Malapa platform launched

, 15 September 2014

“The Malapa structure is perhaps one of the most remarkable structures ever to be placed over a palaeontological or archaeological site,” says Wits Professor Lee Berger, speaking at the launch of the unique Malapa mobile laboratory and visitors’ platform in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site on Thursday, 4 September 2014 in partnership with Gauteng Tourism.

The ‘temporary-permanent’ structure was developed to protect the fossil bearing deposit from natural elements like rain and falling debris. “It was built to be as ‘invisible’ as possible due to the sensitivity of the environment in which it exists,” adds Berger. “At the same time, it projects an impressive image to visitors and reflects the importance that South Africa holds for these World Heritage objects. Its construction gives the structure the potential of being moved, in the future, to other sites of discovery.”

The structure will be equipped with high technology in the near future that will see the site linked remotely to Wits University and other fossil sites in the area. There are also plans to have excavations streamed live on a website or blog in real time. “The use of technology and state of the art equipment will enable us to prepare and analyse fossils remotely in real time,” explains Berger.

The flexible structure can lift rocks weighing around one metric ton and can move these rocks to a vehicle loading point. It is a free standing structure that does not have any significant foundations and is fire and animal resistant. It is low maintenance, harvests rain water and is constructed from environmentally friendly products.

Malapa Structure

Through its architecture, the structure tells the story of the site and the discoveries made there.

The structure was co-funded by Wits University, Gauteng Tourism and the National Research Foundation. “It serves as a platform for research in the first instance but can also accommodate tour groups of up to 48 people. It is also fitting that we are launching this structure during National Tourism month,” said Dawn Robertson, CEO of Gauteng Tourism.

Professor Rob Moore, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Partnerships and Advancement acknowledged the support and goodwill that had been garnered from a range of partners to make the project a success. “It is only through our partnerships with the public and private sectors, our academics and corporates that dreams can materialise, such as in the structure we have seen today.” His views were echoed by Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi who participated in the official launch of the structure.

The Malapa fossil site is one of the richest early human ancestor sites on the planet. Located in about the middle of the Cradle of Humankind UNESCO World Heritage site, Malapa was discovered in 2008 by Professor Lee Berger and on the second visit his then 9 year old son Matthew discovered the first remains of early hominins. This discovery revealed the first known remains of the new species of human ancestor now known as Australopithecus sediba. The site still holds precious fossil material and excavations have not even begun.

Malapa mobile laboratory and visitors’ platformFeatures of the structure

The steel structure was designed with the pivoting legs contacting the ground well outside of the fossil bearing areas.  The structure covers an area of approximately 500 square metres with the roof extending beyond the borders of the 10 year excavation plan.  The foundation of the building comprises 32 steel bolts and approximates the size of only an A5 sheet of paper. The raised platform allows visitors an opportunity to have a “birds eye view” of the research activities below, letting them feel as if they are participating in the work,  while at the same time keeping these visitors separate from the actual scientific activity.  The structure is organic in feel, with few straight lines.

The structure blends remarkably within the environment, yet it is imposing and significant on entry. This custom made design sees the legs angle at a similar degree to the surrounding trees, which being on a slight slope, angle with the hill. The asymmetry of the roof prevents the eye from observing any large imposing structure. A novel metal feathered aluminium edging to roof surfaces ensures an overall organic feel and breaks up the lines of the large surface area. The spaces within the structure force the eye to look through the structure rather than at it. 

Colour also] plays an important role. The brown is that of the space between the bark of the surrounding Acacia trees and thus matches the environment in both summer and winter. Its gloss finish rather than matt creates a reflective pattern and thus the structure dapples, further obscuring individual pieces and creating an almost leopard like camouflage in the light. The choice of the colour of the interior of the roof as white, gives the impression that one is looking at sky rather than into a solid object. Additionally, the choice of white water containers allows them to become invisible to the eye in blending with the horizon behind.

The story of the discovery is integrated in the design. Each leg mirrors the shape of the clavicle (the first fossil discovered by Matthew Berger) in its slightly sigmoid curvature. The clavicle is also featured in a small design along the mid-shaft of the leg. At this same position, a scapula-like feature (the second first remains of the second skeleton to be discovered), unites the leg. The roof mirrors the shape of the white stinkwood tree’s leaf, a tree critical to the discovery itself as it was spotted from satellite imagery and led to the discovery of the site.