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The shape of the city

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Johannesburg’s pavements aren’t known to be the prettiest, nor the cleanest, in South Africa. Yet, on the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe avenues, where the skyline is all the richer for the recent addition of the Circa on Jellicoe gallery, the pavement is pristine and the public art it bears is untouched.

A giant pebble-like work in black granite by Willem Boshoff gleams in the sunlight; there are two priceless Eduardo Villa statues at the entrance.

How is it that, in a city where vandals and graffiti artists seem unable to resist a blank wall, this hallowed corner of Rosebank appears to have a protective veil?

StudioMAS’s Pierre Swanepoel, the architect who designed Circa on Jellicoe and a finalist in VISI’s Designer of the Year Award for the second consecutive year, says the answer is quite simple: If a space is clearly looked after, then others will respect it too. He points across the road to a disused property where a wall is unpainted – the pavement is a mess.

A vote of confidence
The gallery is more than just a new building on our skyline. Its construction symbolises a vote of confidence in the South African city. Owner Mark Read says he built it because he loves Johannesburg and wanted to show that there are wonderful things to curate here in a 21st century way.

Pierre designed the building as something of a philosophy lesson for Johannesburg residents. In a city where we have all retreated behind high walls and electric fences, it’s his appeal for us to take ownership of the environment in which we live. He doesn’t deny that there’s a need for security; he just feels there are other ways to create it.

Pierre’s approach starts with the access to Circa on Jellicoe from its sister gallery across the road, The Everard Read. There’s no defined or enclosed pathway. Instead, a newly paved road with several more pieces of public art says: this space belongs to the people who use it.

A simple but solid glass door leads visitors inside and onto the external pathway that curves around the building and up its three storeys.

Essentially, this is a building that’s exposed to the elements, with giant fins of anodised aluminium offering the only shelter as one climbs the exterior ramp. “But don’t you get wet when it rains?” I ask. “Yes, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” Pierre answers.

African references
Our modern lifestyle has given us an eternal fear of nature and, in Circa on Jellicoe, Pierre has created an African reminder that coming into contact with the elements is okay.

The elliptically shaped building has a number of African references: The colour spectrum of the aluminium fins covers 10 different shades of grey, brown and black taken from the bark of a tree. The upright fins are also a reminder of sticks used to build a Zulu kraal, while the curve of the path is reminiscent of the round passages in the Great Zimbabwe ruins.

On the ground floor, the room called Speke is empty but will soon feature exhibitions of extraordinary global cultural curiosities. Here, Mark Read is collaborating with Mark Valentine of Amatuli – one of South Africa’s most renowned purveyors of African artefacts – to create a showcase of everything intriguing, from Indonesian codpieces to an African dhow.

The main exhibition hall on the first floor, the Darwin Room, has capacity for seven screens to be raised from the floor to create hanging space for works of art. As a single chamber, however, the room creates a unique venue for any significant event.

The Circa philosophy
Mark stresses that this isn’t only a contemporary art gallery and he will consider all ideas when it comes to the use of the space. “Circa” is Latin for “in between” and “about” – encapsulating perfectly the broad nature of the gallery and the scope of Mark’s intentions with it.

Circa on Jellicoe opened with the exhibition Penelope and the Cosmos featuring new work by Willem Boshoff and Karel Nel. There’s been talk of a piece of the moon being put on display and, given Mark’s keen personal interest in palaeontology, there’s every chance that several dramatic archaeological finds will also find their way here.

Finally, the ramp leads one onto the roof of the building where the fins dip down to reveal the dramatic western view of Johannesburg. The angle is cleverly sliced to conceal any ugliness and give maximum exposure to the beauty of the Northcliff hills.

The top storey of the building is a private area that incorporates a club-like lounge for the personal use of the owners. On the southern side, the fire escape is dramatically enclosed with wire mesh fencing. Greenery has been planted to grow all the way to the top and create a green foil for the aluminium exterior. This is yet another reminder that the City of Gold needs to soften around the edges; to embrace the Circa philosophy and enjoy the elements.

• Circa on Jellicoe 011 788 4805, gallery@circaonjellicoe.co.za
StudioMAS 011 486 2979, www.studiomas.co.za

Photos: Dook /  Production: Annemarie Meintjies / Words: Jacqueline Myburgh Chemaly

Published with permission of Visi­

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