Mapungubwe, located on South Africa’s northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, prospered between 1200 and 1300 AD by being one of the first places that produced gold, but after its fall it remained uninhabited for over 700 years, until it’s discovery in 1933. The society living in what today is Unesco World Heritage Site, is thought to have been the most complex in the region, implementing the first class-based social system in southern Africa. And besides the cultural heritage, Mapungubwe is also home to an immensely rich flora and fauna, including over 1000 years old Baobab trees and a big variety of animal life, including elephant, giraffe, white rhino, antelopes and 400 bird species.
In this surreal setting Peter Rich has designed a 1,500 sqm visitor’s center which includes spaces to tell the stories of the place and house artifacts, along with tourist facilities and SANParks offices. The complex is a collection of stone cladded vaults balancing on the sloped site, against the backdrop of Sandstone formations and mopane woodlands.
The vaults have been designed in collaboration with John Ochsendorf from MIT and Michael Ramage, Univ. of Cambridge, using a 600 years old construction system to achieve a low economical and environmental impact. The traditional timbrel vaulting, using locally made pressed soil cement tiles, allows the design to be materialized with minimal formwork and no steel reinforcement. In addition, the ambition was to also integrate local unskilled labor into a poverty relief program by training them to produce the over 200,000 tiles necessary in the construction of the domes.
The Mapungubwe Interpretive Center was realized using latest developments in structural geometry along with an ancient construction technique, in order to implement a contemporary design, meant to house hundreds of years old artifacts.