CIFA Merit Award 2007: South African Railway Police Station (Retreat)

South African Railway Police Station, Retreat.


In 2007, Makeka Design Labs was honoured with the awarding of the CIFA Merit Award for the South African Railway Police Station in Retreat.

Retreat Station aimed to redefine the police station building typology of South Africa.  During Apartheid, Institutions were entrenched for the use and protection of a limited minority group.  After 1994 the country has been faced with the challenge of the reconstruction of Institutions around the country, the most famous example being the constitutional courts.

The focus of architecture has shifted.  Today, we attempt to create buildings that realize their potential to make better social institutions for people.  Police stations in particular need to represent safety and security instead of the historic representation of a force of terror, fear and oppression. The challenge represented by the Retreat Station, was to articulate a this new identity of service, safety and well-being.

All design precedent had a fortress mentality which manifested in robust, indestructible, vandal-proof buildings that worked against the civic environment instead of responding to it sensitively.  Even on this project, the client didn’t believe for example, that the station should have aesthetic taps and mirrors.  We believe that a design response can foster a sense of pride depending on different contexts and so we wanted to design a building that would encourage dignity and a sense of self-respect.

Retreat SAPS station was one of four railway police stations situated at major junctions in the rail network namely, Retreat, Philippi, Bellville and Cape Town.  Cape Town was an alteration and was the first to be implemented.  The client wanted the station at Cape Town to be a high quality symbol of pride but the project manager, told us to cut the budget there and keep it as a refurbishment freeing up further funds for other areas.  We argued that Cape Town was the headquarters and should have the largest budget, but in the end the project manager won.  We were happy to concede on the basis that we would have more to play with on the other 3 buildings.  Then we discovered that Retreat actually had the smallest budget.

The building had to be very cost efficient.  It found expression in minimalism; both cost minimalism and design minimalism.  We used steel as a massing mechanism down the spine for structural elements.  The timber used was mainly SAPine.  We inspected every piece of timber and had to reject as much as 40% because it didn’t meet the required standards.  It was then stained to conceal the grain.  We used lexon sheeting.  It was the first time it had been used externally and had to do considerable research to make sure it would work, so we had to design a special aluminium profile to take it. 

There is a logic to where things are located, certain functions had to be kept separate, so that, for example, victims didn’t have to come into contact with criminals.

The building achieves dignity in an understated manner.  It is classic white with a simple cruciform plan. It finds expression as boxes within boxes along the façade which is articulated at the ends.  On the one side is an amoeba shaped courtyard that forms an informal breakaway space and smoking corner.  On the other end, something as mundane as a back-up generator room becomes a feature through its cubic timber slatted form.  It was a play on symmetry and asymmetry that aimed to show that something is different.

The building doesn’t hug the street, it’s stepped back so that to approach it one must be prepared to show intent.  You need to be able to take yourself seriously when approaching this building.  We wanted it to unfold like a flower so that it would promote people to feel precious about it.  We explored the mystery of light, both in an effort to create a design that excited the imagination, that changed with the changing light of the day but also to produce a civic structure that was quite delicate at the human scale.