The 2010 regeneration of Ernest Oppenheimer Park in central Johannesburg was a remarkable opportunity for The Library to both manage a project and participate in the conceptualisation and creation of the elements involved. In partnership with The Trinity Session and a talented group of South African artists, The Library oversaw the rehabilitation of this run-down urban space to provide a restful green space with playful sculptural elements that today is a popular stop for all who live and work in the city.
Street traders already using the space were moved to an adjoining market zone, opening up the park space. The Library managed the regreening of the park area; landscape design; and the design, creation and installation of four major artworks and four text sculptures. The full gamut of our resources was called upon, from creative conceptualisation to industrial and graphic design, alongside our role as project managers and financial administrators.
The park is both a heritage space and a place of deep memory for many Jo'burg residents. The team wanted to highlight the historical aspects while retaining a sense of playfulness that would encourage public interaction with the space. Four large artworks were conceived that relate the park to its position in the inner city area and tell a story of the city and the park itself: the Rissik Street Post Office facade and the Standard Theatre facade, both carved from 100-year-old railway sleeper cants, evoke the urban history of the area; the flock of grazing bokkies recall the park's earlier ‘Leaping Impala' water feature; and the giant Oppenheimer Diamond commemorates the park's namesake. The inspirational text sculptures, incorporating seating space that doubles as a popular children's climbing frame, inject a further element of modernity.
As with many projects, there was a tight budget and a short timeframe. This necessitated finding ways to create the sculptures both quickly and inexpensively, while ensuring their durability. The bokkies were originally moulded in gelutong - soft enough to sculpt but tough enough to cast directly into iron. The final cast iron bokkies are untreated, making them maintenance free but strong and well-fixed enough to repel vandals. The Standard Theatre and Post Office facades were initially machined and then painstakingly detailed by wood sculptor Stone Mabunda. The weight of the indigenous hardwood necessitated strong support, created through use of playful scaffolding that echoes the city's ongoing reinvention. Most ambitious was the 50 x life-size replica of the famed Oppenheimer rough diamond. The Smithsonian museum, custodians of the diamond, were prevailed upon to send a perfect cast positive, which was then medically scanned in 3D. The Library collaborated with a specialist steel-worker to develop a lightweight 100mm grid subframe, which was then clad in stainless steel over which the outer skin was laid using an English Wheel and other complex steelworking processes. Finally, a highly labour-intensive 8-step process polished our ‘diamond' to a high sheen.
Thanks to funding from the Johannesburg Development Agency, the Ernest Oppenheimer Park is today a playful, welcoming urban public space. The Library is proud to have been an integral part of this project, which both celebrates our heritage and makes space for our future.