The building is in the Jabulani area of Soweto, next to a park which already contains an amphitheatre, forming the beginning of a hub for creative activity. Two things were important therefore in addition to the functionality of the building. One was that it should be outward looking, so it has an entrance area of shallow steps, shading by a row of tented canopies which can act as a gathering point or even as an additional performance space. The other was that it should signal its presence boldly, which it does through its assembly of volumes, clad with different treatments and colours. This reflects the complexity of what is going on inside, with three different performance spaces, intended primarily for theatre but which can also accommodate musical performances, choirs, conferences and community meetings. The main space seats 420 with fixed seating and stage, and has a fly tower and orchestra pit. The other two, smaller, spaces are more flexible, and accommodate 180 and 90 people.

Most striking amongst the plethora of materials are the double-curved wing walls on the east and west sides of the complex. The architect, Afritects, apparently conceived these to echo the journeys that residents take in the area, and the paths that they follow. The curves follow through to the interior, giving an interesting and welcoming form to the foyer. Whatever the rationale, the surfaces are dramatic, but also posed a serious challenge.

The walls were formed in concrete, and are clad in large steel shingles (measuring 800mm x 800mm) with insulation behind which offers both acoustic and thermal protection. The cladding had to cope not just with the double curvature, but also with the movement engendered by thermal expansion and contraction. Sergio Duarte of Afritects explained: ‘The flexibility and robust nature of the steel shingle cladding system ultimately became the best possible solution when responding to these constraints, and because any system like this has never been used in Soweto before, it meets the aspirational brief defined by the client. The modular panels, and their ability to be adjusted on site, allowed for the envisioned structure to be made possible. The dark grey, reflective finish mirrors the buildings surrounds, the community walking past as well as the spectacular sunrises and sunsets, giving the sense that the building is one with this place. Functionally, the properties of steel were exploited (strength, malleability) but also supplemented with multiple layers of cladding that provides insulation (both heat and sound) and makes the structure watertight. The strength of the steel shingles as a finish ensures that the Soweto Theatre will remain an icon for many generations to come.’

Folds on the edges of the shingles allow them to interlock while still accommodating the inevitable movement. Unlike the other elements of the building which are bright but unchanging, the neutral steel gray colour of the chosen finish to the shingles allows them to reflect their surroundings, turning passers-by into performers and contributing greatly to the animation of this exciting project.

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