In May of this year, the City of Joburg opened the new Council Chambers in Braamfontein. The 38-metre tall structure is set to be the first project in an extensive plan to rejuvenate the whole precinct- which is surrounded by landmarks such as the iconic Constitutional Hill and the Joburg Theatre Complex, among others. The district will also offer office space for Joburg Council members, as well as metropolitan entity employees in a single, centrally managed area once the project is complete.

Designed for purpose 

The original City of Johannesburg Council Chambers were built in 1973. Over time, the building has fallen into disrepair and in 2015 the city opted to construct a new building for the City Council.

The new Council Chambers can accommodate 361 councillors and officials in a single meeting space- complete with fully integrated modern communication and public address technology courtesy of Dimension Data. The Chamber has a second-floor gallery that circumvents the ground-floor meeting space and can hold 160 spectators, including media members and visitors to the Council Chambers. The building also features a spacious informal caucus space behind the gallery and chamber, and a large entrance with amenities.

The building is engineered to be completely transparent, with vertical columns holding enormous glass panels in place around the periphery of the building. This means that passers-by can see right into the chambers during meetings, representing the “openness and accountability that the city of Johannesburg aspires to deliver.”

According to the City Of Joburg Property Company (JPC), the choice of constructing the Chambers as a circular building was inspired by the African calabash. “The African drum inspired the circular structure of the Chambers, which hints at a drumbeat to summon council meetings, and is intended to create an environment where meetings can take place in a circular formation, much like the traditional Lekgotla.”

Gold and platinum tones have been used throughout the building to stay in line with the ‘city of Gold’ motif. Local artisans and craftspeople across Gauteng are represented by the artistic elements that they contributed to the Chambers. The net result is an iconic structure that doesn’t only provide the City Council with an optimal headquarters for governing the city but also inspires pride and confidence in South Africa’s largest metropolis.

Throwing down the gauntlet

Very early in the project, the JPC approached architectural lighting maestros, Smith and Tait to create the lighting design for the Chambers. Smith and Tait’s specialisation in functional and aesthetic lighting design for large-scale projects made them an ideal choice.

Speaking to Pro-Systems in a recent interview, co-founder and director of Smith Tait, Fergus described the unique challenges that the Council Chambers building posed.  “The exterior of the structure has been constructed using gold coloured glass, and as such, the Johannesburg Council Chambers is unique in that the building does not have a façade to light,” he explains. “The highly reflective surface of the building means that any exterior lighting will reflect off the glass and disperse in unpredictable ways. Added to this, the vertical steel columns that hold the glass panels in place make it difficult to fit lighting fixtures to the exterior of the building,” says Fergus, highlighting the need to come up with a completely novel lighting solution for the exterior of the building.

The building is designed in such a way that no added artificial lighting is necessary during the day inside the Chambers, as natural light filters through the transparent glass surrounding the building. However, when used at night, the Chamber needs to be illuminated to ensure even distribution of optimal light throughout the expanse of the Chambers. “To light the interior of the Chambers at night, you have to filter light down from the periphery to the speakers at the centre of the Lekgotla, from about 15 metres height. This is difficult to achieve without floodlighting the space like a stadium,” Fergus states. Added to these and other design challenges, Smith Tait were tasked with developing a lighting design that would contribute into the developer’s requirements for Green Building certification and fit within the budget proposed by the City, which needed to be divided between multiple contractors on the project.

To overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Smith Tait turned to Electrosonic SA, one of the leading professional lighting suppliers in the industry and cutting-edge lighting manufacturers Soraa – for a highly innovative and cost-effective solution to light the Council Chambers.

Taking up the challenge

Smith Tait turned to Soraa lighting, an international original lighting equipment manufacturer known for being at the cutting-edge of LED technology development. “Soraa was particularly helpful when it came to value engineering the design,” Fergus of Smith Tait explains. “It was essential that we implement a lighting solution within the provided budget, that would not cost a fortune to run due to power consumption, and would require minimal maintenance over the whole lifecycle of the system – but would still achieve the light levels that we needed. In our experience, only Soraa lamps can deliver on all of these fronts.”

Sora fixtures are unique in that the patented GaN-on-GaN (Gallium Nitride on Gallium Nitride)used on their LED fixture emits five times more light per unit are compared to other LED fixtures. The lamps are also robust, with data indicating up to 1000 fewer faults is Soraa lamps than in competing products.

Lighting the drum

The building’s exterior was a team effort, with Smith Tait and Electrosonic SA Director, Bruce Schwartz coming up with a cove lighting system that also illuminates through to the outside and circumnavigates the entire building. A complete Helvar Control System was implemented by Electrosonic SA, using 3 Helvar 910 DALI Routers, Helvar 454 Dimmers, Helvar 498 Relays and Helvar 312 Sensors to control 340 DALI channels. Both the daylight harvesting and the presence were essential for meeting the Green Council requirements, reducing overall power consumption while controlling the ambience and environmental lighting of the building

Delivering for the people

The Council Chambers have beautified the once-grim drive through Braamfontein, and provide some much-needed architectural flair and beauty to the area and surrounds. The City of Johannesburg has always emphasised the Batho Pele (the people first) principle in all their development goals for Gauteng.  It’s clear that the City Council has gotten this right in delivering this iconic, world-class building, which wonderfully represents South Africa’s most important city.