21 March 2014

Building for the protection of South Africans' human rights

“One can justifiably regard the very creation of the Constitutional court as an everlasting tribute to all the gallant sons and daughters of South Africa who went through the dungeons of the Old Fort and emerged victorious in more ways than one.”  

- Councillor Colin Matjila 15 July 1995, speech at launch of architectural competition in SAHA collection AL3295 - B01.2.2 

Birth child of the 1993 interim constitution, South Africa's Constitutional Court is the highest court in South Africa. Initially housed in temporary accommodation when it was first established in 1994,  it was decided that the court needed a building of its own, worthy of its mandate. It was suggested that the Old Fort prison in central Johannesburg, with its complex and multilayered history, would be an appropriate location and an architectural competition was launched for the design of the court.

Constitutional court, AL3295Speaking at the launch of the competition, the Minister of Public Works, Jeff Radebe explained:

“the task of designing a complex befitting the rich, complex legacy of this site is a task that deserves the greatest amount of public participation as possible. The Department of Public Works, believes that we need to increase public interest in architecture generally in South Africa...Such projects should acknowledge local human needs and social values; recognise a symbiosis between natural and cultural/historical landscapes...and promote the ultimate inspiration of innovation.” 

- Address by the Minister on the launch of architectural competition, archived in SAHA collection AL3295 - B01.2.2   

As a result of this competition, Janina Masojada, Andrew Makin and Paul Wygers were appointed as the architects responsible for designing the new court, with the architecture intended to represent the ideals of the Democratic South Africa. As they explain:

“This is not a single building but a collection of individual components making up a bigger entity. The building mirrors the South African story where the population, languages, the provinces and different identities come together to be one.”

We the people wall, 13 March 2014, Noorun-nisaa Delate After a long process of design and construction, the court moved from the temporary offices in Braampark to the new building, situated on the highest point of the northern slope of Constitution Hill and the building was inaugurated on Human Rights Day in 2004.

It is truly South African in design, from the foyer which was made to resemble ‘justice under the tree’ to the artwork that surrounds the court. The design of the court also required the demolition of the awaiting trail block, however the architects commemorated the prison by salvaging the bricks from the trial block to construct the wall of the court, lobby and the court chambers.  Most importantly are the messages of hope people were asked to write at the opening ceremony. These messages were engraved onto copper plates and every year on Human Rights Day, handwritten messages from visitors to Constitution Hill are added to the ‘We the people wall’.

Court chambers, 13 march 2014, Noorun-nisaa Delate Justice under the tree Court Foyer, 13 March 2014, Noorun-nisaa Delate


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