Thesis Thursday: Nilene van Niekerk

Freedom of Expression Forum: Principles of Protest Reinterpreted as Place

© Nilene van Niekerk

The focus of this dissertation stems from the interest of objectifying a non-architectural contemporary problem in South Africa by means of symbolic representation, so that the conceived may become the perceived. This dissertation questions whether architecture can communicate through the process of signification and representation.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

It was within this framework of addressing a contemporary problem that the intimidation of journalists by the controversial Secrecy Bill became an insightful investigation of a significant contemporary problem in South Africa. Although freedom of expression and freedom of the press are generally protected practices in South Africa’s constitution, the persistent role of the government to protect state information is a substantial threat to citizens’ constitutional right of freedom of expression.This investigation gave form to an institutional architectural intervention that creates a meaningful symbolic place that provides protection to journalists, and become a pivotal point where classified information can be sent to and archived, house institutions that are fighting for freedom of expression, as well as establishing a public space that encourages communication.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

By placing the Freedom of Expression Forum within the direct vicinity of the Constitutional Court, the architectural language took on the form of protest, becoming a symbolic way of emphasising, contradicting and commenting on the existing beacons of freedom at Constitutional Hill.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

The proposed institution started developing in the image of the freedom towers at Constitutional Hill, giving shape to three protest towers, parallel to the freedom towers. The Japanese principle of borrowed landscape was applied by shaping the towers to frame views to Constitutional Hill. The architecture metaphorically starts to comment and try to understand the narrative of freedom inscribed into the surrounding landscape.

© Nilene van Niekerk. Constitution Hill - Freedom Towers
© Nilene van Niekerk. Constitution Hill – Freedom Towers
© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

The three towers materialised into;

The tower as a beacon to define the public forum.

The tower as a container for information which houses archive and research facilities for classified information.

The tower as a modern fort; providing safe houses as ‘writing boxes’ for the journalists.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

The structure of the towers represents protest. On the ground floor, the structure contradicts the idea of a ‘grounded’ solid structure by using a light tectonic structure and glass. The stereotomic elements are placed on top of the tectonic element, ‘protesting’ the laws of gravity. By building into the earth, removing the supportive ground on which we stride on, the building contradicts normality.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

A way of presenting silent disapproval effectively is by turning ones back to the opponent. The project aims to portray this disapproval by layering the materiality of the towers, creating a threshold between the Freedom Towers and the Protest Towers.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

The materials of the freedom towers are layered vertically, which influenced the idea to layer the proposed towers horizontally, creating protective barriers around the valuable information and journalists. The writing rooms materialised into wooden boxes, relating to the architect Louis Kahn’s idea of “carrels of wood”. The wooden boxes are enfolded by a steel structure and a building skin, creating a protective barrier between the interior and exterior.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk

The project rethinks the principles of an ancient Roman public forum, instead of only defining the space as a horizontal plain through surrounding buildings, the idea developed to extrude the open space vertically, so that it can become a vertical beacon in the high rise context of Johannesburg. In contrast with the Roman forum, which elevates only a single individual, changes in levels is introduced as seating to stimulate conversation and free speech.

© Nilene van Niekerk
© Nilene van Niekerk