South Africa’s Department for International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) seems to hide from Pretoria, crouching behind a hill, with its back towards the city.
The best views of it are from above on the Meintjieskop*, from where it looks like a fat beetle with a set of angled legs protruding from one side of its body. Some people have described it as a beached whale skeleton, and it certainly is a real Leviathan of a building.
My main impression of the O. R. Tambo (DIRCO) building is its ambivalence about Africanness. The building was originally planned to represent African values of ubuntu (sharing and humanity) and batho pele (people first), in a bid to set a new African approach to international relationships. The architect Mark Pencharz of T. C. Design Architects designed a massive skeleton-like external structure that was meant to represent the idea of ‘gift-giving’ – the building was to be wrapped in a blanket in the style of an African gift-giver.
The boney protrusions were attached to the side facing the hill (originally intended to be the entrance), but half way through construction they were deemed too abrasive, and so the building was turned around and the new entrance was given a more conventional neo-classical column design – it’s all glass and elegant metal modernism.
The ambivalence continues inside. The lobby has some familiar nods towards local colours and textures with patterned tiling presenting a corporatised version of Ndebele patterns and earthy colours. A giant cylinder sits inside the entrance, made up at the base by differently coloured Perspex boxes, stacked on top of each other, and giving way eventually to giant copper-coloured swirls that reach up to the ceiling which is at the height of the building. The boxes, designed to display gifts, are empty (‘security concerns’ I was told).
Passing through inevitable security gates, you enter the belly of the whale/beetle, a roof-high, light, empty lobby, punctuated by planted areas, staircases leading to layers of open-plan offices, crossed by giant bridges, glass-covered meeting rooms, ‘pause areas’ and restaurants. One wing is given over to a conference facility, closed off with further layers of security to keep visiting VIPs safe. It has the feel of a modern hotel – all cream and beige.
Inside, the building has an anodyne, corporate feel. When I asked my guide whether there were attempts to create an African character, he pointed enthusiastically towards signs for the toilets which depict a woman with a pot on her head and a man carrying a knobkerrie.
The landscaping around the building is interesting too. The DIRCO sits just outside Pretoria next to the green belt, which it attempts to blend in with. From the ground floor you see what looks like wild bush – natural rather than cultivated grass, yellow, tangled, ragged; none of the flowers, clipped green lawns and trees that surround older (and particularly colonial-era) state buildings.
However, looking down from the roof this is revealed as a bit of a sham. The landscape has been divided up into small, uniform hills upon which the grass grows wild, but they are surrounded by cultivated lawn. The effect is artificial, like an attempt to create pockets of naked landscape within what is essentially highly cultivated.
I suppose this is necessary – it keeps the ‘wild’ bits under control – and the effect is still a symbolic repudiation of colonial ideas of statehood subduing and taming Africa. But it did suggest a certain ambivalence about letting the African landscape fully realise itself.
Overall, the building seems to have lost faith in its original vision. The whale ribs are relegated to the back; the bits and pieces of Ndebele art more airport kitsch than assertive statement; the African imagery reserved for toilet signs; and the African bush contained and controlled within circles of cultivated lawn.
Symbolically, the DIRCO building seems to pull back from a full commitment to reshaping politics in more people-centred ways. Viewed from the front, it is essentially an international-style, modernist building that ends up doing little to upset ‘normal’ international relations. The more challenging aspects of the building – in particular its Leviathan-like references – remain as a subtext of the power that underpins an anodyne façade.
*The Meintjieskop is a hill overlooking Pretoria on which sits the President’s office, the Union Buildings.