Publication 4





It was important that the objectives of the competition, as set out in the brief, had been fulfilled. These were to design a building:

  • with sufficient gravitas to befit the Premier of the Eastern Cape
  • that resonates with the cultural values, aspirations and characteristics of the people of the Eastern Cape
  • that relates to the House of Traditional Leaders on the adjacent site
  • with coordinated, indigenous landscaping that could flow out into the town of Bhisho and become a link between its disparate elements
  • that will enhance the status of Bhisho as the capital of the Eastern Cape
  • that acts as a catalyst for change, growth and development in Bhisho.

While all the criteria listed above were deemed to be important and of special significance this competition afforded a springboard for the implementation of a spatial structural development plan for Bhisho that applied generally to the town and its surroundings, and more specifically to the land adjacent to the Premier’s Office. The judges considered such a spatial development to be important and that it should be urgently applied.

The jury established a set of objective criteria by which a balanced and complete analysis of all the submissions could be made and compared one to the other. These criteria were organised under main themes of urban context, such as environmental performance, functional and technical aspects, architectural qualities, strengths and weaknesses.


Architect: Comrie + Wilkinson Architects & Urban Designers (Cape)

This submission was the one that best responded to the objectives of the competition and the following aspects were found to be of special merit. The proposed building:

  • addresses Independence Avenue by creating an edge which fosters an urban sense and is a catalyst for future street spatial definition
  • creates a strong identity for Bhisho and promises a memorable experience in the way the visual elements make a clear, cultural statement
  • creates a sense of dignity in its use of a direct, almost understated, expression of what are perceived to be the aspirations of the people of the Eastern Cape
  • highlights the importance of passive technology as a means of environmental control, thus minimising the need for air conditioning and the use of expensive or special materials or construction systems
  • captures the African ethos in a very subtle and elegant way by interlinking a succession of courtyard spaces and in its use of colour, texture and light
  • proposes a rich intersection of architectural elements arranged in a complex composition of simple yet rich spatial entities unfolding as a varied set of experiences where volume, light, texture and natural elements differentiate and animate the spaces and the journey through them
  • is organised in a clear and well-defined hierarchy of spaces and functions
  • makes African arts and crafts an integral part of the architectural expression.

The presentation is done in a clear, elegant and sophisticated manner reflecting the architect’s mature experience and deep understanding of expressive graphic means.

 The jury makes the following recommendations that it believes could add further value to the design:

  • Provision should be made for the possible future expansion of the building. Although this was not a requirement of the brief it is the opinion of the judges that serious consideration could be given to the planning of such a contingency. The design, being so complete in itself, does not lend itself to expansion within the site and therefore it is recommended that provision for extending the building could best take place on the adjacent vacant land. This calls for a part of the presently vacant land to be reserved for future expansion of the Premier’s Office building.
  • The Premier’s Office would be better placed in a more interior position, further back from the entrance, thus providing an opportunity for the enjoyment of the desirable succession of threshold and ceremonial spaces that the design allows. It is a common tradition in African culture to create a sequence of hierarchical thresholds that honour and protect ‘the chief’. At the same time this would improve security.
  • The entry as threshold is well defined but lacks a transitional element from the exterior to the interior.
  • Greater visibility of the garden courtyards from the outside of the building should be provided. This applies in particular to views from the House of Traditional Leaders and the still undeveloped land on the other side.
  • More attention should be given to the distribution and provision of ablution facilities. The premier requires his own ablution facilities and vertical ducting imposes its own order.






The project is strongly influenced by urban design considerations. The new Premier’s Office building has a major role to play in setting up a new order that is very conscious of the need for better neighbourliness between different buildings and improved place-making. In the short to medium term there will not be enough new buildings to complete linkages that run all the way back to King Williams Town as suggested in the brief. However, this does need to remain a long-term goal and the vision must be established now. The flowing natural landscape also suggests that the corridor must not be continuous, but that corridors of green must cross it at defined positions so that distant views are protected. The real impact of proper urban design will be achieved at precinct scale. Bhisho suffers from disjointedness and requires a robust and legible, grid system at this scale. The grid system needs to be anchored by a redefined axis of Independence Avenue and by the existing tower building.

The grain of the super-blocks that stretch between the axis and the R63 is too vast to support intimacy and effective pedestrian-related place-making objectives. Thus beyond the super-order a secondary layer of permeability is proposed, anchored by smaller landmarks, avenues and courts. The axis cannot be a timid space. It needs to be defined boldly in order to become a memorable civic space. The definition needs to be supported by consistent building onto a defined line on either side of the axis and by dense and continuous tree planting. The fact that the new House of Traditional Leaders is expressive in form and set back substantially from the alignment of the axis breaks the continuity of flanking buildings at that point. This provides the opportunity to set back buildings on the opposite side of the axis and to create a central lung.

The urban design requirement of properly defining space suggests that it will be irresponsible to design each building as a self-referential object or expressive icon. This will result in visual clutter. Each has an obligation towards the whole and to support the aim of achieving balance between foreground and background buildings.

The pattern of development suggested by the grid-based framework calls for moderation in the specific location of the Premier’s Office building. First, the building has to define the streetscape and boulevard condition by being placed hard up on the edge while presenting a permeable and inviting façade onto it. Second, the building has to recognise the expressive nature of the House of Traditional Leaders to its north and act as a frame or foil for it rather than competing with it. Third, the building needs to offer a level of permeability so that it does not close opportunities for choice. A high level of permeability is one of the key characteristics of functional urban environments. Fourth, the building has to present an appropriately scaled interface along the boundary of the R63 that relates to the speed-space perception of passing motorists.


Body, layering and ornament

The architectural design of the Premier’s Office on the allocated site is directly informed by the urban design considerations and reinforces this through a series of further layers that progress from the region to the locality.

Layering is an important aspect of Xhosa culture. The layering consists of three main parts:

  • Body/core – this refers to the solid, rational and universal.
  • Layer 1 – in local cultures it refers to the specific in terms of clothing the body. The layers relate to issues such as cultural pride, respect and honoring of ancestors. Decoration and patterns are ingrained into the layers to provide further depth of meaning.
  • Ornament/embellishment – ornament such as jewellery is detached or detachable from the body and offers a level of choice.

Body, layering and ornament are compatible with the design of a building in a context where urban design requirements suggest greater attention to body/grid/rationality. Building as ornament or the isolation of circular form such as found in the dominant local vernacular is inappropriate in this context. Circular form at the scale of a large building becomes excessively self-referential and tends to push other buildings away while greater cohesion and definition of the spaces between buildings are sought. The scheme proposes a rectilinear ‘body’. It acts as a background condition that is embellished with a rich sequence of layers and holds more expressive forms.

In the progression from ‘body’ to ‘ornament’ lies great opportunities for the gradual unveiling of subsequent layers and the diverse range of spaces contained within the whole. Bold ornamental forms such as the bead gallery and auditorium are framed and held by the bold mass of the main structure. Each of the three courtyards that are held within the main body has a different character and floor texture. Lightweight bridges span across the spaces, each clad with different abstracted elevations of the conical huts that populate the region. The external spaces that are held between the main body and the series of walls outside of it present another layer of discovery. Within the ‘ornaments’ themselves there is further opportunity for discovery; a spiralling ramp leads visitors up into the beadwork gallery in which there is the opportunity for diverse pieces to be displayed as part of a changing exhibition. Once a year at the occasion of the State of the Province address by the premier it would be appropriate to unveil a new piece to be hung inside the gallery.

The complexity and layering of the whole is further enhanced by the varied use of colour and texture and the infusion of natural light during different times of the year and day.

Sensory aspects of the design

Light, texture and colour create interwoven tapestries of richness reminiscent of the bold layering of the local Xhosa culture. Such layering and the introduction of ornament and installation in the many spaces defined in- and outside the building.


Building order and layout

The floor plate of the building is robust and rational and allows for flexible layout options over time, serviced by an optimum number of vertical service and circulation cores. The design also allows for division of the building into several sections, each capable of being built by different contractors in parallel or phased over time.

Every effort has been made to design a simple building around the functional requirements of the brief, but at the same time to introduce a high level of legibility and identity within the departments.

The generous internal corridor at ground level that runs from the main public entrance off the axis of Independence Avenue towards the statue of the ox is a major organising element. It links the three main courtyards, each with its own identity, and acts as a legible connector to the vertical service cores. At its end are two major anchors:

  • at the eastern end the main reception and exhibition space
  • at the western end the visual anchor of the ox statue and the Hall of Heroes.
  • Along the routes there are various points of interest
  • three main courtyards
  • two ornamental structures, the bead gallery and the auditorium
  • two sunken gardens.

The simple geometric order allows for access control to be introduced in a flexible manner. The perimeter block arrangement essentially makes the building a ‘castle’ with two clearly defined gateways/points of access along the short eastern boundary. The fact that the entire ground floor is potentially a semi-public space with two control points introduces additional flexibility, with access to each of the vertical cores able to provide secondary control, either as a manned security point or via a card reader system (or both).

Staff who arrive by car and who have passed through the vehicular security gate may enter the building through two alternative entrance points along the southern façade.

A pedestrian route may pass through the entire site along its northern boundary.

A circular, guided visitor’s route is possible on the ground floor and along the northern boundary, visiting at least 18 stops along the way. The route can be either clockwise or anti-clockwise.

Sustainability principles

The orientation of the site allows for optimal east-west alignment and maximum exposure to sun from the north. The built form has been arranged into two slender wings, each running in an east-west direction and thus minimising the extent of undesirable east and west fac;ades.

The most extreme condition in Bhisho is the cold of mid­winter. Thermal mass in the form of a thick masonry will help capture and store heat for extended periods of time and radiate it inwards. A solid floor will also capture heat.

Rainwater is harvested from the extensive horizontal surfaces, channeled and stored centrally in a series of reservoirs housed in the basement. Reticulation from the storage area may be facilitated by power from solar panels on the roof.

Extraction of rising heat in summer is facilitated via horizontal and vertical cavities incorporated in the thick masonry building envelope. The extracted heat passes to the outside via a series of chimneys or stacks linked to the four main service cores. The extraction can be aided by mechanical ventilators linked to solar panels. Building depth has also been kept to an optimum to allow cross-ventilation through usable spaces. Mechanical ventilation has been requested in the brief, but it is prudent to design a building so that it can be naturally ventilated (a) through choice, and (b) because of mechanical or electrical failure.

Green roofs contribute significantly to the creation of an insulated total building envelope that needs less energy to heat and cool. It is also symbolically and aesthetically appropriate in a context where the building will be overlooked by much taller structures. Green-roof development typically involves the creation of ‘contained’ green space on top of a human-made structure. A green roof will not only absorb heat, decreasing the tendency towards thermal air   movement, but will also filter the air moving across it.

The western façade will receive low, piercing sun during the late afternoons. The use of vertical landscaping in the form of ivy that climbs up the latticework will assist in screening. It will mitigate levels of discomfort as well as create a bold green façade on a national road.

Each of the three main courtyards of the building is covered by a series of deep, moveable fins that span across the courtyard space in an east-west direction. The top hung fins can rotate around their axes and allow the building the opportunity to engage with sun in a dynamic way, letting sun into the courtyards in winter and blocking it out in summer, much as a deciduous tree would do.

Great care has been taken to shield other openings from direct sun in the summer and to allow in sun and heat in the winter. The northern façade has deeply recessed openings set into the thick masonry walls, as well as vertical fins that block out western sun and heat in the late afternoon. The more transparent east and west façades have slatted screens that, apart from their symbolic value as reference to Xhosa weaving and textile patterns, provide shade over the glazed surfaces behind.

Bricks that comprise the dominant building material do not have a low embodied energy but provide major other benefits, such as the use of local labour to construct the load-bearing walls, the thermal mass and the local supply.

Hard surfaces such as parking areas create heat sinks and transfer unnecessary heat and glare to adjacent buildings. A foil of heat-absorbing soft landscaping has therefore been provided to the north of the building and shaded parking moved to the south.

The extensive flat roof system running in an east-west direction and offering full exposure to direct sun, combined with a green roof on the verges which visually conceals panels, is ideal for incorporating photovoltaics in a discreet way.

View Competition Entry