Jess Field, Jon Riordan

The Award Winning Ubuntu Center in South Africa by Field Architecture

The Ubuntu Center is an award winning Heath and social services complex located in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The center was designed by California-based Field Architecture with construction fully completed in 2010. 

The design is a model for sustainable development that begins with the environment and extends to the preservation of life. The Architect magazine awarded Field Architecture the Progressive Architecture Award for their design, and described it as follows:

Field Architecture created a series of connected, trapezoidal forms that house education, health, and social services for the 400,000 residents of Zwide Township, one of the ghettos where the South African government forcibly relocated nonwhites during the apartheid era. Working within a two-story height limit, the architects deployed a palette of construction materials including a cast-in-place concrete shell and an exterior sunscreen made from gum poles, a common local building material that helps make the center’s unconventional form culturally accessible to the community.

While fulfilling the center’s service-based mission, Field Architecture attempted to minimize the potential social stigmatization of users: the areas for HIV/tuberculosis testing and treatment, for example, are directly adjacent to community areas such as the cafeteria and the theater and multipurpose hall.

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The Ubuntu center comprises a multi-purpose hall for education, concerts and shelter when needed; an empowerment wing with career guidance and computer centre, and a fully equipped Pediatric HIV /TB testing and counseling clinic with 47,691 people reached through community HIV prevention outreach.

The folded concrete forms read as independent volumes which lean on one another for support, sending the message of Ubuntu, which literally means: “I am because you are.”The distributed mass of the building allows pedestrian walkways to continue through the building uninterrupted; rather than entrances being punctured in the facades, the voids are a continuation of the township pathways. This creates a critical sense of community ownership which allows this building to survive in the township context. The clinic is placed en route to other life services to enable anonymous visitors. While fulfilling the center’s service based mission, the architecture attempts to minimize the potential social stigmatization of users. The design sends the message that every child, regardless of race or background, deserves access to world-class health and education.

Ubuntu’s organic rooftop garden, together with Ubuntu’s neighborhood gardens feed 2,245 students daily, while the aforementioned facilities provide holistic support to 3,500 clients and their families, delivers after-school education to 250 students, and issues HIV counseling and testing to 6,000 community members.


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Funded globally and operated locally, Ubuntu reflects a world defined by unprecedented global connection and the resurgence of local, community based organization.  The center provides a timely and practical template for sustainability on a societal as well as an environmental level bringing state of the art services to a vulnerable populace by providing centrally located, free and accessible social services in a single facility.


  • Location: 57th Street, Bethelsdorp 6059, South Africa
  • Architect: Field Architecture
  • Project Team: Stan Field (Lead Architect, SAIA, RIBA, Int’l Assoc. AIA), Jess Field (Lead Architect, Assoc. AIA), Mark Johnson (AIA), Jeff Pilotte, Andy Lin
  • Local Project Architects: John Blair Architects in association with NOH Architects
  • Project Manager: John Blair, Tim Hewitt-Coleman
  • Mechanical And Electrical Engineer: Clinkscales Maughan-Brown
  • Structural And Civil Engineer: Iliso Consulting
  • Landscape Architect: John Elliott, Matt Elliott
  • Lighting Design: Field Architecture
  • Interior Design: Field Architecture
  • Acoustic Consultant for Hall: Ivan Kadey Design
  • Mosaic Mural: Dolla Sapeta
  • Networking and Communication Equipment: Cisco Systems
  • General Contractor: SBT Construction (East Cape)
  • Area: 1950 sqm
  • Photographs: Jess Field, Jon Riordan

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