The Alexandra Interpretation Centre was developed as a community project by the government in the heart of Alexandra with the main objectives being poverty alleviation and community building through training the local community in tourism and heritage. The centre also acts as a space for nurturing small enterprises, and showcasing arts, culture, heritage and the environment of Alexandra township.
Heritage is at the centre of the project given the historical significance of its immediate locality. It sits opposite a precinct named Mandela’s Yard, which had been home to Nelson Mandela in 1942. As such, the site was granted conservation status in addition to permission for the development of the new centre.
One of the highlights of the project was community participation. The themes that were developed for the project were based on studies conducted by a special group of locals who were trained to harness information, especially from local elders who are deemed to be society’s custodians of history and knowledge. The information generated from these consultations was important in creating awareness and recognition of indigenous African cultural values and eventually amendments to the National heritage policy in this regard.
The centre is housed in a 3 storey building containing an exhibition space that is conceived to tell the story of the place, a jazz archive, a library, training facilities and small commercial spaces in the form of shops and restaurants. These programs overlap through a juxtaposition of spaces and flexibility in design which not only makes the spaces multifunctional but also allows the residents to use them in ways that had not necessarily been envisioned in the original program.
The main feature of the building and which is at the centre of its concept is the bridge that spans across the street. As an architectural and urban landmark, the centre forms an iconic part of the roofscape of the locality by cutting across the street with the main exhibition hall being accommodated at the centre of this bridge.
Spatially, this building-over-street concept forms a portal or gateway that is experienced as a double volume over the street below. From a distance, the centre appears to have grown out of the dense urban fabric of houses in the precinct, rising slightly to tower over them and eventually tying them together through the bridge.
The space on the underside of the building is equally conceived in a well thought out plan. By spanning across the street, the building creates two public spaces, squares of sorts, on either sides of the street. These public spaces are designed to facilitate a myriad of functions that will be left to the locals’ discretion. This will make the street and squares a vibrant part of the town especially because the activities likely to take place will be very informal in nature, thus it would not be unusual to find one getting a haircut or having a birthday party on either of the spaces.
Access to the building is directly from the street through the public spaces where one takes a ramp up to the upper exhibition level. From the central hall and library, one can look down into the street in a two-way visual communication that also allows those on the street to look up into the centre.
In response to its immediate context, the centre celebrates local diversity in culture which is symbolized on the main façade through a collage of contrasting materials inspired by the vital colours and textures of the surroundings. The locals have embraced the centre and have even coined the phrase “jazz architecture” to describe the building, perhaps in direct response to how they experience the building’s fusion of materials. The building employs the use of soil bricks on the facades on either ends of the street with the central bridge held in place by steel columns and prominently featuring multicoloured polycarbonate sheets on its main façade. The use of these sheets enhances the transparency of the building and gives the street continuity as one can almost “see through” the centre.
The major focus of the centre remains to train the residents and empower them in skills that will facilitate development initiatives. The Alexandra Interpretation Centre is indeed a project that looks forward by creating opportunities for the residents through training and entrepreneurship while looking back by celebrating the culture and heritage of Alexandra.