The aesthetics of disappearance: In conversation with Jeremy Rose
Jeremy Rose is a partner in MRA, a Johannesburg-based architectural practice he founded alongside Phill Mashabane. Although a consortium of architects was appointed to design the Apartheid Museum, near Gold Reef City in the south-west of Johannesburg, it was Rose who gave vision to the project. He spoke to Sean O'Toole about some of the issues underpinning his design.
Can you talk readers briefly through your design of the museum?
It's a journey but it is also a linear narrative. As you come into the building you enter through the gates, into the [racial] classification exhibit. This gives you that first raw bite of apartheid. I really like the image of the four white guys waiting to determine you. It's disorientating. Then you go up a ramp which has no visible end; you don't know where you're going. That for me is a very powerful thing. When you get to the top of this ramp, you get to a point where you can look back at Johannesburg, the city of gold.
Despite the theme park setting the vantage offers a very authentic idea. The indigenous garden is planted with the same grass found on the mine dumps. The rusty steel and the gabion walls, those rock baskets, give you a sense of that left-over mining landscape which is so much a part of Jo'burg. That for me is a very important aspect, because it makes the building contextual. In a way it is a return to basics. By looking back at the physical landscape, one is asked to acknowledge those textures as part of the place. Used as such they are revealed as something interesting, as something unique to Johannesburg. I like that aspect.
From the roof then, you finally go down the stairs [into the main museum]. You drop in; there is a sense of plunging into something that you are not sure about. This is how you drop into the narrative, into Johannesburg as a mining town. As one works through the narrative, the space literally descends, gets lower. This happens at the point of the election, and offers a cathartic feeling. At the same time you'll notice that the exhibition spaces also get lighter, brighter. Even the film at the end is in full colour. The whole process deals with that sense of change.
The newspaper box near the exit works to stress this point. It is a glass box with a steel skeleton inside with newspapers suspended on raw clips with a very thin steel mesh between the pages. It shows the daily papers. It simply functions to show the product of the new South Africa; the crime, the new politics, all the new activities. That's my favourite exhibit. It's very layered and has that sense of a Victorian cabinet, the ones you find in natural history museums, cabinets that purport to tell the truth.
Was it difficult to design a structure that would accommodate the actual telling of the story of apartheid?
The exhibit design came later. It came after we realised that the linear space [or route] was working really well. The linear telling fitted well with the building's long concrete spine. In this sense the building is like a body, it has a route that you have to follow.
What reference points did you use to guide your design?
We were very interested in what the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC could offer. The Apartheid Museum is similar in that it is a space created to reinforce an exhibit; the museum is not just a hollow vessel but part of the exhibit. What ultimately happens is that the space enhances the exhibit, and the exhibits serve a similar function in terms of enhancing the space. I think this is what makes it different from many museums, the space being a part of the exhibit, the space being a key part of the experience. Lindsay Bremner [from Wits' architectural department] has written about this in an article. She refers to it as a two-foldedness in the museum's design.
In researching the design, how much were you influenced - or not, maybe even dissuaded - by all that has proceeded, particularly in terms of the Nationalists' bunkers that litter the landscape?
We wanted to start afresh. It was part of our early group discussion. We wanted to start with the landscape as we found it. When we went to site, we found that we could see Jo'burg. We could also see the car park, which we knew had to be hidden. But we were elevated and we could see Johannesburg from the south. We could see the mine dumps, all of that. It was then that we decided we wanted to use all of those extraneous elements, elements that make the building contextual, as if it came out of the ground.
I don't really like to even refer to it as a building; it is a shaped landscape. In newer projects [like Robben Island and the Hector Pietersen Museums] we have done away with the walls altogether, you only see folded landscapes. The newer projects are a progression of the ideas I started with at the Apartheid Museum.
There is something sublime about hiding the building. You are not building a temple. What I like most it is that it emerges out of the ground and delivers you onto that landscape. The fact that the garden is grassed over and the roof has grass growing on it is significant. In a way it's like finding a ruin, a house in ruin where the lawn has grown inside. I think it is like an unkempt graveyard. It works to convey a sense of the building being a part of the past ...
One which has been incorporated back into the landscape.
Yes. I like that aspect, although some people don't get that.
Changing the focus slightly, what were your thoughts in terms of the materials selection?
The use of the indigenous garden refers back to what I said earlier; it is something that emerges from the landscape, it is the landscape. The concrete itself has more to do with the imagery of Bantu buildings, the kind of stuff you would find in prisons and townships, administrative buildings. (Chuckles) Plus I have a weakness for concrete, even in my own house. It is a naked material.
I liked the choice of the materials because of their mutability: they change over time. The galvanised steel goes from silver to grey; it stains, it changes. As a result it gains a sense of time and authenticity. I think those are important aspects. My use of materials is also slightly collagist too, all the different surfaces. You have concrete, red brick, steel.
Another element that I liked is reflected in the paving. The large concrete slabs between the gravel look like grave cappings. They are very effective; they really convey a feeling of death. Initially there was a lot of resistance within the architectural team. Other members were not that direct in their approach to the museum. In a sense, though, you have to be direct if you want the project to be potent. There were people talking about making it a peace centre, and a place of reconciliation. But I think its directness as an apartheid museum is its strength.
Can you talk a little bit about the cages?
I think they give the long linear spaces a jail-like quality. I based this on an idea I got from Mona Hatoum's work. Gordon Froud introduced me to her work in New York. The point was to make the connecting exhibits and materials hold together in a very direct way. In achieving this I preferred simple bolts or clasps, not welding, polish and paint. The result is that it holds together in a loose way that has an inherent meanness; there is nothing soft about it. It is sparse.
The nice thing with the mesh, though, is that you can see through one layer to the next. You get this sense of layered depth, of transparency. It engages your mind spatially, your mind can wonder what is next. The transparency of the mesh and the narrative material suspended carefully from wires tends also to keep the museum quite pure and minimal.
What response have you had from the local architectural community?
The museum has winded a lot of people. Architects have been surprised by the way the project was tackled, the questions it poses about authenticity. It challenges them in terms of what is meaningful. I think this is because the museum isn't about style. It is about emotion. It is not a formalist thing; it is about emotion and ideas. That is its best contribution. It becomes a powerful thing conceptually in terms of the way architects think. It is not a box; it is a bit of landscape. It is about texture used to create a memorable space. I think this is what surprised people.
There has been a lot of criticism of the fact that the museums are part and parcel of Jo'burg's casinos. Do you have any comments regarding the fact that the museum is situated in and intimately a part of their casino milieu?
I have always been uncomfortable with its location. I am not however uncomfortable with the way we dealt with it. Take the building across the road [Gold Reef City casino]; it is a hatbox in a sea of motorcars with palm trees around it. What we have done is ignore all of that and used the indigenous landscape. We strived to create an authentic piece of architecture. The contrast heightens the pleasure of the museum.
See also Sean O'Toole's review of the Apartheid Museum
Apartheid Museum, Gold Reef City, Northern Park Way, Ormonde
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