Peter Rich of Peter Rich Architects in South Africa has dedicated his career to the service of the less privileged. His projects include low-income housing, community centers and children’s facilities. The Mapungubwe Interpretation Center in Limpopo, South Africa, a project recently completed, looks to the local culture and ecology for its design inspiration. Situated in the site of an ancient trading civilization at the confluence of the Pimpopo and Shashe rivers the in Mapungubwe National Park, the building houses artifacts from the region’s early pre-historic civilizations and reflects the complex natural landscape around it in both form and materiality.
Employing parabolic curves made from locally sourced and fabricated rammed earth bricks, the resulting structure is both elegant and sustainable. Rich worked with local residents during the design and construction process, teaching them how to manufacture the stabilized earth tiles and how to construct the vaults and arches. These vaults, called Timbrel vaults, create a composition of light, billowing forms that seem to peel away from the structures below, revealing the history inside. The building is contained by two hollow cairns, which are reminiscent of the route-markers found in the native South African cultures of the region.
The building, both in its creation and in its final end use is deeply rooted in its site both culturally and physically. The center is meant to not only display the cultural history of the site, but also to elicit a better understanding for the vulnerability of the local ecology. The building has been nominated for several awards including the Holcim Award for Sustainable Construction in 2008. The structure won the World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, 2009, being praised by the jury for its ‘hand-crafted intelligence, use of local materials’ and the way it “handled issues of sustainability and its relationship to the landscape, responding to vernacular African styles’.