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Gross Barmen Resort Okahandja

Location: Okahandja          

Status: Completed          

Client: Namibia Wildlife Resorts

Main Contractor: Namibia Construction

Completed: 2015


Gross Barmen, or Otjikango (“weak spring running over rocky ground”) as it was once known, is a very special place, steeped in history and deeply rooted in the early development of Namibia.

This architectural intervention endeavours to understand, acknowledge and interpret the so-called spirit of place, i.e. that which can be described as the silent testimony of a site:

The invisible weave of the intangible (culture, memories, history etc.) and of the tangible aspects of a place (monuments, boundaries, rivers, architectural style, etc.)…

The unique “spirit of place” of Gross Barmen is to be found in the rich layering of its unfolding history, the successive and varied interventions by man – past and present – as well as its distinct topographical features.

Frequented by nomadic Herero tribes since the very early days, Gross Barmen became the site of the First Rhenish Mission in 1844 at the initiative of Jonker Afrikaner. During the 60 years of their occupancy, the missionaries came into contact with many people, some destined to play major roles in the history of Namibia including Maherero, Jan Jonker Afrikaner and Hendrik Witbooi. The site witnessed many power struggles and bloody battles, but also saw the brokering of peace between Maharero and Jan Jonker Afrikaner on 27 May 1870. A military and police post was established at Gross Barmen in late 1894. It also served as market place and post office for a short period.

The final demise of Gross Barmen came in 1904 when the Herero and Nama people rebelled against German colonial rule, leading to a cataclysmic period in the history of Namibia and one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th century.

After many years of neglect, Gross Barmen was finally developed as a recreational Hot Spring Resort in 1976.

The successive and varied interventions by man – past and present – as well as the unique topographical features of Gross Barmen also informed the architectural narrative as conceptual informants.

Serving as the focal point of the new development is the eye of the hot water spring, with all of the various architectural elements configured in a way to acknowledge its pivotal significance.

Centred on the eye, an overlay of axes was imposed on the larger site to serve as visual connections to all of those tangible elements – the interventions by man, past and present – which today serve as reminders of the collective historic and cultural memory. These include not only the ruins of the Rhenish mission house and church, cemeteries, police post and dam, but also selected architectural elements from the original resort such as the entrance arches and the barrel-vaulted thermal pool hall, outside pools, etc.

Architectural narrative:
The arriving visitor to the new Gross Barmen Resort is introduced to the layered historic narrative of the site by means of an experiential journey, which starts at the gate to the complex. Here a massive curved wall rises from the natural veld announcing the presence of the Gross Barmen but revealing nothing of that which lies behind.

A generous pedestrian ramp leads from the main parking area to the first floor entrance, affording spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding koppies and distant mountains. Upon entering the building, the visitor is rewarded with a framed view of the eye of the historic Gross Barmen spring and the heart of the new complex: when proceeding to the viewing balcony, the scene unfolds revealing a lush green oasis with sparkling blue pools of water surrounded by a series of buildings and a large dam beyond.

The raised promenade takes the visitor on an experiential journey, introducing the various building components that shield the oasis from the elements, and affording panoramic views the surroundings.

Two symbolic references are used to commemorate Gross Barmen’s important role in the history of Namibia. The first is at the foot of the entrance ramp where a memorial displays the important events and historic figures that contributed to the memories of Gross Barmen. The second (not yet installed) is located at the northern edge of the eye where a forest of steel rods of equal length, embedded in a concrete plinth, embodies the collective memory of Gross Barmen, both tangible and intangible.

Materials and finishes:
A limited palette of robust and unadorned materials was applied throughout: externally, massive off-shutter concrete walls the colour of the surrounding soil and varied hues of recycled stone are set against rusting steel; internally, this spectrum of natural colour is reflected in the kaleidoscopic site-sourced aggregate of the polished concrete floors.

Passage of time – rusty red walls and established vegetation – will allow the building complex further to settle within its surrounding landscape.

Postscript: The subsequent removal by NWR management of the beautiful indigenous oasis garden of the inner complex is a most regrettable and uninformed decision that shows very little understanding of the original design intent. It is hoped that this critical aspect of the design could be redressed with the construction of the hotel component of the planned second phase.

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