Freedom Park Museum and view of Freedom Park Memorial by OBRA Architects
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Freedom Park

Pretoria, South Africa
July 2003

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Chicago Athenaeum American Architecture Award Winner

The FREEDOM PARK project is meant to give meaning to a proposed vision of the historical continuum of the nation played out on the horizon of the city of Pretoria. The ascending verticality of its structures from the summit of Salvokop Hill will take its place against the sky amongst the other landmarks to the south of the city and balance the horizontal presence of Sir Herbert Read's Union Buildings to the north of it. Freedom Park will transform the physical skyline of the city as a new landmark, and fill a gap in the subconscious skyline of the entire country.

The structures of Freedom Park complex is sited at the summit of Salvokop Hill, surrounded on all sides by a park called the Garden of Remembrance. The park is designed using the many native tree and bush varieties currently existing on Salvokop Hill. Visitors will approach Freedom Park from the base of the hill on a pre-existing broad pathway. As this gently rising spiral path takes visitors up and around the site, the Witness Memorial and Freedom Museum are gradually revealed during the ascent in constantly shifting perspectives.

Set in a clearing near the Sculpture Garden, the Memorial in honor of the victims of apartheid is surrounded by indigenous sugarbush trees at the end of the trajectory of the spiral path. Scheduled to be built in the first phase of construction, the Memorial will anchor the site as a pilgrimage destination, while other buildings undergo continued development. Inspired by the African tradition of carving a grave from within a Baobab trunk as repository for the remains of important community members, the Memorial can be seen as a hollowed-out tree trunk. Its voided interior 30 meters high, 20 meters in diameter and open to the elements through an oculus 5 meters in diameter, it will be more suggestive of a womb than a grave.

The Freedom Park Museum aspires to create an educational experience brought about by a "summoning of the senses." The everchanging chiaroscuro of light played out on plastered walls of the galleries, the ramps reminding bodies of their own weight as they move through space, and the curved surface of the cavernous interior, subtly invoke a spiritual transcendence only understood with the whole body. The building is configured as four soaring "trunks," containing ten gallery spaces that can be traversed in sequence as if they were fused into one. Just as trees in close proximity would, with time, grow into one. The museum unfolds as a historical continuum, a spatial journey of the struggle for democracy in apartheid South Africa.

To provide relief from this experience, glazed openings in the wall of the museum mark the ascent with framed views of the city and surrounding countryside below. These relief spaces provide moments of quietude for reflection and contemplation, before the final ascent to the top-level galleries and soaring space of the peace oculi above.

Freedom Park includes the Museum, the Memorial, the Garden of Remembrance with an outdoor gathering space for the celebration of civic festivities, and the Freedom Park Administration buildings. By necessity developed and built collectively over time and inspired by African culture and traditions, the project will strive to transform inevitable symbolic value into an almost pre-linguistic physical presence, slightly irregular and rugged, almost as a rock growing out of the hilltop's landscape, the product of an alliance between man and nature. Architecture is such only when embodying spiritual essence, it can then help transcend the limitations of our human condition and provide a glimpse of the infinite. The role of architecture is not only that of creating meaningful inhabitation, but also that of telling the story of man's achievements in a way no other art can. The elements of emancipation against evil in the history of South Africa is such a story, one of universal significance, its dissemination and celebration both necessary and urgent.

The building's curved exterior walls form a double layered enclosure that serves mechanical, structural and programmatic functions. The cavity space between the walls becomes an artery essential to the life of the building; providing space for air distribution and economical passive heating and cooling systems, emergency egress, and for the storage, installation and maintenance of gallery multi-media equipment and exhibition fixtures. It performs as a sustainable environmental control device, acting as a trombe wall during the winter and as a hot-air exhaust chimney during the summer.

The structure of the Freedom Park Museum has been conceived as a double shell of masonry and concrete. The inner walls of the conical domes are a composite structure of reinforced concrete and infill brick masonry. Radially-arranged narrow concrete fin-columns support concrete slabs and flat concrete beams at floor and ramp levels. These serve to support the inner masonry walls built tight to the concrete fins and slabs. The completed inner structure is ultimately monolithic though it can be constructed sequentially-concrete frame followed by masonry. The outer wall is made of two wythes of brick sandwiching a 10 cm wide lightly reinforced concrete filled cavity. This outer wall is self supporting and tied back to the fins and slabs, thus slender for its height since the core of the inner wall structure provides good buckling and lateral load resistance. The resulting structure is a constructed composite of different orders of structure and material-frame, infill wall and outer shell, concrete and brick-that registers both its own construction and a clear progression of outer lightness to inner core of strength and resilience.

The oculi skylights are proposed as inflated pillows made out of self-cleaning ETFE (ethyltetrofluoroethylene film). This system will allow transparent colorless frameless skylights cleaned by rainfall and immune to air pollution and UV radiation.