With the construction of the new branch building in Johannesburg, set on the border of Johannesburg's business district and the Newtown cultural precinct, the South African Reserve Bank has created a strong presence in the country's financial centre. The branch is not a public building, but rather a high-security depot for the money-supply to the greater Johannesburg area, with the commercial banks as primary clients. Portrayal of an image of solidity and physical strength was of prime concern to the Bank. The branch does, however, serve other purposes, relating to the money market, the maintaining of a headoffice presence in Johannesburg, the hosting of conferences and briefing sessions in the auditorium, the dealing in gold coins and other administrative tasks.
Stringent security requirements prevented a functional interaction of the building with life on the streets, and the architectural challenge lay in designing a fortified structure which would, nevertheless, acknowledge the urban setting and be, at least visually, sympathetic to the surrounding financial and cultural precincts.
Realising the unique character of the Newtown precinct, the Bank permitted an architectural idiom which borrowed from the steel- and brick industrial architecture of the adjacent decommissioned powerstation and the old fresh produce market, contrasted with the granite and glass corporate architecture of the adjacent financial precinct.
The building takes the form of a raised podium with battered brickwork edges, surrounded by a security wall on top, and reinforced with buttress-like bricked airconditioning ducts along the perimeter. Perimeter planters at pavement and mid-wall level soften the fortified edge. The top of the podium is extensively landscaped on two levels, and into this enclosure a collage of smaller structures has been placed along two ordering axes borrowed from the surrounding urban layout. The overall effect is that of the motte and bailey of a medieval fortress, inside which a cluster of smaller buidings is huddled around the keep.
The massing of the building forms a visual bridge between the tall towerblocks to the east, and the new cultural precinct of recycled industrial structures to the west, by portraying a coherent mass on the one hand, a playful, yet balanced fragmentation of the superstructure on the other, with even the roofscape of gardens and copper roofs designed as significant part of a thoroughly integrated composition. The individual buildings of the upper levels each house a separate function and each have a separate visual identity, but their arrangement along the ordering central spine, a spacious arched walkway, (setting for an everchanging play of natural light), together with the balanced use of harmonising materials, and consistency and rigour in detailing according to a strong overriding concept, tie the entire composition together.
A slender, salmon-coloured, custom-made facebrick, used in meticulously designed and crafted brick details gives the building a timeless quality. Selective application of verde mare granite cladding makes a gesture to the corporate buildings to the east of the site, and complements the colour and texture of the bricks. Black industrial steel, with highlights of stainless steel elements, forms connecting elements and inserts which add lightness to the overall mass of the building, and permit the language of a fragmented structure to be consistently applied. Internally the selective use of blonde maple panelling, offset against sea-green textile cladding adds warmth and colour to a series of interlinked interiors, which offer a kaleidoscope of views on the city, the gardens, and the interplay of light and space within the building.
From outside, the acknowledgement of an overriding urban order in the composition results in a well balanced collage which stands out as a dynamic urban sculpture, with ever-changing views as one moves around the building.
The demanding detailing make this a truly crafted building. Through selective use of fine materials the building was completed within the given budget, but the value of skills and dedication invested by all involved in its realisation cannot be expressed in monetary terms.