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Thusong Service Centre by Makeka Design Laboratory, Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa

Mokena Makeka’s new sports community centre in a Cape Flats township shows how to make decent, dignified architecture that uplifts its surroundings. Photography by Dennis Gilbert

Khayelitsha is a township on the notorious Cape Flats, an inhospitable, windswept plain on the south-east edge of Cape Town. After the apartheid Pass Laws were scrapped in 1986, a number of informal settlements were established on the Flats by predominantly Xhosa people in search of work in the city (khayelitsha means ‘new home’ in Xhosa).

Following the historic 1994 elections, these settlements were flooded with more incomers, but with no infrastructure, schools, hospitals or proper housing, living conditions were dismal. Now Khayelitsha is home to an estimated two million people, making it one of the largest single townships in South Africa. Things have improved, with the establishment of schools, better housing and even a business district, but at heart it still remains a marginalised and impoverished enclave, with high rates of crime and HIV infection.

Following the dismantling of apartheid, South African cities and townships are now in a state of flux and fragmentation. As architect and urbanist Lindsay Bremner noted in an AR issue on South Africa (AR June 2007): ‘Unlike the idea of the city as an ideal, completed, self-sufficient body that has dominated Western thought since the Renaissance, the post-apartheid city is unfinished, open-ended and provisional. It is being made and unmade at the same time.’

No-one quite knows what form this fluctuating urban milieu will finally assume, but even the most benighted townships still need points of focus. Khayelitsha has a population the size of metropolitan Stockholm. How do you bring a sense of the civic to such places?

The Thusong Service Centre by Mokena Makeka is the first phase in a planned series of new institutions for the township. The municipally prosaic name is misleading - it’s actually a confidently executed sports and social centre. Makeka is one of an emerging generation of talented African architects making his name with projects such as an ensemble of new police stations patrolling the Cape Peninsula’s local rail network (AR June 2007).

Sports centres can be monolithic, inward-looking structures, but Makeka’s is a lighter and more fluid proposition. At its heart is a double-height hall for basketball and netball, with a single bank of seating. The hall is surrounded on three sides by secondary spaces - changing areas, offices, conference rooms and roof terraces - which are pulled outwards to articulate and animate the facades.

With an oversailing sawtooth roof, translucent polycarbonate walls and timber pergolas shading generous roof terraces, the architecture is essentially lightweight and functional. Yet this lightness is also grounded by a gabion wall filled with local Table Mountain sandstone (separating the foyer from the sports court) and a series of more muscular concrete elements that bind the building together.

Experientially, it’s a kind of architectural Arte Povera that makes poetic use of cheap and disregarded materials.

It also aims to connect with and enrich its wider surroundings, acting as an armature for and backdrop to everyday lives. Amid scruffy, low-rise surroundings, the two-storey scale and brimmed roof have a distinct civic presence.

In a country still grappling with political, economic and social convulsions, Thusong Service Centre might seem like a drop in the ocean. And it’s perhaps naive to assume that architecture (not so long ago the despised physical manifestation of state policy) can have an instant impact on Khayelitsha’s intractable urban and social problems. Yet in its modest way, by showing what decent, dignified, modern township buildings could look like, Thusong offers an uplifting glimpse of a possible future.

Architect Makeka Design Laboratory, Cape Town, South Africa
Project team Mokena Makeka, Holger Deppe, Dale Harris
Structural engineer Bergstan SA
Services engineer 4em
Quantity surveyor Ngewu & Associates
Contractor EDEL Construction

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Readers' comments (1)

  • wow the makena guy who is an architect is the best

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