Research Facilities

With the opening of the new Wallenberg Research Centre on 15 November 2007, STIAS boasts one of the most modern facilities specially designed for advanced research.

The Institute is situated on part of the historic Mostertsdrift, one of the first wine farms in the Stellenbosch area, dating back to 1691. The University bought the property in 1996 and made it available to STIAS in 2001. The old Cape Victorian manor house, wine cellar and outbuildings are situated on 2,6 ha of parkland. STIAS restored and rebuilt the manor house in 2002 to serve as the headquarters of the Institute. The library of the manor house is used intensively by researchers and academic for small seminars and workshops. In 2003 the outside of the wine cellar was restored, but the inside was redesigned and refitted to be used as a modern research facility. SACEMA, the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, a DST supported Centre of Excellence, is the present occupant of the cellar.

The new Wallenberg Research Centre

The research facilities of STIAS received a major boost in 2004 when the Wallenberg Foundation of Sweden made R 26 m available for the building of a modern and specially designed Research Centre. The Centre will be able to house up to 30 researchers at a time in spacious and well-equipped surroundings, with adequate seminar facilities and state-of-the-art equipment.

The design brief

The brief to the architect was to design ‘a creative space for the mind’. To quote from the brief:

“The RCC forms the heart of the Institute’s research activities. It provides the working space for research fellows in individual study rooms, communal space for interaction and a multipurpose conference section with shared catering facilities. The RCC complements the existing buildings on Mostertsdrift.”

The RCC provides the solitude needed for concentrated and creative thinking and at the same time stimulates creative interaction by sharing ideas, by encouraging discussion and by searching for novel solutions. It enables the imaginative ‘meeting of minds’ in the fullest sense of the word and brings together worlds of diverse experiences, perspectives and convictions. These worlds are of different orders, posing different challenges:

  • A building that complements the existing structures on the site. The buildings within the old ‘ringmuur’ are protected by the Commission for Historical Monuments. The new building should be in conversation with especially the old manor house, but neither replicate nor dominate its Cape Victorian style. At the same time the RCC must have an own identity and make its own statement. It symbolizes intellectual ferment, innovation and the search for new knowledge in an African context. One approach might be to make the exterior less obtrusive, while the interior reflects an orientation towards the future.
  • Creating a space and atmosphere which promote inter- and trans-disciplinary thinking. A unique feature of STIAS is that it caters for both the natural sciences and the humanities and that it promoted trans-disciplinary thinking right from the start. Transcending traditional divides and crossing the boundaries of existing knowledge give STIAS its distinctive profile and the RCC must embody this philosophy.
  • Beyond the differences within academic disciplines and within the research community itself, the RCC also provides a meeting point where minds from the South and the North, from the East and the West can meet in constructive dialogue
  • STIAS needs the diversity of ideas and of people in order to fulfil its mission. Given the realities of the ‘network society’ which requires the promotion of global interconnectedness and the retaining of local identities at the same time, STIAS understands itself as a node in this network. While not a dominant player itself, it is part of the world-wide process of generating new knowledge. Under these circumstances, it is often a strategic advantage not to be part of the dominant paradigm, in order to be free to look at problems from an unusual angle and from a fresh perspective. The RCC provides the space for such an approach. In this sense, STIAS embodies the spirit of scientific inquiry and symbolizes intellectual leadership in Africa. The RCC must suitably reflect this spirit and this ambition.
  • In the wider context of continuing the process of reconciliation of ideas and people, Mostertsdrift provides ‘neutral ground’ where opposing views can be expressed without fear and without incrimination. STIAS and the RCC promote an attitude that does not seek to justify positions in the first place, but which is willing to move beyond the obvious. It is not interested in the question: Who is right? It rather asks: What can each contribute from his or her own perspective and tradition to move us beyond existing barriers and to bring us closer to a solution?”

Furthermore:

“The aim of the Research section is to provide two things at the same time: Optimal privacy for fellows for concentrated and undisturbed work and optimal interaction between fellows, viewpoints and perspectives. It must be a place where people would like to be, either to work on their research or to spend time with others.

This is to be achieved by providing sound-proof offices for fellows with an outside view to the mountains and/or surrounding trees. Once a fellow enters his or her room, there must be no outside interference. Once a fellow steps out of his or her room, they become part of a communal space.

The rooms for the fellows must be arranged on two floors around an atrium which is closed to the sky, but open to the communal space. The rooms on the second floor will therefore open unto a balcony overlooking the communal space.

This communal space is the meeting place of people and ideas. This means that every fellow entering the building has to ‘cross the floor’ in order to get to his or her room. There is only one entrance for fellows and it is not possible to sneak in by a back door. Lunch will be served in the centre space each day. Around the centre space there must be interesting nooks and comfortable furniture, inviting fellows to have a private conversation with a colleague or with a small group of people. The ambience of the atrium must be friendly, inviting, and conducive for interaction, tempting people to linger and to continue the conversation. The furniture in the centre space should be multi-purpose and easy to remove or re-arrange in order to provide for impromptu presentations and/or functions.

Special care should be taken with the acoustics of the building and in particular of the communal space. Fellows in their rooms must enjoy optimal privacy and should not be distracted at any time by what happens outside. In the atrium, with its double volume and closed roof, easy and semi-private conversations between individuals must be possible without disturbing their colleagues nearby. The collective noise generated in the atrium by several simultaneous conversations must also not be disruptive at any time.

The building must take into account the climate of the region and the placement on the site. It must provide comfortable working conditions for fellows and the public during all seasons, especially during the hot summer months. Air conditioning will be needed, but the design of the building and its isolation should combine to form a structure that is low in energy and maintenance costs.

The offices and the shared space of the Research section must provide state of the art communication and information systems. The furniture and furnishings must be attractive and functional without being luxurious. Everything must contribute to promote high level research and optimal interaction.

The Research section thus comprises of a ‘private’ and a ‘public’ area. The same applies for the relationship between the Research and Conference sections. The Research section represents the ‘private’ side of the building – it is the area restricted to fellows and their guests. It has its separate entrance – preferable to the east in order to ensure easy access to the manor house.”

An architectural competition

In order to translate this vision into reality, an architectural competition was held under the auspices of the SA Institute for Architects. The aim was to find an architect who understood the philosophy of STIAS and who could give visual and spatial expression to the concept. Several local and an international firm submitted designs. The winning entry was that of Hein Visser of Van Biljon&Visser, well-known for his striking design of Tokara wine cellar and its restaurant with stunning views on the crest of Helshoogte. Subsequently Visser visited several established institutes for advanced study in Europe and North America to study the design of their facilities and to learn from their experience. The insights he gained were incorporated into the design of the RC.

The architect has this to say about the design:

“The Mostertsdrift site presented a special challenge. How should one respect the tradition represented by the historic manor house and wine cellar, while at the same time constructing a future-oriented building? I did not want to replicate the Cape Victorian style of the existing buildings in any way. Yet, the old and new should stand in quiet dialogue with each other. The solution was to use the historic leivoor running in front of the manor house and cellar as the planning axis for the RC. Three water features symbolize the continuation of the leivoor and form the spine of the new building.

The brief also required that I make full use of the magnificent views the site offers on the surrounding mountains. The result is a building that is not pretentious from the outside, but one that should rather be enjoyed from the inside. No matter where you are in the building, you are constantly aware of the parkland setting of Mostertsdrift. The offices of the fellows offer a fabulous view of the garden, the manor house and the famous Pieke in the background.

It was an exiting challenge to give a three dimensional interpretation of ‘a creative space for the mind’. The aim was to ensure the feeling of free-flowing space which sets no limits to the mind, opening new vistas and unexpected perspectives.”

There is a planned progression from public to private space throughout the building. The public entrance is from Marais Street and leads to a spacious foyer with registration facilities. The seminar section can accommodate 80 with an adjoining dining room. Seminar and dining room can be combined to seat 150 people. The seminar section opens to spacious south terrace overlooking the vineyard. Seminar participants are thus diverted away from the research section to ensure that any activities in the public part of the building do not disturb the work of the research fellows.

The seminar section is equipped with state of the art audio-visual equipment and two break-away rooms.

Art – performing and visual – forms an important part of the STIAS concept. The intention is to have as one of the fellows ‘an artist in residence’. The layout of the building makes provision for music and other performances, while the spacious walls and galleries are ideally suited to exhibit paintings.

The transition from the seminar to the fellow section is marked by a open courtyard. Here lies the heart of the building. It consists of 22 spacious offices for research fellows all facing east, overlooking the garden and the manor house with magnificent views into Jonkershoek. Here the public/private distinction assumes a new form: When a fellow’s door is closed, he or she is in a private space. The moment a fellow steps out of the office, he or she is part of a communal space in the form of a large atrium. Furthermore, there are no backdoor entrances to the offices – to reach their work areas, fellows have to cross the atrium. There is one (very good) coffee machine in the seminar section – available 24 hours a day.

A further 8 offices are grouped in a separate wing (This wing will be house the SA Institute for Theoretical Physics from 2008.) A boardroom with its own catering facilities completes the building.

Sustainability was an important consideration. Double glazing was used throughout the building to minimize energy needed for both heating and cooling. Solar heating will further reduce energy needs as will low energy lighting. The garden will be of the ‘water-sparse’ variety, using many hardy plants of the Western Cape. In order to reduce vehicle pollution on the parkland site basement parking for 66 vehicles have been added at considerable cost.

The result is an exceptional architectural expression of the core purpose of the Institute to ‘provide a creative space for the mind’.

Vineyards return to Mostertsdrift farm

The old homestead of Mostertsdrift, part of the original wine farm which dates back to 1683, is now the home of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).

This 2,6 hectare property is owned by the University of Stellenbosch and was made available to STIAS in 2000, where upon the restoration of the old manor house and wine cellar began.

The exteriors of the manor house (built in 1820) and the wine cellar’ (dating from 1848) were restored to their original style, however the interiors were modernized and refurbished to serve as a modern research facility. The manor house serves as the headquarters of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), while the wine cellar houses SACEMA, the SA Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis – a DST-sponsored Centre of Excellence. Municipal zoning forbade buildings on the southwest corner of the property – this led to the plan to plant a vineyard on this half-hectare plot.

The idea of replanting vineyards on the land seemed inevitable as this farm formed part of the original Lanzerac wine farm. Albert Strever and Prof. Melanie Vivier of the Department of Viniculture at Stellenbosch University gave their expert advice and so the seeds of planting pinotage vines on this property, were sown.

When Duimpie Bayly and Beyers Truter of the Pinotage Association of South Africa heard of this initiative to promote innovative research, they gave this idea their full support. One of the aims of the Pinotage Association is to further the ground-breaking work of Professor Perold, who produced Africa’s first new grape cultivar – Pintoge. Pinotage is a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (Hermitage), and one of the aims of the Pinotage Association is to experiment with new plant material and new cultivation processes.

This new project has become an experimental vineyard where further research on pinotage will be conducted. The layout of the vineyard is unique in that the vines will be planted in rows that fan out from a central point, like a wagon-wheel (contrary to the normal practice of positioning rows parallel to each other). This will therefore represent almost all possible row direction combinations for this specific location and further studies will be undertaken given the intensity of the sunlight on the grapes from different angles.

Grapes will be harvested from a randomized selection of each row direction, and wines will be made to chemically and sensorially evaluate the effect of the differing row direction. In addition the trellis system used for the vineyard is an adapted Lyre-type trellis, which is mostly used in industry to counteract very strong vigour induced on high potential soils. This system is designed to induce root competition between vines, commonly found in narrowly spaced vineyard plantings, without the disadvantage of canopy crowding in these narrowly spaced vines. Vines are planted in two rows spaced only 80cms apart, but the between-vine planting distance is 1,5m. The between row spacing therefore facilitates competition, while the between vine spacing still allows for sufficient canopy space. This principal is nothing new in wine industries all over the world, but the difference is that it is practiced on a medium potential soil, with the goal of still reaping the benefits of root competition without canopy overshadowing.

Another unique factor is that the land of this vineyard was originally marshy with a high water table (visible standing water on the surface up until September). Vine roots need optimal soil temperatures as well as sufficient oxygen for respiration, especially early season when there is no transpiration stream to facilitate water transport. The existing soil conditions would therefore have severely hampered vine budburst and vigour, as well as normal root functioning.

It was also decided to use the river stones and soil excavated from the basement of the Research Centre as filling material and in this way the level of the vineyard was raised by more than 1,5 metres, thereby eliminating most of the drainage problems.

The vineyard will also be manually managed (handwingerd), with no mechanical cultivation methods used, thus minimizing soil compaction. Spraying for pests and diseases will also be done with backpack sprayers using low volume spraying technology currently researched at the Department of Plant Pathology at Stellenbosch University. Graduates from the department of Viticulture will also use it as a training vineyard to hone their pruning, canopy management, vine planting and grape analysis skills.

At the end of all of this STIAS hopes to produce a ground-breaking wine under its own label.