All 20 of the projects shortlisted for the 2013 Aga Khan Architecture Award are noteworthy, but there is definitely something special about the Mapungubwe Interpretation Center designed by South Africa's Peter Rich Architects. Designed as a low impact series of barrel and freeform vaults arranged in a triangular layout, this earthen structure houses relics of an ancient trading culture excavated on the site and a visitor center that offers a rich, light-filled learning experience.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site located where the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers meet, far north near the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe, it was once home to one of South Africa’s earliest trading communities that thrived on gold between 1200-1300 AD. Then the site was completely abandoned for the following 700 years. South Africa National Parks commissioned Peter Rich Architects to design an environmentally-sensitive tribute to the first South African society to develop a class-based system.
Peter Rich collaborated with MIT’s John Ochsendof and Michael Range from the University of Cambridge to design the vaults in accordance with a 600 year old construction system using locally made pressed soil cement tiles. 200,000 of these were made nearby and used in the process, for which local labor was employed. The largest free form vault has an impressive span of 14.5 meters and all of the buildings are linked by ramped walkways. No steel reinforcement was necessary at all. The project was completed in 2009 and comprises a total site area of 2,750 square meters.