A brick and mortar tribute to culture at Affies

Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool in Pretoria – affectionately known as Affies – recently launched its new music centre, an architectural gem that strikes a high note for the 96 year old high school that was established in January 1920 as South Africa’s first purely Afrikaans-medium school.  

The new facility was created to fill a need for hi-tech music facilities.

The school is known for its sporting prowess and turning out both national rugby and cricketing heroes. What many don’t know is that its music department is among the largest in South Africa and is home to both a full orchestra and a jazz band. The music department trains about 240 music theory students.  

Architect Pieter Mathews from Mathews and Associates said that the completed arts campus – identified by sculptured, strong graphic lettering spelling out “Affies Kunstekampus AD 2015”, symbolised a bringing together of two art forms – music and architecture.

“Poetically, the design is inspired by interpretations of music into architecture as well as the composition of place. As a place, the design approach intends to provide a spatial response that is rooted in the traditions of the school and its students, but also which allows for students of music and art to identify with this new intervention and feel a sense of belonging within the larger school campus,” said Mathews.

In addition to embracing the artistic and musical legacy of the school, the new music centre also overcame significant practical challenges. It is located on what was once regarded as an inaccessible ‘left over space’ on the ‘back’ edge of the school grounds.

A noisy Metrorail and Gautrain line that runs along its south-eastern edge made this the most unlikely site for the much needed hi-tech music facility which includes a  160-seat auditorium for orchestral and choir practice (including a recording studio), four acoustically sound classrooms, twenty individual practice rooms and offices, admin facilities for staff and connective outdoor spaces.

The project comprises three separate buildings that each cater to a specific function. They are linked by intimate outdoor courtyards and walkways.

Mathews said that the aesthetic responded to the clues set out by the existing Union-style architecture with its corrugated sheeting and redbrick gable façades. At the same time, individual detailing picked up on the notion of sound waves travelling through the site.

“The building scale and materiality relates to the existing built heritage fabric, but the aesthetic resolution is not one that copies the style of the existing buildings. Rather, theirs is an interpretation of existing roof heights, materials, vistas, thresholds and edges that interpret the qualities of the old, into a new contemporary aesthetic,” he said.

Both the design and building materials were carefully selected, taking into account both the design needs and the tight R 7 million budget.

Building contractor, Tunduwe Construction, used 62 000 Terracotta Satin.  These provided the closest match to the original red bricks.

Solid bricks were used at several intersecting angles as well as the end of a soldier course row of bricks

Investing in local materials such as Corobrik clay bricks resulted in lower material costs in order to focus on the high quality of acoustic infrastructure and multipurpose communal space.

The longevity and low maintenance of buildings constructed using clay brick, together with thermal properties that helped maintain ambient temperatures in both summer and winter thereby saving on energy costs would minimise maintenance costs, Musa Shangase Commercial director of Corobrik pointed out.  

Mathews said that the challenges posed by the seemingly unsuitable site were overcome by dividing the building into three with each segment catering to learning, practice, and performance respectively. Asymmetrical forms not only provided for perfect acoustics but also met the challenges posed by the terrain. 

“In much the same way as different musical instruments come together in the creation of a symphony, so the grouping of buildings with different forms and corners blend together,” Mathews explained.

The buildings that make up the music centre also frame outdoor social spaces or ‘rooms’ that can be used by students informally or as outdoor learning spaces. They are linked together by covered walkways. Special care was taken to design around existing trees to instantly ground the new addition within the established feel of the rest of the school campus.

“The awkward shape of the site provided an opportunity to inform the design of the practice rooms as a buffering edge to the railway line at an angle that is different to the rest of the school’s grid. This results in pockets of sheltered outdoor courtyards framed by the rest of the program and then leading into intriguing gathering spaces for the public to meet before a performance,” Mathews said.

A new courtyard defined by the existing hall and new buildings is home to an eye catching steel sculpture entitled Kwartet (Quartet in English) by South African artist Strijdom van der Merwe. His artwork forms a focal point in this gathering space and encapsulates the musical theme that follows through the centre.

“Design elements complement functional properties but provide a creative interpretation of notions of rhythm, repetition, pause, and layering present in musical notation. Functional steel columns supporting an off shutter concrete peristyle across the front facade of the complex are placed in a rhythm reminiscent of notes in a tune. These columns also form a threshold leading the user to the entrance of the centre, while a wall of soldier course masonry behind it mimics a choir,” Mathews added.

He emphasised that the bricks used during the construction process played a strongly symbolic role. They were turned upright, standing proudly like soldiers. “But, in this building, they represent members of the Affie choir rather than soldiers, standing proud and straight. This brick choir welcomes the visitor and makes visual music.”

The well-known, Affie Choir, also known as "Die Rooidasse" owing to the red ties worn during performances, is made up of about 100 boys. It was established 18 years ago and has won multiple awards and toured internationally.

From the inner hall, steps lead to the first floor. Another functional artwork on the landing – a laser cut steel screen depicting the school’s first anthem in braille - fulfils an important architectural purpose as it hides the staircase.

Even the materials of the old school are re-interpreted in contemporary and functional ways, according to Mathews. A graphic screen of piano keys that adorns the southern façade of the existing school hall adds a fun element whilst, at the same time, hiding unsightly drainage pipes from the ablution block.

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