Before any aesthetics of architecture come in to play, a decent architect will sensitise themselves to the place in which a future building will sit. They will holistically research all the elements, good or bad; the environment, the typography, the history, the local culture. Then they examine the future purpose of the building: who will come, how best they use it, how they will make the experience memorable and what will be the legacy. Loaded with this knowledge, only then will the look and style of the building be explored. If successful, it will appear at one with its location, and its function will offer a seamless journey. If it is great, however, then people will be uplifted by the experience; enlightened and inspired. Such is the case at the West Coast Fossil Park.
When legendary architect Jo Noero was commissioned to design an interpretive centre for the park near Langebaan, his practice was confronted with the challenge of creating it in land that had been decimated and scarred by 50 years of open-cast phosphate mining. But it was because of the mining that a phenomenal discovery was made in the 1960s. The quarries uncovered an exceptionally rich seam of animal fossils from the late Miocene and early Pliocene period, such as the long-extinct sabre-tooth cats, short-necked giraffes and African bears. Now a national heritage site, it is an invaluable and unique source of fossils that are still being uncovered, revealing a tantalising glimpse at West Coast life 5.2-million years ago when it was a sub-tropical, forested place; very different to how it is today.
Noero has created a series of modest low-lying buildings, layered horizontally and vertically on a slope dug into a healing West Coast landscape, coaxed back by to life by OvP landscape architects. On the lower section, one part of the building rises gracefully in lapping vertical folds for a better vantage point. The aim was that the building would not dominate the site but sit in co-existence with its surrounds, designed to echo the lost undulating contours of the landscape before it was mined.
“People are really surprised when they arrive because there is no sense of what is to come,” Noero says of the discreet approach. But as a master of his craft he wanted to “confront and confound people’s expectations” of what the series of buildings should be in a region which is considered, with fondness, as a bit rough and ready. “We didn’t want to create a hokey, wattle and daub environment - that is not what the place deserves. It is located in one of the best fossil finds in the world,” he says. “The scale of the building was imbued with some viewpoints with a monumental scale appropriate, in my opinion, to an important building such as a museum.”
The centre is primarily a tourist and educational institute where people are taken on a journey from the top of the site down through a magnificent and surprisingly light-filled, elegant exhibition hall. The building’s architecture gently guides them through the exhibition that was designed by curator Jo-Anne Duggan, ending their journey outside on the lower part of the site close to the main attraction: the fossil beds. A forum garden behind the museum, designed by OvP, is planted with species, primarily from KwaZulu-Natal, to represent what the landscape would possibly have resembled five-million years ago.
“Architecture is a form of storytelling,” Noero explains. This story is continuing with a long-term 20-year vision to extend the experience. And because that experience is about deep time he adds, without irony, “No one is in a hurry.” It will naturally evolve and get bigger.
What is remarkable is the park is renowned by paleontologists and researchers the world over, but fairly undiscovered by South Africans. As many of its treasures are yet to be revealed, this ancient natural wonder and its beautifully designed experience offer a very bright future for West Coast tourism.
100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.