The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineSlideshow: Presidential library design references ancient, contemporary African history

Slideshow: Presidential library design references ancient, contemporary African history

By Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D.

  • side view of four of the library's silo-shaped volumes at night
  • long section of library
  • interior of warm red room filled with natural light and books
  • ground floor layout
  • diagram of roof cutouts for natural light
  • roof view of library
  • main entrance at day

Locally sourced, compressed earth will be used to create the red-hued, layered look of the rammed earth facade of the iconic Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library when it is constructed in Riviera, South Africa, a suburb of Johannesburg. Designed by architecture firm Adjaye Associates with local architect MMA Design Studio, the 5,400 sq m library will be formed from eight interconnected granary-style buildings as well as a subterranean space.

The architecture firm has released a series of renderings of the design, shown in the slideshow, above.

Adjaye Associates’ most well-known commission is the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library design pays homage to ancient and contemporary African history through its visual reference to the land, agriculture, and granaries — the grain storage infrastructure that enabled Africa to systematize cycles of feeding, planting, and harvesting, according to material distributed by Adjaye Associates. The design is also a metaphor for the knowledge-based nourishment that the library will offer, according to the architects.

The archive center will be a repository for the papers, artifacts, and key documents of Mbeki, who was president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008, and other significant African historical figures, according to the architects. The goal is for the library and archives to provide the necessary infrastructure for the preservation and distribution of African history and knowledge and to act as an anchor point for local and international scholars.

“The architecture of the library taps into the collective memory of the continent through the establishment of a new historical center for African consciousness in which knowledge, education, and sustenance are nurtured,” says the lead designer, David Adjaye, in materials distributed by the architects. “The Thabo Mbeki (library) presents an opportunity to realize the ambition of the dreams of President Thabo Mbeki to advance and empower an African renaissance.”

The library “will be a place where Africans uncover their own history and identity (and) a place where we are empowered to script a brighter and more prosperous future,” Mbeki is quoted as saying in the material.

The library will contain a museum with permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, a research center with special collections, archives and a reading room, and an auditorium. It will also offer office space and seminar rooms, a women’s empowerment center, a digital experience, a shop, and a cafeteria.

Each of the design’s eight cylindrical forms is topped with a dome and linked via an enclosed central spine, which the architects refer to as a den. The solar orientation of each cylinder has been assessed by the design team and rooftop cutouts chosen to ensure that the resulting natural lighting best suits the programmatic needs of each.

The library will lower its carbon footprint by using locally sourced materials, from the compressed mud that will be used in the facade and the granary silo’s thickened walls to the stone used for the flooring and the wood species used in its timber cladding, according to the architects. Photovoltaic panels will be located on the central spine’s roof and geothermal systems used to store heat for later use.

A construction timeline and completion date have not yet been announced.

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