Architects as artists – public art as a form of storytelling.
about this project
What does public art mean in a post-Apartheid South Africa? Our effort to answer this became the process of design for this piece of public art. The strength of public art is in its ability to unify and ability to speak a single message. It can address shifts in social structure. In the case of this project, the tower carries the legacy of the voting lines of 1994, symbolising the crosses made by the 1994 voters. It stands lightly, yet dominantly, while articulating the start of the voting lines at the bottom of the Donkin Reserve in Port Elizabeth. The tower also mimics the verticality and elegance of the surrounding landmark elements like the lighthouse and flagpole. This art work was intended to be part of a larger context, notably the ‘Route 67’ tourist route and the Voter’s Queue.
The two-way conversation becomes clear between Route 67 and the tower, where the x’s become the common symbol, and South African democracy is celebrated.
a more in-depth look at this project
This is a competition winning entry to a Public Arts Open Competition for a site on Chapel Street (Now Winston Ntshona Street), Port Elizabeth. The site is at the lower entrance to the Donkin Reserve, a well-known public open space in the centre of Port Elizabeth and alongside the significant Port Elizabeth Opera House. It is also in the vicinity of the Phoenix Hotel, arguably the oldest bar and hotel in Port Elizabeth. This entrance to the Donkin Reserve is at the beginning of a pedestrian route (known as the Voter’s Line) that makes its way up the hill. This art piece is part of the ‘Route 67’ public art route initiated by the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA). This Route 67 is an important inner-city intervention by the MBDA and funded by the National Lottery Distribution Fund (NLDF), launched in 2009 and involves 67 public art pieces strategically placed on a route through the historic centre of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.
This public art initiative was managed by the inspirational Trinity Session who have also managed the implementation of a significant amount of Public Art in other centres. They have collected works of the provinces’ most prominent artists as well as contributed to the development of skills of artist collectives and students, such as those of the Nelson Mandela University. It is intended, that this initiative to celebrate the 67 years of public life of Nelson Mandela, becomes an important part of the inner city and a driver for economic development and a major tourist attraction.
A tower with moving elements was a starting point for us with early references to markers at the start or end of long and challenging routes over mountain passes in Northern India and Nepal. This helped define the importance of the ‘Voter’s Line’ and made a mark at the start of this walk up the steep eastern edge of the Donkin Reserve. The ‘Voter’s Line’ is a long and winding path that links Chapel Street to the top of the Donkin Reserve and represents the iconic images of queues of voters at the 1994 elections. Conceptually, the Tower itself was intended to be sensed as light and ephemeral but also have sufficient presence and mass to be sensed as a space defining element by the person starting the journey up the route.
The form is derived from the site informers such as the newly constructed retaining walls, the existing lighthouse and tall flagpole. The tower is therefore rounded at its base and attached to the retaining wall and then becomes slimmer as it gets higher to mimic the elegant proportions of the neighbouring lighthouse. It is surprisingly regular (but appears more irregular) in its components of horizontal rings that get smaller the higher they get with its more irregular and random nature formed by the spacing of the vertical posts and the slight bending of the top elements and some intermediate rings.
The design of the steelwork was conducted in an iterative fashion using hand drawn sketches and cardboard models. Consultations were held with the Contractor at regular intervals to ensure that the design was practicable, and the price would stay within budget. The structure is supported on five of the vertical members, one bolted to a concrete base at ground level and another to the top of the concrete wall that forms part of the Voters’ Line on the Donkin Reserve. The other three vertical supports are bolted to the concrete retaining wall with purpose made brackets. These members are 150mm square tube with a wall thickness of 6mm.
An important component of the composition of the tower is the rotating crosses. The crosses act as physical symbols of the voting crosses made by the 1994 voters in South Africa’s first free elections. They are reinforced on the Voters’ Line pathway, in the form of hundreds of painted crosses, each one a symbolic representation of a South African voter who stood so patiently in the queues.
The early reference for these cross elements were the prayer flags at markers to long and challenging routes and how they move in the wind. This links to an interest we have in non-static sculptures and the ability for environmental factors such as the wind, sun and viewing position to influence sculpture and highlight a changing and perhaps continuously interesting nature of the sculpture and the context within which it is situated.
We believe that this project responds to the noble and ambitious intentions of the Route 67 public art route and reinforces its story and clear conceptual framework as set up by the Client and Art Co-ordinator.
We believe that there is a consideration for it as more than ‘art’ and to become ‘place’ by virtue of its space defining characteristics of marker, threshold and the ability to pass under/through it.