UJ Sanlam Auditorium was a place where the heart felt at home, writes architects’ daughter

​​By: Narike Lintvelt

The Sanlam Auditorium at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) that was destroyed in a petrol bomb attack was a place where many good memories had been made. Narike Lintvelt, a daughter of the late Albert Lintvelt, the architect of the auditorium, shares her memories and sorrow about the loss of this personal place of the heart. This article was first published on Netwerk 24 on 20 May 2016.

On Monday morning 16 May, as usual, I settled into my desk at work with a cup of coffee to look at the news headlines before I start with my daily tasks. A headline immediately caught my eye: A building at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) had burnt down.

Being very familiar with the design of the campus – a tight-knit horseshoe formation – I thought it had to be a later additional outbuilding. I clicked through to the story to read in total disbelief that the Sanlam Auditorium had burnt down in the early hours of the morning, presumably caused by petrol bombs.

My coffee got cold while I tried to confirm the news through other sources. On Twitter there was a hashtag: #UJFire, already with a few thousand tweets. And there were photos: grainy and without much detail, in which I could not identify anything of the space that had been so familiar to me since childhood.

I felt sick from shock. And sad. I posted on Facebook:

My dad, Albert Lintvelt, as partner at Jan van Wijk and Associates, was the architect of the Sanlam Auditorium. Now another part of my dad is gone. . .

My brother, my cousins and my sister were the first to react. Each one voiced the same shock and disbelief; my sister, who has been living in Canada for more than 20 years, is sad and angry.

Through the course of the day I kept an eye on the news and on Twitter. It is a trending topic and the tweets come in their thousands: students condemning the senseless violence, others sharing their memories of the Sanlam Auditorium, hundreds remembering the special moments of their graduation ceremonies. My cousin Theresa in Australia and my cousin Francois in Johannesburg both received their degrees there with pride – in “Uncle Albert’s auditorium”.

This year’s winter graduation ceremony would have taken place there in June, and many students expressed themselves about the injustice to being robbed of this experience.

The radio personality Redi Tlhabi tweeted: “Sanlam Auditorium, stood on the stage many times. . . graduation and even more special, motivational talks to students.”

Later there were more photos showing the devastating damage, beyond repair, and an estimated damage of R100 million, which included the student finance centre and the computer laboratories that were also housed in the complex.

But this is only the damage in rand.

“I can’t believe it. It is as if I am losing him once again. He poured his heart and soul into it, and now it lies in ruins,” my sister Thana writes on Facebook.

We “lost” my dad about 12 years ago, also in a shocking, senseless and violent way, when he was murdered and his car stolen by the gardener in his beloved cottage on Red Hill in Simonstown. It took years to work through the trauma and through the drawn-out court case.

As time went on, we learnt to live with it, but it doesn’t take much to open the scab again: a new book or a movie that we know he would have loved; the man at Cape Town station playing “Autumn Leaves” – one of Dadda’s favourite songs – on an out-of-tune trumpet. . . And all the small losses over the years: each time a family heirloom, a glass or a plate, breaks and you feel another piece has been lost. . . . and then I clearly hear my father’s voice: “It’s only worldly goods, my dear. You can’t take it with you.”

As children we had very little sense of the extent and enormity of the pioneering (then) RAU project. I was about six years old and had just started school when the firm started on the project. Dad’s work office was a fascinating, magical place to visit, with wonderful things like compasses and drawing boards, scale rulers, floor plans stuck against cork boards with red pins, the smell of paper and Bostik and pencil shavings. My favourite things were the Letraset stick letters that one could scratch with a pencil from the waxy paper, and the architect models with real branches to represent trees.

Brother Jóbert was crazy about the pencil sharpener that was mounted on one of the desks, with holes for the various sized pencils and a crank to wind, and he enthusiastically sharpened all the pencils of all the draughtsmen and the architects.

Slide evenings were a big treat for us kids – setting up the projector, switching off lights, and there against the wall were we: as babies, on sea holidays, gap-toothed on the first day of school. Then followed the travel slides: my dad and mom overseas, she in stylish 70s outfits and he behind the camera: Gaudi buildings in Spain; a stone amphitheatre in Greece; historical buildings in Rome. And then slides of the Sanlam Auditorium and the old harbour at Hermanus, like a natural amphitheatre with its soft incline and organic forms – the inspiration for Dadda’s design of the auditorium. Hermanus held many special memories from his childhood for him, and it is also there, a year after his death, where we scattered his ashes in the sea at Kwaaiwater.

After his retirement, my father became a lecturer in Architecture and The Science of building at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), where it was a delight and privilege for him to later work together with my cousin Jolanda de Villiers-Morkel in the same department.

This Monday morning she posted to her students on their Facebook group:

“I have to share my sadness with you today. UJ’s auditorium was burnt down to ashes last night. My late uncle, Albert Lintvelt, conceptualised the design in the early 1970s. As an artist in his own right – author, singer and pianist – he created this space, inspired by the Old Harbour in Hermanus and according to well researched acoustic principles.

“It was intended as a space where the stage would bring the artists in close contact with the audience; where activities on the podium would resemble the fishing boats offloading the day’s catch and curious people and merchants gather to trade and to share stories.

“It was designed as a social and intimate space, an escape from the traditional linear auditorium type. Through people’s stories on various social media platforms, I was once again reminded of the enormous power of a good design. So many people’s lives have been touched by that dramatic space: from students’ graduation ceremonies to colleagues who attended music and drama productions.

“Memories have been created. How Albert would have loved to hear these stories! I am just glad that he is not here today to see the devastation.”

Many past students reacted to that. They also remembered the slides, and Albert’s dynamic lecture about the design process.

The Sanlam Auditorium was more than a mere building or hall. It was more than worldly goods. It was a place where the heart felt at home. And the memory lives on. . .

*Narike Lintvelt is a copy editor and the eldest daughter of the late Albert Lintvelt.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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