A new theatre is an exciting event and when it happens to be in our most iconic township which has never had its own theatre of this stature, the occasion is monumental.
Fortunately, the architects have come up with a building to match. No, says Clara da Cruz Almeida, project architect from Afritects (helped by Tony de Oliveira, Tatenda Mavunga, Sergio Duarte and Lewis Levin, an independent architect, with the design of the tensile structure), they don’t mind being compared to someone like Frank Gehry who changed the face of a small Spanish city, Bilbao, with the Guggenheim Museum.
It all started with a competition in 2008 and before they quite knew what was happening Afritects’ plans were selected. What was desired was an iconic building, a photographic building, because nothing else would stand the test of time.
They have also worked hard at making it as accessible to Sowetans as well as the rest of the world, never losing sight that to start with, it is a theatre for the people of Soweto and something they have been pleading for, for a long time. It was important to meet their expectations and aspirations.
Even though the architecture was paramount, it couldn’t simply be decorative to be decorative, it had to be functional in every detail. When one is guided through the building, everything has been planned to the final touch, which is exactly what should happen in this kind of artistic and performance space.
It is a building that needs to resonate in 100 years time, noted Steven Sack, acting CEO of the Roodepoort Promusica Theatre, who has been tasked with the launch of the Soweto Theatre. “We needed to put something here for longevity.”
For the architects, many things come into play. It’s a building for the people, but most importantly also had to work for the performers. This is where one of our top theatre technicians, Denis Hutchinson, became the game changer. He knew what all the requirements were and could decipher every detail to get things right. The architects confessed that they had little experience of designing theatres.
What they did know was that the functionality equalled the stature in importance. One of the first things that grabbed the design team was the idea of having box theatres (think of the description of that name), which is best for acoustics. What they then determined was to have three separate boxes (in this instance denoted by colours – red, blue and yellow), each of which is a theatre in itself. Dictated by the box shape, the rest of the building is wrapped around these boxes.
This is how the architect describes the brief: “The building has two fortress walls that contain the three different theatres and all other ancillary spaces. It faces and has to engage to the existing amphitheatre (which is yet to be upgraded) and a tent, covering the area between the entrances to both, forms the main exterior foyer or patlelo. The patlelo will be able to host informal performances during festivals, or people just socialising at intervals.
“At the opposing end of the theatre, facing Nthati and Bolani streets, the colourful conjunction of volumes appears like a sculpture on this very visible and populous main road intersection. The theatre is not a solid secret box, but exposes all its contents: so from everywhere you can see each of the theatre boxes, the main fly-tower, the actors’ change rooms, the stores.”
They have also come up with a hugely visible graffiti wall which can be used as the theatre wishes, a narrow hang-type bridge that spans the foyer across the front windows, to move people from one side to the other, and opens a spectacular view, as well as the outside tented area which creates a festive front from a visual as well as practical point of view.
They wanted something colourful, explains Almeida, something smooth, shiny and sparkling. That’s exactly what they got, a building that inspires and invites creativity – a magical theatrical space.