Durban's International Conference Centre impresses

Durban has just celebrated the opening of its ICC Arena. It is an extension of the existing ICC which forms part of a complex of buildings lying between Ordinance Road to the north and Commercial Road to the south, and only three blocks west of the beach.

The Arena attaches to the south of the Exhibition Centre, which was built by the South African Railways as workshops almost a hundred years ago. They are of typical ‘dockside’ architecture which easily integrates into any urban fabric, and has become, or maybe always was, a landmark in the town.

Signature view
The Arena faces south onto Commercial Road. The way in which the façade on the south entry side is treated contrasts with the open plate glass walls on the north elevation, which have become the instantly recognizable signature view of this development. Now, the south entry is unique too, and for good measure, adds a heritage element, in that the highly decorated old jail wall on the west corner has been preserved as part of the outdoor area and encloses the corner.

The smallish repeated glass elements forming the south wall have been used on slightly different planes, in four horizontal layers which exploit the south light and are exquisite. These elements continue on to the east side. The floor of the lavish plaza in front of it is clad in smooth composite stone paving with narrow joints modulating it through to the foyer.

The ring road around this development is one-way in a clockwise direction. So you can circulate to orientate yourself and select appropriate parking. You always have sight of the Centre on your left.

The reason why I’m describing this so broadly is that, from concept, this was designed as a South African space for people from everywhere to savour. The other two famous Convention Centres - in Sandton and Cape Town - could actually be anywhere. And they are, from the outset, not easy to find without a lot of signage. Their location is still elusive if you cannot discern north, south, east or west.

Maybe one wouldn’t notice this if the Durban development (also on a confined site) had not got it so right. (As a Durban resident I might seem biased, I know, but it’s true.) The wonderful spill out to the outdoors enhances it too.
Once parked, say in the basement, visitors are aware of where they’re heading as the main lift foyer has a large orange tiled panel adjacent to the glass frontage.

On the ground and first floor, there are ample toilet facilities. The carpeting and tiles are the same as those used in the original ICC. Of course, an arena has about half of its seating capacity on the level ground area, and during concert performances, the stage can be raised. (Nice to see that, at the opening, there were two curved ramps up to the stage which also suited the able-bodied in an environment of flashing lights and stage effects).

The total capacity of fixed seating is 3 000 out of a total 10 000. Apparently only 12 seats have been allocated for disabled people. These spaces are not precluded from being used for other purposes, and that’s a good idea. But of course, my ideal layout would be that they were not all in one area.

Wonderful ambience
My take on the foyer, which is one of the more important parts of the development, is that it has a wonderful ambience. The acoustics are excellent and it is not too narrow, making it the quintessential ‘crush’ area. The bar counters have not been handled sensitively. They are beautifully simple glass and granite assemblies 112cm high, end to end. This is to accommodate the under-bar fridges, but no thought was given to the users, and it cannot be condoned. The glass fronted VIP box on the second floor is the best in the house and easily accessible, and I congratulate the designers on their foresight.

There are many other features to celebrate at this venue, if I had the page space. My main theme is that the way-finding, in every sense, is outstanding. It is a fundamental to good architecture, but regrettably, something which is often neglected.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains; but to live in a way that respects and enhances the lives of others.” Nelson Mandela

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