The architectural freedom of CIRCA

The Everard Read Gallery, built up by Read’s father, is a long established Johannesburg institution, known and loved by generations of local art fans. When Mark Read acquired a small property across the road from the gallery, he spent several years wondering what to do with it. ‘I very nearly made it into an exquisite botanical garden, which would have been just as nice, I think: a tiny park, a reminder of what Johannesburg would have looked like naturally until we built all over it,’ he says, noting that ‘if I had been true to that, I would have had to put in just veld grass, because this place was grassland. We would have had to burn it once every three years, in order to keep it fresh.’

Read eventually opted to create a building, an exercise in architectural freedom unconstrained by commercial intent: architecture for architecture’s sake. A long-time admirer of the work of Pierre Swanepoel, he approached the architect, giving him free reign. When Swanepoel presented Read with a model, ‘I thought “how gorgeous. Imagine having that,”’ recalls Read. CIRCA was born.

Not without several challenges, however. Although striking, the building’s design wasn’t wildly practical. It presented a number of problems: how to display two-dimensional works on curved walls, for example, or how to manage the lighting. Space was limited; as a result, the building does not include a storeroom, meaning that CIRCA can’t function independently as an art dealing facility. ‘But then, I didn’t want to build an art dealing facility, I wanted a place where we could show exquisite exhibitions of a variety of things from conceptual, contemporary art to technological exhibitions, to lectures…’ says Read.

CIRCA’s strength has proven to be in showing monumental sculpture. ‘Its being oval, it concentrates the energy on a central object inside, so anything that you put in it has this extraordinary feeling of place,’ says Read.

It serves as a museum space, where ‘bespoke and glorious exhibitions… that most likely don’t have any commercial reason to exist’ can be shown, along with works too large or monumental for the Everard Read Gallery.

The basement area, named the ‘Speke Room’ after the famed explorer, is used largely for the exhibition of art from emerging talents, along with photography. A winding ramp leads up to the first floor, an exhibition space, and then on up to the private space of the ‘Darwin Room’. This is filled with fossils, paintings, ‘and lovely things that allude to the evolution of life,’ says Read, who has a profound interest in the subject. From the Darwin Room, a deck looks out over Northern Johannesburg, ‘to the valley where only 200 years ago, elephants used to mill around’, he says. ‘Now we look over this illogical forest, this great forest that people have planted, which has altered everything, altered the micro-climate of Johannesburg.’

CIRCA was built in 2009. It is now an established and much-admired landmark. ‘I think the citizens of Johannesburg have really started to love it,’ says Read. ‘They certainly use CIRCA a lot, and the two galleries form a precinct here of their own.’ Visitors move from the lofty, ‘somewhat rarefied exhibitions’ of CIRCA across to Everard Read, where they can view the broad spectrum of art presented by the gallery – everything from Thomas Baines, to Alexis Preller, to Deborah Bell and beyond. The contrast and variety make for a fascination that might not exist, were the two institutions more similar.

However: ‘I think what lies in front is the most exciting part of the story,’ says Read. CIRCA, now world renowned as a work of architecture, has generated a particular kind of energy and interest not only in its artistic activities, but in the surrounding neighbourhood of Rosebank. According to Read, this has inspired ‘a few fine people to invest in this area, with regard to developing a cultural precinct and a living space for people who are interested.’ During Cape Town’s reign as ‘World Design Capital’, CIRCA was celebrated as a design success story for encouraging ‘walkability’, an achievement that impending developments seem intent on furthering.

In the meantime, CIRCA keeps on working its particular magic. Artists set to exhibit this year include Tamlin Blake, Francki Burger, Reney Warrington, Lucy Read and Bronwen Lace. A retrospective of renowned South African constructivist sculptor, Neels Coetzee is set for the latter half of the year, followed by Bronze, Steel and Stone, an exhibition of contemporary local sculpture.

‘It’s going to be a fascinating year,’ says Read.

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