The Roger Ballen Centre for the Photographic Arts is yet another architectural coup for Joburg
The new Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Arts in Forest Town, Johannesburg has been designed by architect Joe van Rooyen as a new home for the world-renowned photographer and his medium.
What might a Roger Ballen building look like?
The legendary photographer’s work is known for its psychologically dark, surreal and disturbing qualities. He first found fame nearly four decades ago, documenting outsiders in small South African towns and on the platteland, and caused controversy with his unflinchingly grotesque, often freakish representations of the people he encountered. Moving away from documentary photography, he then took the medium on a journey inwards, combining mysterious tableaux, stark theatrical sets and props with elements of performance and art brut. In the process, he developed what can now only be described as a “Ballenesque” aesthetic, and found international renown.
But short of a stripped-out, derelict rural cottage or an abandoned asylum – the kind of architecture his work tends to haunt – it’s difficult to imagine how the Ballenesque vision might translate into architecture. That job fell to Joe van Rooyen of JVR Architects – and the result is, perhaps surprisingly, beautiful.
The centre needed to be multifaceted, incorporating an office and the admin functions of Roger’s work, including his foundation for the advancement of photography and other art forms, a space for group exhibitions of painting, installation and other arts, and an archive, all with the flexibility to accommodate any other ideas that crop up.
The Ballen Centre completes a trio of cultural centres along Jan Smuts Avenue, joining the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation and the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre nearby, and giving the primarily suburban area a clearer public character.
Joe’s design is respectful of the past, and parts of the exterior of the building have been finished in the stippled Tyrolean plasterwork that goes back to the Arts and Crafts houses that established the area. And it’s low: they could have gone a storey higher, but Joe felt that would have been architecturally disrespectful. The building’s mass is cleverly broken down so it doesn’t appear imposing – a trick that also creates lovely nooks and courtyards all around it.
From the street, an undulating fence draws the eye in, letting passers-by know that something’s going on, but not revealing much about what it is. Inside, stairs run down to a huge double-volume exhibition space, and a bridge leads towards the offices. On one end of the hall, a vast concrete barrel seems suspended in the air. There’s a hint that it might represent something like a roll of film, almost as if one were inside a giant camera, but the building engages with the idea of photography in other, more elemental ways.
Taking his cue from the Japanese master of austerity and light Tadao Ando, Joe has set light at play in this building, letting it filter in through high-level windows, skylights and interesting apertures that allow it to shift and change throughout the day. There’s lots of exposed concrete, and the geometry – the interplay of curves and straight lines – is abstract and sculptural, in much the same way that Ballen’s photographs are ultimately abstract.
In the final analysis, this is not an attention-seeking building. Rather, it creates the conditions for artworks to be seen. Nevertheless, it has enough presence and mystery to make it something of a landmark, giving a recognisable home not only to Roger’s work, but to photography and the arts more broadly.
The Roger Ballen Centre for Photographic Arts will open to the public following its official launch later this year. rogerballen.com | jvrarchitects.co.za