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Cape Town honours Archbishop Tutu with a boundary-breaking public design

Daniel Ruthland Manners
Challenging and thought-provoking, subtle and striking, memorable and sensitive – a tribute commission is nothing if not intimidating for any designer behind the scenes. In the case of the recently unveiled 'Arch for Arch', a wooden framework dedicated to Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, it was about more than paying homage to a hero: it was also about creating a functional public space that signifies human rights and freedom. 'It's so important to have these symbols and metaphors for what it is to be a South African,' says Ravi Naidoo, founder of Design Indaba, one of three key contributors to this design. '[The Arch] is really a metaphor for the constitution – it comprises 14 arches of wood for 14 chapters of the constitution.' After Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille approached Naidoo to create a monument that would recognise the legacy of Archbishop Tutu, the Design Indaba CEO quickly went about recruiting the best in the business to articulate the design. First on board: Norway-based design studio Snøhetta, an international firm with expertise in crafting public spaces. 'Public space is a trend in our work,' explains Thomas Fagernes, partner and director at Snøhetta. 'We didn't want to create a monument; we wanted to use location to create a public space.' Next Naidoo sought the expertise of an architecture practice well versed in South Africa's sometimes contentious urban environment. Local Studio (headed by Thomas Chapman), whose work centres on transforming oppressive spaces in a post-apartheid society, was the perfect choice. 'It had to be more than just a tribute piece,' Local Studio architect Daniel Trollip explains. 'We wanted it to function as a gateway to Company's Garden. And with it being situated just outside parliament, we anticipate it as a place for people to gather and protest and hold events.' The swooping network of wooden constitutional chapters sits sturdily yet ever so lightly at the foot of  St George's Cathedral and the entrance to the Company's Garden, where resident squirrels might scurry about its beams, and surrounding trees grow between its apertures. Snøhetta made a conscious decision to adopt wood as the primary material here. 'As a material, wood has a warmth to it. It is alive and it has tactility – and it suits the humour of the archbishop. I don't think we could see this in concrete or steel, or any dead or hard material,' explains Fagernes. 'It plays with the trees. It will live together with nature and become a habitat for the local squirrels and birds. It will also weather with time.' The teams worked closely with arborists and horticulturalists to ensure that the structure would meld effortlessly with its environment – an extension of the natural surrounds. 'This an amazing commendation, this spot right here,' says Naidoo, pointing out the Arch for Arch's multi-layered surrounds. 'This is where the marches ended in the struggle against apartheid. So we're sitting at a most goosebumpily significant place in South African history – between the cathedral, parliament, slave lodge and the oldest avenue in the country. You sit here and you do get a sense of history.' For Naidoo, conceptualising the design within the context of place was the most pivotal concern. 'It's a homage to Archbishop Tutu, it's a celebration of our democracy and the constitution, and it's also a place to constantly conscientise us that our work is not done.'