The Women’s Jail was built in 1909 and is a fine example of English prison architecture of that era. It is better known, however as a place where women anti-apartheid activists were unjustly imprisoned. The prison was closed in 1982 and subsequently occupied by the Traffic Department and Civil Co-operation Bureau – an apartheid government organisation notorious for their brutal harassment and murder of political activists.
The walled precinct of the Women’s Jail has, through this project, been in part restored and in part adapted for re-use as exhibition and office space. Two new office buildings have also been integrated. As testimony to the Jail’s transformation from a place of oppression and brutality to a place where human dignity is restored, the new office buildings house the Commission on Gender Equality and other Human Rights Commissions.
One of the challenges of this project was how to do justice to the claims of the past and yet acknowledge the needs of the present and the future. The horror of the prisoners’ experiences, the injustice of apartheid laws and the silencing of protest, had to be felt in the remains of structures and amplified through the architecture. It was not only architectural history that was at stake here but the history of human beings, their lives distorted within these spaces. The striking contradiction of the architecture of the jail – a semblance of grace despite its history - had to be revealed.
This design enhances the cultural significance of the site. It provides an eloquent platform for the voices of the women who in previous decades were silenced. Architecture, rather than being a passive heritage artefact becomes a prompt for renewal, without compromising the respect due to the past.