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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.

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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

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An installati­on at the entrance of the Roger Ballen Centre for Photograph­ic
Arts from his personal selection – part of his early experiment­s with display in his new space before its official opening later this year.
OPPOSITE
The interior of the concrete cylinder
or barrel that dominates the north end of the exhibition area was originally intended for storage, but proved to be an excellent display nook.
THIS PAGE An installati­on at the entrance of the Roger Ballen Centre for Photograph­ic Arts from his personal selection – part of his early experiment­s with display in his new space before its official opening later this year. OPPOSITE The interior of the concrete cylinder or barrel that dominates the north end of the exhibition area was originally intended for storage, but proved to be an excellent display nook.
 ??  ?? THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Architect Joe van Rooyen of JVR Architects; the play of light in the interiors is such that
it’s often difficult to discern the source; a curved ramp leads to a somewhat concealed entrance, while the dramatical­ly cantilever­ed box on the left houses Roger’s office. OPPOSITE A huge, suspended concrete barrel at the north end of the main
double-volume exhibition area contrasts with the straight lines that predominat­e, adding a sense of drama to the space.
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT Architect Joe van Rooyen of JVR Architects; the play of light in the interiors is such that it’s often difficult to discern the source; a curved ramp leads to a somewhat concealed entrance, while the dramatical­ly cantilever­ed box on the left houses Roger’s office. OPPOSITE A huge, suspended concrete barrel at the north end of the main double-volume exhibition area contrasts with the straight lines that predominat­e, adding a sense of drama to the space.
 ??  ?? ABOVE, FROM LEFT The exposed concrete of the interior is partly inspired by Japanese architect Tadao Ando; a work from Roger Ballen’s “Theatre of Apparition­s”. OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT An installati­on at the entrance to the WC humorously indicates which door is the men’s, and which the women’s; shifting light etches out constantly changing patterns on the wall; on the entrance platform, light comes in from three different directions; at other times, the light is soft and diffused.
ABOVE, FROM LEFT The exposed concrete of the interior is partly inspired by Japanese architect Tadao Ando; a work from Roger Ballen’s “Theatre of Apparition­s”. OPPOSITE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT An installati­on at the entrance to the WC humorously indicates which door is the men’s, and which the women’s; shifting light etches out constantly changing patterns on the wall; on the entrance platform, light comes in from three different directions; at other times, the light is soft and diffused.

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