Brian Vermeulen on Great Zimbabwe

The architecture firm of Cottrell and Vermeulen claims diverse interests, from the built environment to landscape, exhibitions and new construction technologies and advocates a collaborative approach. The team has wide experience in education design. They have a reputation for innovation in early years and primary school design in particular.  Their school work has gained acclaim throughout the United Kingdom.  With African vernacular as inspiration, the firm prepared the Exemplar Schools Design report for the UK Department of Education and Skills in 2003. 

In a June 2009 interview with Building Magazine’s Pamela Buxton, Partner Brian Vermeulen describes how the African Site of Great Zimbabwe, a major trading center until the 15th century, has influenced his work.

“I grew up in Zimbabwe, and when other architecture students were looking at Le Corbusier, my inspiration was more African.

I first saw Great Zimbabwe when I was about 11 or 12 — it was the only significant example of monumental architecture in southern Africa. At the time, I just saw very well put together stones and nice shapes and wasn’t aware of its political symbolism. Growing up in a white colonial state in the sixties and seventies I was politically naive and it was only when I went to Cape Town University to study architecture that I started getting interested in what I was doing in Africa.

It was a very strange political environment. South Africa was going through turmoil; Zimbabwe was going through a war. On my course, everyone else was looking at James Stirling who was the big thing at the time, but I decided to research African architecture and symbolism and I needed to get security clearance to go into archives to read banned documents on Great Zimbabwe. I got a shock when I realised that archaeologists had found out that it was built by Africans but had been banned from saying so because the regime was worried about encouraging black power. The documents had red stamps on them saying things like “confidential”, and “banned”. I slowly realised how censored society was — you become angry when you think you’ve been lied to. It changed me, and when I later moved to London I became involved in Architects Against Apartheid.

I went back to Great Zimbabwe as a student and again twice since. It’s the biggest sub-Saharan monumental building and is very well put together — some walls are 5m thick at the base and then taper upwards and there are very unusual organic shapes and corridors. The sacred part of the site is higher up, like an acropolis on a ridge; the space within the walled enclosure to the south is almost like the agora and is where the king may have lived. The space inbetween was where the people lived. The tall conical structure may be a symbolic grain silo.

There are things here that you can read into. On the top of the ridge were sacred stone birds that were taken off to museums by archaeologists. There’s a theory that they are Bataleur eagles. These are special — when I was a boy, people used to clap when they flew over. In the animist tradition of belief, the landscape, birds and animals were filled with powerful meanings and some of the trees on the site, such as the fig trees would have been highly symbolic. The landscape around it is very powerful — maybe that’s one of the reasons why there isn’t much monumental architecture in this part of Africa.

Photo Credit: Cottrell and Vermeulen

Unlike in Europe, a palace in Africa isn’t just the actual building. It’s the domain in which the building takes place — the space inside the retaining boundary wall and the temporary structures within it, which is quite a modern idea. You get an entire complex of buildings within the walls, sometimes incorporating trees and natural features. In some places in Africa, for example Mali, the people often sleep outside and put the animals inside so that the living space is the external room.

Great Zimbabwe influenced the way I see space, especially in our school buildings. In schools, outdoor space is just as important as internal space so the African palace is the perfect model — Cottrell & Vermeulen included it in some of the guidance we did for the government on Building Schools For the Future. The school becomes not just the building but a landscape for learning.

We’re currently building a Hindu school in Harrow — the Krishna-Avanti Primary School. We prompted our client to talk about the landscape in Hindu culture and we got another picture. In traditional Hindu villages they have one area of land which is spiritual (dharma), another area for wildlife, and another for prosperity (crops and livestock). In the school, we have a spiritual courtyard garden, vegetable gardens outside the classrooms and apple trees in the playground, as well as an undulating wildlife area around the perimeter.

At Westborough Primary School in Westcliff on Sea, where we previously designed a cardboard building, we’re now doing a zero-carbon refurbishment and this, by coincidence, has an African garden and recycled play structures. The school landscape is an extension of the classrooms and is a learning resource in itself.

After independence, Great Zimbabwe went a bit touristy for a while — the grass was cleared and curio sellers appeared. But now, after the turmoil of the last few years, the tourists have gone.

The grass grows very quickly and I’m hoping to go back again to rediscover the spaces that first inspired me.”

Inspiration: Great Zimbabwe
Built: 11th-15th centuries
Location:  Masvingo, Zimbabwe

Formed of regular, rectangular granite stones, carefully placed one upon the other, Great Zimbabwe is the ruins of an amazing complex and a protected World Heritage Site. This major trading centre was built by the Bantu civilisation of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries and covered nearly 80ha. It had an estimated 18,000 inhabitants and controlled most of internal south-east Africa, with artefacts found there from as far away as China.

It consists of three areas: the hill complex, which was used as a temple and is the oldest part of the site dating back to 900AD; the valley complex, which was for the citizens; and the Great Enclosure or walled town, which was used by members of the elite classes.

The stone walls, up to 6meter thick and 12 meter high, are built of granite blocks without the use of mortar. Two high walls form the narrow parallel passage, 60 meter long, that allows direct access to the Conical Tower.  Each layer of stones was laid on top of the other slightly more recessed than the last, to produce a stabilising inward slope. Early constructions used rough blocks and incorporated features of the landscapes such as boulders, while later walls were more refined.

The walls are thought to be indications of status, rather than purely defensive. The walls surrounded huts and linked them to form a series of courtyards.  Some researchers claim the complex included an astronomy observatory.

The Great Enclosure is the largest single ancient structure south of the Sahara.

It is unclear why the city was abandoned. European explorers initially believed the city was the work of non-Africans — either the Phoenicians or Arabs. Archaeological excavations early in the 20th century found that the site was built by Africans but archaeologists were discouraged from suggesting that sub-Saharan Africans had instigated such a grand construction.

Eight carved soapstone birds measuring 30cm high were found in the ruins, combining human and bird features. After independence, the image of one of these birds became a symbol on the new Zimbabwe flag, with the country taking its name from the site.

A slide show of Great Zimbabwe images can be seen here.

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