GREENinc: Forum Homini boutique hotel is located in a private game reserve, near the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind, outside of Johannesburg. Examples of important palaeo-anthropological sites situated in the Sterkfontein Valley are Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, Coopers B and Wonder Cave. These sites have produced the remains of hominids dating as far back as 3.3 million years ago. Of all the important finds in the area, the skull of an adult female Australopithecus africanus, nicknamed “Mrs. Ples.” is the most famous. The Cradle of Humankind’s World Heritage Site status has led to increased local and international interest in the tourist potential of the area. Economic investment into projects such as the Maropeng Museum and the Sterkfontein Caves Visitor’s Centre by Provincial Government, has also added to the feasibility of this up-market hotel.
Definite properties purchased the site with an existing log-cabin-style lodge on the property. The lodge was demolished but the development rights stayed in place. Earthworks started at the beginning of 2005 and landscape construction commenced during July 2005. The hotel received their first guests in February 2006. The scope of work increased considerably due to extensive rehabilitation work and the implementation of a critical storm water management system, resulting in a revised project value of just under R2 million, almost double the initial allowance.
The overall concept was to create a seamless & effortless expression of contextual landscape, building and art, and this was achieved through a close working relationship between the architects, interior designer, artists, structural engineer and landscape architects. The client requested a strong link with the nearby palaeo-anthropological sites, and the architects and structural engineer responded by designing some structures to be almost cave-like in appearance and feeling. On GREENinc’s part the concept was strengthened by the reinstatement of the “original” indigenous highveld landscape up to the edges and over the roofs of the buildings.
Throughout the site, the buildings emerge from the landscape in an almost unexpected way, and on arrival in the parking area, very little of the hotel can be seen. The parking area and service yard, are laid out along a serpentine access road and vegetated berms obscure these unsightly functions from the surrounding residential properties. The entrance to the hotel is announced by a steel sculpture titled “The Sum of Us”, by artist Marco Cianfanelli. Each layer of steel is an expression of a critical stage in the evolution of man.
The first buildings the visitors come across, create a cut in the landscape, almost mimicking the entrance to a cave. Large hand carved sandstone pillars, carved by artist, Dave Rossouw, march visitors down a ramp into the heart of the hotel complex. At the base of the ramp the public buildings (reception, restaurant, reference library & conference facility) are arranged around a lower courtyard and a higher landscaped terrace. The lower courtyard symbolizes the ‘hard’ times of our evolutionary path, with concrete paving, sandstone seating blocks, gravel and hardy Wild Olive trees. The sandstone seating blocks are arranged to create an informal amphitheatre, frequently the setting for discussions on evolution, the screening of documentaries, as well as marriage ceremonies. At night guests are entertained in this space with dancing, drumming and indigenous story telling by the light of a fire contained in a fire-cradle also designed by Marco Cianfanelli The lush planting of the upper terrace is an expression of the ‘good’ times of humankind’s existence, and many of the plant species were chosen, because they played a culinary or utilitarian role in the daily lives of the more primitive people that resided in the Cradle of Humankind.
The restaurant, lounge and library were positioned to have a view over an existing water-body.
A pathway winds along the edge of this dam and connects the public buildings with the twelve suites, swimming pool and honeymoon suite. The rooms are partially submerged with veldgrass roofs and recede into the landscape. Once inside, floor to ceiling windows frame the highveld panorama, with a perennial stream in the foreground. As with the honeymoon suite, the presidential suite is set slightly apart from the other functions and rooms of the hotel, and was placed to have the exclusive view of an existing wetland.
All disturbed areas were seeded with veldgrass, thereby creating a canvass for indigenous plants to be placed in between. The majority of the plant species selected are indigenous to the highveld and many of the species occurred naturally on the site. Exposed aggregate concrete pathways and stone clad retaining walls create a uniform link between the various buildings.
Apart from being situated in the Cradle of Humankind, the site’s topography and many water-bodies on and surrounding it, make it a unique setting for a hotel. The public buildings, rooms and pool are arranged around a body of water, which was re-shaped and re-lined at the start of construction. A perennial stream runs past the twelve suites and the leaking earth wall of a large lake that creates the site’s eastern border, is the source of two wetlands on site. The presence of all this water did however bring about many problems for the project team. The original lodge was built below and well within the one in hundred year flood line of the dam on the eastern border of the site, and surprisingly the lodge received the environmental permission to do so. Together with the hydrological engineer, a plan was devised to re-route flood water around the hotel, through the placement of new sluice gates that would release flood water into a series of large detention dams to the north of the hotel. The cost of this amounted to half of the original allowance for landscaping, but after the client committed to do whatever necessary to make the project a success, work proceeded on a tight budget. Large bodies of water always attract invasive species, and although most were removed, we were unable to convince the client to remove all of the Eucalyptus trees.
The presence of hippos and antelope on the game farm where Forum Homini is located also brought about a few challenges. A low electric fence was placed around the hotel complex, to discourage hippos from entering the grounds. This however did not prevent antelope from grazing on the ‘cultivated’ landscape, and for aesthetic reasons the placement of a large electrified game fence around the hotel was out of the question. For this reason, we tried to use all the available, less palatable sour grass species in the hydro-seeded and hand-sown veldgrass mixes. Despite these measures, landscape establishment was hampered by grazing antelope and the landscape still becomes ‘fair game’ during winter months, when food on the game farm becomes scarce. Many of the plants placed between the veldgrass have seemingly disappeared although we planted mostly tree species that have survived elsewhere on site, they have been visibly browsed on. The Chef Patron’s much desired herb garden is a particular favorite with the antelope. At the request of the game farm’s management committee the swimming pool design had to be amended to allow antelope to walk out of the pool, in the unfortunate event of them falling in!
The project team on a hotel development had to deal with the added pressures of publicity events and meeting the deadline for the opening of the hotel. All projects have completion dead-lines, but in this case the landscape had to be on time, despite the delays caused by main contract, and the landscape had to be as presentable as possible to the paying guests. The seeding of velgrass had to be done after the first spring rains and germination in time for the opening was expected, rain permitting or not. Throughout the project, the contractors had to rush to get areas ready for public viewing as part of the hotel’s marketing drive, while at the same time the project team had their hands full preventing poor quality of work.
Green Inc always feels incredibly privileged when we have the opportunity to work with an artist on a project, as it creates depth and layering that we would not be able to achieve on our own. On this project we were privileged to work with two artists namely Dave Rossouw and Marco Cianfanelli. Marco’s sophisticated steel sculptures and Dave’s crafted steel, rock and timber works, creates an interesting contrast that adds depth to the project. All the timber artwork, such as bollards, seating and column cladding were done with timber from the felled invasive trees. All the stone used in the construction of the hotel were carted from a disused quarry on the game farm and in exchange the client promised to rehabilitate the area after all the rock had been removed.
Green Inc was very fortunate to work with client and a team of architects who believed that, reinstating a highveld landscape, as opposed to a traditionally cultivated landscape, would be the best setting for this hotel.
The power of nature overwhelms me with every visit to the hotel. Despite the carefully thought through veldgrass seed mixes and planting plans, nature eventually reclaims its territory. The way nature rearranges what man has put down is truly awe-inspiring. I feel that this project has proved that reinstating a natural landscape around (and over) a commercial function can be done and that the end product will be more emotionally enriching, satisfying and pleasing to the eye than a traditional ‘designer’ landscape.
Project title: Forum Homini Boutique Hotel
Landscape Architect: GREENinc
Location: Cradle of Humankind, Gauteng, South Africa
Date of completion: 2006
Client: Definite Properties
Architect: Activate Architects
Artist: Marco Cianfanelli
Artist: David Rousseau
Structural Engineer: Pure Consulting
Quantity Surveyor: Brian Heineberg and Associates
*This project received an ILASA Presidential Award of Excellence in 2007