Tech Trends: Form, Function and Hope Come Together in KwaZulu-Natal31 Jul, 2005 By: Kenneth Wong
Designing the Siyathemba Soccer Pitch in the Zulu Kingdom
Once the domain of King Shaka, the South African province currently known as KwaZulu-Natal (the Zulu Kingdom) has seen more than its fair share of colonial warfare and tribal conflicts. But descendents of Shaka's Zulu warriors now face a force far more devastating than anything they've encountered before. According to the World Health Organization's AIDS Epidemic Update: 2004 report (www.who.int), "Sub-Saharan Africa has just over 10% of the world's population, but is home to more than 60% of all people living with HIV." KwaZulu-Natal tops the chart with 37.5% infection among young pregnant mothers between 15–24.
The global commerce that has enriched many has not been so kind to KwaZulu-Natal, either. According to Asia Times Online ("Asia strips Africa's textile industry," April 26, 2005), "Some 300,000 textile workers [in South Africa] have lost their jobs in the past two years due to the influx of Chinese goods." KwaZulu-Natal produces more than 40% of South Africa's textiles. The drop in demand is a severe blow to its local economy.
Ravaged and impoverished as it is, the Zulu Nation gave birth to a girls' soccer league, the first of its kind for this area. To give these girls and other local athletes a home, and to give the struggling region hope, the nonprofit organization Architecture for Humanity (www.architectureforhumanity.org ) held a design competition in 2004. The Siyathemba Competition (derived from the Zulu word for "hope") challenged designers to create a "perfect pitch" in KwaZulu-Natal's Somkhele Municipality, where youths are three times more likely to become HIV infected. The structure will serve as a gathering place for youths between 9–14. It will function as both a sports arena and an HIV awareness center run by the Africa Center for Health and Population Studies.
Figure 1. To understand how his design will fit into KwaZulu-Natal's natural landscape, Ng uses hand-drawn sketches, 2D schematics and 3D physical models.
After the international jury narrowed down the 300 entries received to nine finalists and 16 honorable mentions, they posted the schemes in schools and clinics across Somkhele. Students, athletes, nurses and teachers in the community then made the final pick. It was the pitch by Swee Hong Ng, a Singapore-born architect now working for Edge Studio (www.edge-studio.com ) in Pittsburgh, PA.
Form and Function
Armed with satellite images and photographs of the site, Ng began working with hand-drawn sketches and physical models. Then he worked concurrently in AutoCAD and SketchUp (@Last Software, www.sketch3d.com) to further refine his 2D plans and develop 3D models. This dual-perspective approach helped him understand "the experiential aspects and sense of scale," he says.
Figure 2. Simple and efficient, Ng's design is expected to allow the KwaZulu-Natal community to participate in construction and maintenance, using materials readily available at the site.
Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor, held that form follows function, not the other way around. Wright further refined this theory by arguing that form and function are one. In Ng's design, we see a structure that simultaneously complements the natural flow of the landscape and serves its intended purpose. Based on his observation of "how people would typically gather on slopes surrounding fields to watch outdoor games," Ng designed a pair of V-shape galleries to enclose the soccer field. They provide "ambiance and heighten the experience of both players and spectators," Ng says. "At the same time, they allow a sense of openness at both ends to facilitate visual engagement with the community. The apex of each V creates a focal point similar to an outdoor amphi-theater, where talks and information dissemination may be hosted."
One side of the center space is left open intentionally to allow future expansion. The roofless structure takes advantage of the abundant sunlight at the site. At the same time, it sidesteps the locale's inherent shortcomings—contest organizers warned designers that the power grid servicing the site is unreliable and "solar panels and batteries will be targets for theft."
Figure 3. The new soccer pitch will take advantage of the natural flow of the local terrain.
Made in KwaZulu-Natal
One of the criteria for the Siyathemba contest was that "the facility should incorporate sustainable and/or local materials." Another was that it "be designed such that it can be built entirely through local labor." Steve Kinsler, the principal at East Coast Architects (Durban, South Africa), is Siyathemba's onsite architect. He strongly believes that "sustainable buildings should embody sound social, economic, and environmental principles." In his unflinching assessment, "[Somkhele] is a poor community with a low skill base, so it's important that materials are sourced from the surrounding area and that the construction technologies are familiar to local craftsmen."
For the multisection terraces, Ng's design calls for concrete paving on adobe bricks, incorporating two earth slopes to create their gradual elevation. "The structures, geometry, and construction methods are kept simple to allow the local community to participate in the construction process," he says.
Topping one of the terraces is a shading canopy, stitched together from the works of local artisans. "The shade fabric is intended to tap into the local arts and celebrate the richness of the African woven textiles," explains Ng. He hopes "the community will participate in the production and continued renewal of these fabric canopies to bring changing color and vibrancy to the space."
The first phase of construction is expected to take six months and is targeted to finish in December, just in time for a soccer match on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1, 2005). Rhana Naicker, project coordinator for Siyathemba Consultants/Africa Center, says, "There is no facility of this sort anywhere in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and it is so desperately needed." If sufficient funding can be secured, she plans to replicate this pilot program throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Siyathemba project is its estimated total construction cost of less than $5,000. It's a small investment with a big payoff, considering its lasting impact on the socioeconomic landscape of KwaZulu-Natal.
Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. He explores innovative usage of technology as a freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.