At this year’s Africa Architecture Awards, the recently built uMkhumbane Cultural and Heritage Museum in Durban’s Cato Manor walked away with the top prize.

A shining example of architectural confidence and authenticity, the project’s cultural value and significance were clear to the award panels’ judges.

After winning in the Built category – for which it was the only South African nominee – it also walked away with the Grand Prix of around R145 090, revealing just how important needs-based architecture is becoming on the continent.

Developed and designed by Choromanski Architects, with support from the eThekwini Municipality’s architecture department, the project was informed by a desire to revive the area and better communicate its rich heritage, as well as the urgent need to create jobs and alleviate poverty within the surrounding community.

Left vacant since the 50s and 60s, following apartheid forced removals of an estimated 150 000 people, Cato Manor is a significant location with a history that deserves preservation.

Ultramodern, the museum has an atrium and boasts a beautiful chrome-like exterior. But it’s mostly through its location that the project’s value emerges. As the site of one of the country’s largest mass removals, Cato Manor remains an area characterised by high levels of poverty and unemployment.

However, it’s also a site of immense community involvement and the project organisers went to great lengths to ensure that the locals participated in the building of the museum. Residents even helped to lay some of the structure’s clay bricks, something that undoubtedly impressed the panel of judges.

The location will be officially known as the uMkhumbane Heritage Site and will serve as the place for the museum as well as a host of other facilities. These include a cultural park and public square, dedicated space for community exhibitions, gathering areas for performances, installation exhibits and a theatre space. Made up of connecting “nodes”, its multipurpose spaces can change and adapt to suit the needs of the community.

“It was a complex, competent, stimulating project,” jury member Tanzeem Razak said when explaining the reason for the museum’s win.

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