South Sudan, the youngest country on earth, is not without history. But given the vast priorities of nation building, it is a country that has until now not had permanent repositories for its historical facts.
A nation is never born, always constructed. And the records of its past are at the heart of this fragile process as all governments need efficient archive services in order to preserve records, foster a national identity, and provide public access to governance. Because of this central role of archives in the building of a democratic state, South Sudan, with assistance from the government of Norway, embarked on the establishment of this institution through an international design competition organized by the United Nations Office for Project Sevices (UNOPS).
The brief called for a secure place with state of the art technology for the preservation, storage and retrieval of important archival records. The project also needed to have a public access space where holdings could be made available for research, reference and public awareness.
The Archive site is in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, next to the Memorial Grounds established in memory of Dr. John Garang, leader of the Liberation Movement; and near Juba’s Freedom Square, used for national celebrations and other important public events. The site also borders important government offices, the National Assembly, and the University of Juba, making it suitable for the intended purpose as it can be easily reached by government agencies, academics, and the general public.
The building was conceived as part of a cultural complex in Juba that might include a museum and theatre as well as facilities for the storage and digitization of records dating back to the colonial era. The winning design was submitted by an official Joint Venture between a South Sudanese architecture firm, Beny Architecture and a Portuguese architecture firm, Sitios e Formas. The design was presented as a model for nation building and inclusion of all South Sudan’s citizens.
This article is based on an interview with Iduol Beny, owner of Beny Architecture.
The team designed a grand roof for aesthetics and functionality, since the permitted overall square footage was minimal and did not require more than a one storey building.
The design was inspired by the people of South Sudan and represents a kind of ‘collection’ of all of our aspirations, strength, hopes and beauty. Rather than copying aesthetics from other countries, the aim was to design a culturally relevant space for South Sudan.
With the focus on the roof as a point of departure for the Archive, she added:
I have always admired our traditional canopies and the social gatherings they support, so the design is a nod to them: an innovative interpretation of traditional aesthetics.
By designing a double height roof that contained solar panels and a rain catchment system, the designers ensured that the Archive was both a self-generating powerhouse able to meet the strict requirements for temperature control, as well as an iconic feature visible from various parts of the city.
Given the site’s large size, the building mass was distributed among separate volumes, with the landscape weaving between them. The landscape itself is conceived of as an open, accessible space with wireless internet access and sound, stone and water gardens shaded by native plants such as Neem, Moringa and Flamboyant trees.
The distribution of the volumes also helped achieve cross-ventilation and natural lighting. They were arranged under the grand roof so as to correspond with the workflow of receiving, cleaning, repairing, preserving, storing and displaying archival documents.
The design is function-driven, based on the journey of an archival document through the building (from initial arrival through to conservation, storage and display) and also reflective of the country’s need for social cohesion.
The elliptical roof evokes the roof of the traditional hut -one of the most emblematic cultural features of South Sudan. It is a dynamic feature in a rapidly growing and often chaotic city.
Because Juba sits in an earthquake zone, and uplift from strong winds is a real threat, structural steel was used for the roof. Between the steel ribbing of the grand roof, the team designed a light inlay of treated bamboo – a common aesthetic around South Sudan. Pathways throughout the site are to be covered in crushed stone from Jebel Kuajor, Juba’s famous mountain.
The team sought to fulfill the need of bringing about a feeling of affirmation and identity with a sustainable, sensible building of remarkable visual impact that would celebrate the subtlety and diversity of South Sudanese culture.
Concrete block and poured concrete were selected for the exterior walls to ensure climate control in the spaces where archival material is stored, where moisture build up and temperatures have to be regulated.
As a South Sudanese, transparency – transparency of spaces and transparency of processes – was vital to Beny. Being a project for all citizens of South Sudan, she advocated for the use of decorative breeze block as much as possible, rather than the early proposals of metal bars to secure windows and doors.
…designing solid barricades and using materials and aesthetics indicative of the militarized/aid architecture that abounds in RSS and signalling ”no trespassing” to the citizenry was, for me, not an option.
The project includes public areas (desk, lobby for exhibits, hall, reading room, restrooms, cafeteria, kitchen, parking lot and gardens) as well as service quarters (reception of documents, quarantine room with fumigation chamber, storage, climate controlled listing area, cleaning zone, laboratory, scanning room, supply room, quarters for priority documents, warehouses, offices for 15 staff members, staff area and closet, among others).
Once complete, the project will form the foundation of a national institution that will provide educative support for the country’s universities, and most importantly, a communal and inclusive basis for national solidarity and shared experience.
It is rare to find a nation-building project that has such substance, and all part of a larger effort to establish not just a seat of government, but a capital for a new nation.