Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre by Peter Rich Architects, South Africa

Architecture & Interiors

I am very happy that this particular project won this year's Building of the Year award at the World Architecture Festival. It embodies so many values that big building projects should in the world today: ecology, economy, aesthetics, consideration of the human and the environment together. The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre is sited at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. The Mapungubwe National Park celebrates the site of an ancient civilization linked to the Great Zimbabwe trading culture in the context of a natural setting that re-establishes the indigenous fauna and flora of this region. The Interpretation Centre is set on the side of a mesa, formed from the dramatic geological events that resulted in the Limpopo River changing its course from flowing into the Atlantic Ocean to discharging into the Indian Ocean. The ceremonial centre of this civilization ilocated on a sister mesa, one kilometre away from the site, is the visual climax of the architectural experience orchestrated in the design of the Centre. This is a poverty relief project using ecological methods and materials.


The complex landscape was both the inspiration for the design by Peter Rich Architects of South Africa and the source of most of the materials for its construction. This resulted in a composition of structures that are authentically rooted to their location. The equilateral triangle provides the primary layout, set out from a line running parallel to the contours. Secondary elements are fixed in position by this geometrical system, significant because of its reference to triangular motifs etched on stones uncovered on Mapungubwe Hill. The heart of the Interpretation centre is visually contained by two hollow cairns that evoke the route-markers found in Southern African cultures. Timbre vaulting is used to construct the billowing forms that expose the arched edges of their thin shells, an analogy of the archaeological revelation of past cultures.

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The structural language is contrasted by the delicate walkways that create a zigzagging ramped route through the complex. The visitor’s first view, across a seasonal stream, is of the principal vaults springing directly from the land on robust buttresses. Volumes are linked by terraced seating, contrasting the structured horizontal contours with the diaphanous domes and arches. The surfacing of all of the masonry in local rubble stone creates a timeless quality. It is as if they had erupted from the earth in a geological event similar to that which created the mesas of the site and Mapungubwe Hill.


The route provides the visitor with a multiplicity of experiences, evoking the complex social interactions of the many cultures that have traversed the site. The strong southern light is tempered by rusted steel screens that echo the network of branches of indigenous trees; horizontally slatted natural timber evokes traditional shade structures. The arrival point is marked by the first of the hollow cairns, lit by an oculus that tracks the path of the sun. The experience of the internal exhibition space is cavernous, articulated by the exposed tiles made from the local soil. Light is filtered through fused coloured glass, with dappled patterns reflected from the ponds that cool the air that naturally ventilates the buildings. The termination of this central space is a second cairn, representing the sunset and housing the golden rhinoceros that has become a Southern African icon.


Visitors have a choice of route: ramp and stair, internal and external, to move into the upper parts of the vaults and appreciate the privileged view of the lower volume, as did the ancestors from their elevated position on the plateau of the Hill. The route continues outside the covered spaces, leading to the highest part of the site and affording a view across a flat expanse to Mapungubwe Hill in the distance, with its backdrop of the Limpopo.


The project’s agenda extends beyond the presentation of ancient and more recent history of the area to awaken an understanding of the vulnerability of the local ecology. These objectives are manifested in the construction process of the Centre in which unemployed local people were trained in the manufacture of stabilised earth tiles and in building the timbrel vaults. This knowledge has been accepted into the culture of the region, with the masons continuing the skills they have learned by using the remaining tiles for their houses in nearby villages. Thus, the Centre not only tells a story, but has become part of a story that is still unfolding, of culture developing in symbiosis with its natural legacy.

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Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was selected from a total of 15
finalists, by a ‘super-jury’ chaired by Raphael Viñoly of Rafael Viñoly
Architects PC, which included Kengo Kuma, Farshid Moussavi, Suha Ozkan
and Matthias Sauerbruch. The finalists were whittled down from a
shortlist of over 270 projects.

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