictated by the Department of Education and Training in Pretoria.

It was a part of a school building programme that focused on a marginalized area affected by apartheid, rapid urbanization and urban migration. As Greg Truen, Project Partner explains, the growing population can be empowered within such a model, and transform itself into part school, part town hall, part civic centre and part sports centre that provide social and economic opportunity.

The project was split into three distinct elements: those that belong to the children, those that relate to the administration of the school and those that the community can partly stake claim to. This third group comprises; the Computer Room, the Library, the Forum and a physical training slab (fitted as a basketball court), and was positioned closest to the entrance to the site. Through the Internet and the library these facilities provide a link to the outside world representing a powerful resource for adult education, and creates a venue for community meetings, sports events, fêtes etc.

This group of buildings represents the adult and the outside world and has a confident, sophisticated language in direct counter to the ‘twee’, simplistic language often used in similar projects. On the spatial organization of the school, it pits two self-reliant U-shaped layouts whose corridors are articulated with brick clad columns that define a large orthogonal outdoor space.

Externally, the materiality of the building fits the context it is located in, with little vegetative cover. Where the shade has refused to show, ample canopies and generous covered walkways are provided. “We believed that the project should be a representation of what could be, rather than an acknowledgement of pervasive property. Having said this, the language in the school articulates the language of the buildings around it, reflecting scale, use of materials and construction methods. Spatially and in agenda this area represents a town square,” says partner Stefan Antoni.

The classrooms belong to the children and have been conceptualized as a village, sited away from the hive of activity around the ‘town square’. The classrooms are clustered around their own courtyards and, as groups, around a second shared courtyard. The architectural language and geometry becomes progressively less formal as one moves from the community facility to the classrooms themselves, representing a move to a more liberated and playful realm. The school is thus a representation of the world children find themselves in, and their association with the school providing lessons in the ways of the world. Further benefits of the project for the community lay in the construction process being used as an opportunity to employ and empower members of the community with building skills.

Building materials such as galvanized iron sheets and red clay bricks are conventional but manipulated in innovative ways with exemplary workmanship to produce an affordable and robust architectural gem fit for the contemporary zeitgeist. This also engendered the notion of community ownership of the school which was a design intention. As Mark Dudek would put it, the school has evolved into a “Microcosm of the world”.

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