The new Rock Art Interpretation Centre is located at Twyfelfontein in the northwest of Namibia – a particularly arid and remote area of the country. Namibia lies on the southwest coast of Africa – a similar climate to Chile in South America.

Twyfelfontein’s name, an Afrikaans term meaning “Doubtful Fountain”, indicates the importance of water in this barren environment. The site is one of the richest in the world in prehistoric rock engravings, attributed to San, or Bushmen peoples, of about twenty thousand years ago.

The National Heritage Council of Namibia (NHC) initiated the project in response to the damage that rapidly increasing numbers of visitors were causing to this fragile site, which required greater management and control as well as better provision for the visitors’ needs. The rock engravings are on exposed slabs of soft sandstone that erodes when people walk on it. About 5000 people visit the site per month, with up to 200 at any one time. The numbers are expected to increase.

The NHC appointed the architects through a competitive bidding process and the project was funded by the European Union (EU) through the Namibian Tourism Development Programme (NTDP) in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). We thus had to report to a committee consisting of the NTDP representative, the NMC Board and the consulting archaeologist and EU tender procedures had to be followed for all contracts.

The rock engravings are assumed to have been carved by the ancestors of the San, the ‘Bushmen’ of Southern Africa. The archaeological theory subscribed to in this case is that the trance dance, a preparatory cleansing ritual performed before hunting and a vehicle for rain-making provided the raison d’être for the engravings.

The design had to respond to an extreme climate and an arid site with no services. Twyfelfontein has a median & average rainfall of 50 to 100 mm per annum (2 to 3 inches), with a 70 to 90% coefficient of variation. Temperatures are high throughout the year (averages of 34 to 36 ºC max in summer and 8 to 10ºC in winter), with relatively low humidity. The main environmental constraint is the extreme radiation and resultant heat and glare.

The local community of Damara-Nama herders are not thought to be related to the original San who created the engravings. Remnants of San groups live in the northwest of Namibia, approximately 800 kilometres away. The rock art is thus considered national patrimony, and not the exclusive possession of a single group or tribe. The ‘community’ referred to, thus indicates the full Namibian spectrum, from local residents through the owners (NMC), to the archaeologist and the funding authorities.

Initially daunting, interacting with this multiple-stakeholder client body, including the EU representatives, the NMC, the resident archaeologist, Dr John Kinahan, and local community tour guides, resulted in a far more interesting and creative process than conventional appointments. Balancing the concerns of each group allowed us to keep a sense of perspective and not get carried away by a one-sided approach. Dr Kinahan’s long-term association with the site and intimate knowledge of the rock art provided valuable background without which we would have been lost. Extensive meetings were held with all parties, both on site and in Windhoek, and from each encounter more was shared and learnt by all.

We also had to get involved with long-term management issues not usually addressed by architects, such as potential income generating projects for the community and the NMC, managing difficult relationships with brash and demanding tour operators, and submissions to the World Heritage Committee.

A collaborative relationship was therefore formed early on between architects, clients, archaeologist, funders, programme coordinator and supervising craftsman, particularly in the discussions around the site protection work, a contract separate from the architects’ appointment.

Site protection work on the rock art walking routes had already commenced when we were appointed. Their original design had included long lengths of concrete paths and steps, but we managed to persuade the client and contractor to convert to caged gabion pebble paths so as to remove the need for cement and create a more appropriate intervention. This process, which could have so easily deteriorated into conflict, created trust and a common purpose between all the parties involved, which resulted in good group cohesion and a great amount of enthusiasm.

The extremely sensitive prehistoric rock art environment of Twyfelfontein is currently being assessed for World Heritage Status. The design and construction of the centre had to contribute positively to the World Heritage application and we had the responsibility of providing a functional facility that would enhance the heritage status of a twenty thousand year old cultural site. Among other measures, we positioned the building away from the rock art routes on the archaeologist’s advice, out of visual range, so that the visitor can imagine being in the prehistoric landscape, uncluttered by modern additions. This included removal of the existing visitors’ kiosk and shade structures in the valley below the routes, and using the rubble generated in the construction of the new centre.

The centre’s most important role is to prepare the visitor for an otherworldly experience in their engagement with the esoteric nature of the rock engravings, which are not considered to be realistic representations, but abstract renditions of the experiences and meanings of trance. The spatial design and construction thus form a unified organic whole in conducting the visitor through a series of spaces in psychological preparation for the guided walking routes to the actual rock engravings. The process of trance has been extensively documented in different cultures and a brief explanation is necessary to understand the concept and how it is translated in the building:

The three stages of trance is a journey into the supernatural, where a period of physical endurance (dancing for hours around the fire, monotonous chanting, smoke inhalation, the use of hallucinogenic substances, hunger & thirst) prepares the healer or ‘shaman’ for trance. In the first stage, resembling a malarial attack, retinal images called ‘phosphenes’ or ‘entoptics’ appear to the shaman in the shape of scrolls, spirals, circles and parallel lines that form abstract patterns. The shaman starts sweating and shivering.

The second stage is called the ‘little death’, as it resembles the physical symptoms displayed by a wounded animal just before dying. The shivers continue, nosebleeds occur, the back arches; the shaman feels weightless and levitates. According to belief, the spine acts as channel for departing energy to be conducted to the heavens, raising the hairs on the neck. At this stage, the brain makes associations with the phosphenes as representing objects known from daily experience. Parallel lines could become rain, or the stripes on a zebra, or a group of ostriches moving mirage-like over the horizon.

In the third stage, that of full trance, the shaman leaves his/her body to merge with the visualised animal, enchanting it for hunting or ‘to make rain’ as a rain-animal such as the eland. According to belief, the transformed shaman can also move through solid matter and exist in more than one space at once.

The architectural challenge was to reflect these beliefs in a spatial way to make it easier for the visitor to internalise the theories behind the rock engravings. Our initial response was to find clues from the landscape – from curved overhangs forming shallow caves and square slabs leaning against each other to create narrow vertical slits as shelter. We then speculated as to what the original San would have done for shelter – rocks & caves or brushwood shelters, clad with grass bundles.

We looked at curved forms to merge into the landscape, finding a parallel in the local cloven hoof-shaped ‘mopane’ tree’s leaf. In addition, we wanted to relate the building to animal skeletons and insect carapaces, but in a reminiscent rather than realistic way.

This response was then overlaid with the image of an animal in the ‘little death’ stage of trance – its back arched, blood running from the nose becoming the path which routes the visitor through the interior as though through intestines to prepare them for the psychological experience of the site.

From the parking area the visitor approaches the centre along a cleared gravel path edged with loose stones. At first not visible, the centre’s round shapes emerges from the landscape like a looming rock. Through a narrow slit like a throat, the visitor enters into a foyer occupied by the craft & souvenir shop. Just behind, the reception counter (with the management office and store to one side behind) regulates the movement through the building. Groups of no more than eight people with their guide embark on the routes setting off at 10-minute intervals. Those waiting their turn may linger in the dining area served by a small kiosk.

The start of the walking routes is preceded by an area for information display leading to two ‘experience chambers’ related to the first and second stages of trance. The first of these is a circular room, illuminated only by sunlight falling through cut-outs in the metal ceiling evocative of entoptics or phosphenes. The second space is covered with a spider-web of timber lathes, creating disorientating shadows over the display panels of different phosphenes overlaid with animal images that are also cut out from metal panels. This evokes the mental overlay of known images on phosphenes during trance.

In addition to the conceptual metaphor underpinning the design, we felt that a strong environmentally sustainable approach was essential to communicate the sensitivity of the site and instil respect for the environment in the users. The current interpretation of the rock art and cultural values associated with it may also change in future, when another generation might find our interpretation too limited, so we decided to design a ‘reversible’ building. The construction contains no cement and the building is completely removable and re-usable.

In the design, we followed the Burra Charter principles (The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance), which advise conservation to retain the cultural significance of a place. In that vein, the client brief required that the existing shabby kiosk, shade structures, pit latrines and awnings were to be removed from the open valley floor below the rock art routes, leaving only the adobe remnants of the first white settler’s farmhouse.

Walls and screens: The solid masonry walls are constructed from gabions (wire cages made on site from standard galvanised diamond mesh). These are filled with recycled rubble from the old kiosk foundations, and local loose stones gathered from different areas around the site so as not to leave scars on the landscape. Often used in civil engineering projects, this system is relatively new to buildings in Namibia, and can be done utilising unskilled labour, teaching them on site.

The curved walls screening the toilet entrances, experience chamber and route exits, are made from tubular steel frames anchored into gabions. The screen infill material consists of recycled oil drum lids spot welded either to butt against each other, or to overlap like fish scales where more privacy is needed, such as between the toilet cubicles.

Roofs: The roof structure consists of tubular steel sections welded together in curved roof trusses. Roof cladding consists of ’tiles’ made by quartering recycled 200 litre oil drums and installing them in a Roman tile fashion with a row of concave ’tiles’ fixed to the purlins and closed with a row of convex ’tiles’.bThe metal is sandblasted before installation to remove paint remnants and to start the rusting process, which will have a kind of ‘anodising’ effect in this dry climate and help blend the building in with the surrounding red oxide rocks.

Ceilings & insulation: We installed reed ceilings recovered from riverbeds and mesh reinforced foil insulation. The foil insulation is required both as radiation barrier and as drip sheet to compensate for the possible gaps between the tiles. It must be stressed that this is not a fully weatherproof building. It offers shelter against the sun, heat and some wind, but will be vulnerable to dust and infrequent wind-driven rain.

Floors: The largest ‘imported’ component of the building is the terracotta clay brick flooring, packed on levelled and compacted sand. The bricks are made in Mariental, 800 kilometres south from the site, and taken by train to the suppliers’ depot in Windhoek, the capital, from where it is transported to the site by truck.

Doors & windows: Most of the doors are site-made gates using drum-lids for the infill welded to a tubular steel frame. The office and stores are provided with conventional solid timber doors for security and weatherproofing. The toilet cubicles are provided with canvas curtains that are looped back when not in use.

Water: The existing fountain that Twyfelfontein was named after, is a mere trickle, and in danger of being completely depleted by the existing visitors’ centre. Dr Kinahan had decided that the fountain should be left undisturbed as a historical feature and to provide water for the surrounding wildlife as well as the visitors during their walk on the guided route. A special hand-pump and trough was provided for the purpose.

The water needs for the new centre is restricted to hand washing for the public and showers plus drinking water for the staff. Water is delivered from the nearby commercial lodge by truck once a week, and we devised a storage and high-tank system using the existing storage tank linked to additional small tanks perched on a gabion wall. Water is pumped from the large ground level tank to the small high tanks by hand. This process makes the staff acutely aware of the value and scarcity of the water. A borehole and solar pump installation would have cost approximately N$ 90,000 (15,000 USD). .

Sewerage: Dry toilets are provided for the visitors and staff, and the staff resting area has two showers (as they have to do several trips a day up to the rock art sites, the guides tend to get sweaty!). The toilet system is a proprietary brand called ‘Enviroloo’ developed by a South-African company and used extensively in the subcontinent. We used 9 Enviroloo’s from the NTDP stock obtained for all their projects, such as upgrading of campsites in Namibia. Some problems had been experienced with this system before, which we are trying to eliminate by adaptations to the design, better user education, maintenance training for the staff and more frequent inspections.

The showers are cold (no need for hot water!) and drain to a ‘homemade’ French drain consisting of perforated drums buried in the soil with a gravel layer underneath. The grey water thus drains into a sandy sub-soil far enough from the local dry river course not to pollute underground water. The client will be advised as to environmentally friendly and biodegradable soap with which to provide the staff.

Energy: solar & gas: The building has an almost zero energy requirement, as it will not be used at night, nor will it be heated or cooled. The kiosk will provide hot water for beverages from a gas hob and serve pre-prepared and packaged foods. The kiosk fridge and freezer for beverages operate on bottled LPG gas, as solar fridges are prohibitively expensive and difficult to service in remote areas. Gas technology is well known and inexpensive to obtain, though the running costs quickly exceeds that of a solar installation.

Though no funds are available for further energy needs, we are investigating a ‘homemade’ system for the office to run a laptop computer, printer, fax and V-sat telephone with a modem. A similar system has been used by the client representative while working at a remote research station. For this, two or more old 55 W or similar photovoltaic panels are needed. They can be connected together on homemade frame mounts and positioned facing North, on the ground so that they can be wheeled in at night (solar panels are very desirable items in the bush!). 6 sets of 2 volt or similar second-hand solar batteries are then connected in series to make 12 V. A regulator is not really required (too expensive) but a fuse should be added to protect the equipment. Coming directly off the batteries, we can then have two sets of cables – one to charge lights for unforeseen evening use (about 6 times 12 V standard 15 W caravan lights) and the other linked to an inverter off a battery from a computer store, to run a laptop off a car charger (the inverter is plugged into a car cigarette lighter socket, which is connected to the battery). In the example system, the inverter’s outlet had been wired to power outlets in each room (220 V) for a printer, small music system and kitchen appliances. The water and pH in batteries had to be carefully monitored, but otherwise the system worked well.

One of the challenges was to build a projected N$ 3 million building (according to advisors from South Africa) for less than a third that amount. We achieved a 500 m² building at a cost of about N$ 1,200/m², compared to the current conventional building cost of about N$ 4,000/m². The budget total is approximately N$ 780,000 (130,000 USD) of which 17,000 USD is for the parking and roads, and 17,000 USD is for furniture, fittings and information display, leaving about 96,000 USD for the building.