Theatre designed to etch a heartfelt legacy

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SS Soweto theatre designer Clara IH 021 (2) Ihsaan Haffejee BUILDING WITH COLOUR: Clara Cruz Almeida, lead architect of the new Soweto Theatre, outside her creation. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee

Noni Mokati

anyone would be forgiven for mistaking Clara da Cruz Almeida for a fashion guru.

But she isn’t. She’s the brain behind the box-oriented designs at the new Soweto Theatre.

Those close to her know that her signature scarlet scarf and lipstick given a small indication of the levels of creativity that run through her veins.

Her art is not of fine cloth but of buildings that have transcended societal norms.

“I never imagined that I would be an architect. As a child, I always wanted to be a lawyer and make money,” says Da Cruz Almeida, 56, sitting in the foyer of the award-winning structure for which she was the lead architect.

Her passion for designing and revamping structures, she recalls, dates from her childhood, when miniature mud or clay houses and animals were considered the best toys for children.

So it’s no wonder Da Cruz Almeida opted for minute multi-coloured scheme tiles for the theatre’s walls, with sophisticated and geometrical designs to bring the structure to life.

“I’m a woman and we are sticklers for detail. I wanted certain corners to be designed in a specific way. Take this balcony. I wanted it to be formed in a way that it affords a couple to share a kiss while watching the audience downstairs and soaking in the ambience. I call it my Romeo and Juliet corner,” she says with a laugh, pointing to a balcony on a glass bridge inside the theatre.

Da Cruz Almeida says she was also particular about where toilets were situated, how colours had to be co-ordinated, how the exterior should look. The process took her and her team two years.

“Drawing is an international language. In architecture, you’re like an assembler. You put things together. You analyse, dissect and reassemble,” she says.

As a toddler, she played with tiny planes, loved geometrical shapes and drew structures.

She started sketching at the age of eight.

“Back then, I designed houses for my friends. I made clay models. I remember how frustrated I was at one point because I couldn’t construct a flat roof. I worked tirelessly trying to flatten the top of my house until I got it right.

“I still do that even today. I’d be invited at a friend’s house for dinner and during our meal I often find myself redesigning the entire house in my head,” she says.

At first, her parents thought her passion for designing houses was just a passing phase.

But because of her persistence, her mother, a teacher, and her father, an agriculture engineer, started taking it more seriously.

When she was 15, they took her for career guidance and all assessments pointed her in two directions.

“It said I would either be a social worker or an architect. Although both careers dealt with problem-solving, I already knew what I loved,” she says.

Da Cruz Almeida says she and her father had the same interest. He, too, designed houses.

When she was 12, her father showed her a plan of a house he had built for a forest manager. She remembers the plan so vividly that she is still able to draw it today.

She was born in Mozambique, and moved to Joburg to further her studies. She was never keen on maths, but knew that she needed the subject to do what she loved.

“My mother was a good mathematician. She helped me to embrace arithmetic and when I realised that I needed maths, I buckled down and studied hard,” she says.

She qualified as an architect in 1983. Her designs include the unemployment insurance fund building in Pretoria, the Northern Cape legislature and homes in Beijing. She also refurbished the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town.

Da Cruz Almeida says she was summoned by several ministers during apartheid to explain her choice of interior design and why she put Persian carpets in Parliament’s House of Assembly. They wanted a protea or a springbok. Her decisions, she said, were made in the context of the post-apartheid future she knew would come.

Da Cruz Almeida says she is proud that the Soweto Theatre won the SA Property Owners Association Social/Environmental Impact Development Award.

“It’s wonderful to see how the community has made (the theatre) its own. I have no doubt they would protect it from vandalism. That’s why we had it fenced instead of putting up a wall. We wanted them (the residents) to be a part of it.

“That is what true architecture is all about. It’s giving people a legacy that will be etched in their hearts for ever.”


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