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A Beacon of light

by Lauren Hills on Jan 7, 2009

Created out of the Old Fort Prison complex, the Constitutional Court of South Africa looks to the past while embracing the future
Created out of the Old Fort Prison complex, the Constitutional Court of South Africa looks to the past while embracing the future

When the Old Fort Prison complex finally closed in 1983 it left a scar on Johannesburg’s cityscape. The scar—still tender from the injustices of the past—created an atmosphere of ominous foreboding as the high, thick walls echoed a painful reminder of the suffering that occurred within.

Hundreds of thousands of people had been jailed and tortured at the Old Fort Prison since it was built in 1892. The Awaiting Trial Building left prisoners incarcerated indefinitely without trial and Number Four—the name given to the frightening section in which men of colour were jailed—saw prominent political activists including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi and Albert Luthuli detained there under the apartheid regime.

Historically a site of pain and suffering where basic human rights were severely neglected, it was this area that was chosen to be the site for South Africa’s new Constitutional Court. In what was a deeply symbolic, carefully calculated decision, the Court complex was built to act as a bridge between past and present; a structure that embodied freedom, human rights and democracy built upon a site that had for so long strangled these very same ideals.

Adding to its historical significance, geographically speaking, the Court bridges the leafy, affluent suburbs of Parktown in the North with the bustling inner-city metropolis of Braamfontein. “It is right in the heart of Johannesburg. Right in the heart of the cyclone,” said Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, one of the sitting judges at Constitutional Court. 

Once the site of the Constitutional Court was decided upon, the architects were chosen through an anonymous competition, which saw architects and urban planners from around the globe submit entries for the design of this crucial new building that would come to grace Johannesburg’s horizon.

As a court within the larger complex of Constitution Hill, the brief called for the disciplines of architecture and urban planning to come together to create a site that would incorporate not only the Court, but also a library, the judge’s chambers, gallery space, and a public arena.

The challenge was to create a space that is open and inviting to South Africans of all cultures and walks of life, while still evoking the presence and authority of the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest judiciary.

Despite more than 170 entries from architects in over 30 countries, it was the South African contingent of Andrew Makin and Janina Masojada from OMM Design Workshop (now called Design Workshop SA), and Paul Wygers from Urban Solutions that won the competition with their ‘justice under a tree’ design concept.

While traditional court structures are often monumental and inaccessible—donning high walls, intimidating steps and sterile chambers—Makin, Masojada and Wygers aimed to create a welcoming, open and inclusive space. They sought to create a structure that would invite people to experience and participate in the judicial system and learn more about the Constitution and democracy in a relaxed environment—ultimately, allowing them to participate in ‘justice under a tree’. 

“Particularly in the Court foyer and chamber, we needed to achieve both the required gravitas to project the status of the Court, and to ensure a sense of welcome and accessibility to all that experienced it. It was the welcome problem of representing our particular form of ethical democracy,” explains Makin.