Michael on the banks of the Limpopo River

In the seventh of a series of reports contributed by Cambridge researchers, architect Michael Ramage travels to South Africa to build strength out of weakness.

One morning we arrive on site to find the huge tracks of a male lion that's been prowling around overnight.

Michael Ramage

After ten hours of driving from Johannesburg, South Africa, it’s a relief to reach our site: Mapungubwe National Park. The park is as far north in South Africa as you can go, situated on the southern bank at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, the latter immortalised by Rudyard Kipling’s Just So story The Elephant’s Child. We are standing on a bluff overlooking the junction of the rivers; to the left is Botswana and to the right Zimbabwe. Down in the plain adjacent, we spy movement, which turns out to be a herd of gazelles.

I’m in the park because of the rivers and the wildlife, but I’m neither a geologist nor a biologist; I’m an architectural engineer. More than a thousand years ago, this area, due to its geography, became the seat of one of the largest and richest kingdoms in southern Africa, Mapungubwe. Its people traded with other cultures up and down the rivers, deep into Africa and out across the ocean to India and China. In the 1930s, the royal palace atop a high flat mesa was excavated, unearthing an exquisite golden rhinoceros. Although scholars have learned more about the culture and its heritage since then, only recently has the cultural history of the area become more widely known. In 2003 the area became a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Landscape.

That’s why I’m here. South African National Parks (SANParks), who manage the park and own most of the land, have commissioned a new park headquarters and interpretive centre, which I helped design (with Peter Rich Architects of Johannesburg). My research focuses on low-energy structural design and construction, trying to answer the question “how can we do as much as possible with as little as possible?” I try to build big things with weak material. Really weak.

The large structural vaults of the Mapungubwe Interpretive Centre, which span 14.5 m, are built of earth. The vaults use pressed soil-cement tiles, consisting of 95% material dug right from the ground around the building and assembled using a Mediterranean technique called tile vaulting. The technique allows the thin shells to be built with a minimum of supporting structure and very quickly. But it’s never been done in South Africa before, and it’s never been done like this with earth before, anywhere. So there is naturally a lot of skepticism, and I’m on site to teach the technique, and get the vault construction under way.

We’ve had a team of two dozen people from the surrounding area working for a year to make the 300,000 tiles necessary for the building. Poverty relief is a major component of the government funding for the project, so we’ve been working with labour-intensive methods, making all the tiles using a hand-powered press. One of my tasks is to persuade the contractor (who doesn’t believe it’s possible) and to instruct the masons. I go about building a basic half-arch that leans against a wall and corner. In an hour I’ve built it, and promptly climb up it, demonstrating the strength and simplicity of the tile vault. The contractor is incredulous, but one of his men decides to climb up it after I do, and this seems to sufficiently impress them. I spend the remainder of the week working with ten masons building trial vaults – they all stand on them once they’ve finished, satisfied with their handiwork.

Mapungubwe National Park is a beautiful landscape, and it's also home to amazing animals. We stay the night at the park's Leokwe Camp in thatched cottages surrounded by massive Baobab trees and the sounds of the wild. Showering is outdoors; the unfenced camp adding to the sense of adventure. One morning we arrive on site to find the huge tracks of a male lion that's been prowling around overnight. The drive from our camp to the building site at the beginning and end of each day is like a mini safari; we keep our eyes out for eland, zebra, giraffe, klipspringer and elephant, and are usually rewarded with a sighting of a few of them. But, after two weeks under the Southern Cross, and the construction of the tile vaults now under way, it’s time to drive back to Johannesburg and return to Cambridge.

Michael Ramage

Michael is an architectural engineer in the Department of Architecture and a fellow of Sidney Sussex College. His current research is focused on developing low-energy structural materials and systems in masonry, better housing in the developing world and improved engineered timber. He teaches, researches and designs buildings, and receives research funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, The Royal Society, Cambridge University and industry.

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