Lilliesleaf Farm in Joburg

Text Graham Wood Photographs Elsa Young, Craig McClenaghan Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, is the site that marks the beginning of the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid. (Nelson Mandela’s famous Kalashnikov, the first weapon of the armed struggle, is said to be still buried somewhere in the vicinity.) Lilliesleaf was Umkhonto we Sizwe’s headquarters until 11 July 1963, when 17 members of the ANC, including Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, were arrested there by apartheid security police. It was a watershed event in South African history. When its current owner, CEO and founder of the Lilliesleaf Trust, Nicholas Wolpe (son of Harold Wolpe, who was also arrested in the raid), wished to restore the buildings, preserve the site’s heritage and create a national resource, he faced an increasingly common architectural conundrum: how do you juxtapose modern and heritage architecture? How do you keep the past alive in the present? Nicholas sought the help of Mashabane Rose Architects (MRA), a practice known for its work on heritage sites including Freedom Park, the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum. They had some good luck when it came to restoring the historical buildings. ‘About 40 per cent of the original structures were intact,’ says Nicholas. ‘The main house was still standing, as were the thatched cottage and the coal shed. The outbuildings had been turned into a kind of hacienda and the garage made into a granny flat.’ Much of the rest had been knocked down. Over 18 months, an archaeological process was carried out that uncovered seven kinds of bricks on the property. They were identified and dated, and some were found to be rubble from earlier buildings. ‘We were able to rebuild aspects of those structures with the original materials,’ says Nicholas. There was very little prettying up or sanitising done. ‘Everything remained as authentic as possible.’ The two new buildings that Nicholas required – now the Resources Centre and the Liberation Centre – form the perimeter of the property and surround the historical structures. MRA designed these additions, which include an office, a reception and conference area, a library, archive, and a restaurant and information centre, to be unobtrusive but strong and supportive, using simple materials in their natural state, like unadorned brick (to match the original buildings) and off-shutter concrete. The design avoids monumentality, emphasising the narrative of liberation that the site embodies. It keeps the past alive without denying the present, as Nicholas puts it, ‘in the way the historical structures are nestled between these two modern structures’. This article was originally featured in the July 2011 issue of House and Leisure.