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The Afrikaans Language Monument, Paarl , South Africa

Commission Site Inspiration Symbolism Geometry Structure

1. Commission

In 1965 the competition for the design for an Afrikaans Language Monument on the southern slopes of Paarl Mountain called for a visual, symbolic monument on the outskirts of the town. It had to symbolize the wonder of our cultural and political growth which culminated in the establishment of the Republic. The whole, or part thereof, had to be bold in outline so that it would be visible from afar. An abstract design would also be in keeping with the envisaged concept.

2. Site

Roughly in the centre of the site there is a hillock or acropolis, consisting of clusters of round granite rocks. These rocks, some with rounded tops, others with fissures and clefts, are arranged close together almost as if related to one another. They resemble small replicas of Paarl Rock, and lend an air of timelessness to the environment. The mountains on the horizon seems like larger versions of this acropolis.

The monument with its approach is situated immediately to the south of the hillock.

3. Inspiration for the design

The design by the architect Jan van Wijk was inspired by the site and the works of two of our authors.

In 1914 C.J. Langenhoven compared the growth potential of Afrikaans to a rapidly rising curve, or in geometrical terms, a hyperbola.

‘If here in this hall we were to plant a row of posts, say ten of them, to represent each of the past ten years, and were to cut a notch in each post at a height from the floor corresponding to the relative literary use of Afrikaans for each year respectively, and if we were to join the notches from the one nearest the floor to the last notch somewhere near the ceiling, the line would then form a steeply mounting curve, not only rising sharply, but doing so at a rapidly increasing ratio. Let us now imagine that this curve is extended for the next ten years. Do you see gentlemen, to where the tip of’ the curve will soar? By the year 1924 it will have reached a point somewhere in the blue sky, high above Bloem-fontein.’

In 1959 N.P. van Wyk Louw, in the chapter ‘Laat ons nie Roem nie’ (Let us not Extol) from ‘Vernuwing in die Prosa.’ (Renewal in Prose), envisaged our language as follows:

Afrikaans is the language that links Western Europe and Africa; it draws its strength from these two sources; it forms a bridge between the enlightened west and magical Africa. Both are great forces, and whatever greatness may spring from this union – that probably is what lies ahead for Afrikaans to discover.

Our language has had its origins in a much older form of language; and in the process of its growth it has broadened its scope and range, undergoing at the same time a fascinating refinement as a medium of communication.

But what we should not lose sight of is that the change of environment has shaped and fashioned the young, newly evolving language. It has caused new words, new images and new concepts to come into being; old words and concepts to be adapted and in many cases to disappear; every feature of the new world to be reflected within its scope. And thus Afrikaans has been able to depict this new country as no other European language has done.

‘Among the languages of our country’ Afrikaans occupies a strong position in South African English and the African Languages. In its facility of expression of the concrete and physical, Afrikaans may be equated with the Bantu languages; and its expression of the abstract, there is a kinship with the flexibility and aptness of the English language. Between these two, Afrikaans is established as a glistening instrument, a double-edged sword.

‘Afrikaans can remain vitally alive only as long as it continues to be the medium for communicating all our fortunes and our fate: as long as it expresses the concrete as well as the abstract; as long as both Europe and Africa are founded in its being.

We do not know how our language will develop or what will become of it; we can only speak about it with passionate affection.’

From these sentiments of the two writers on our language, and from the rock-strewn timeless site, this monument grew’ founded in the earth and cradle of its birth.

While representing our language and culture during its process of evolution and growth, it acknowledges the presence of other languages and cultures, some hailing from Western Europe, others the East.

4. Symbolism

A COLONNADE of three elements to the left or west of the approach symbolizes the languages and cultures of the enlightened West. These structures, closely juxtaposed, begin at a height and diminish in size and then descend in a curve to ascend again into the main upward sweep.
A PODIUM with three semi spheres to the right, or to the eastern side of the approach, represents magical Africa with its indigenous languages and cultures, and develops into a lesser curve which joins the main upward movement.
The confluence of these two curves forms a bridge which is the base of the main hyperbola. This, rising up into space, signifies the coming into being and the development of Afrikaans.
A language and culture neither western nor African, but Malayan, is represented by a low wall in the middle third of the main steps to add to the general scale.
Together with the main column, placed in the same life-giving pool with bubbling fountain, rises a structure symbolising our Republic: free, yet encompassed by and open to Africa; free in form and reminiscent of the west, whose cultures helped to establish it. It symbolizes two languages and two mutual enriching cultures, yet one nation, facing the future with courage and resolution, deeply conscious of the presence of an Omniscient Being, guiding us to our destiny in the turmoil of our time.

5. Geometry

The curves and degree of convexity of the various elements were first determined visually by means of models. Dimensions were callipered from these models, drawn to scale and converted to geometrical curves which were then checked by a computer in order to establish the correct values. The measurements were then applied to a system of co-ordinates (X- and Y-axis at right angles to each other on the horizontal plane, and the Z-axis indicating height).

These co-ordinates three, for each fixed point, were marked out by a surveyor from a rock on site as reference point or datum, in order to erect the various shutters for concrete casting.

Before the concrete was poured into the moulds, the co-ordinates marked out on the site were re-checked to 1 100 points in all, and therefore 3 300 co-ordinates.

6. Structure

The system of shuttering consisted of vertical metal strong backs, joined by horizontal sections of piping curvature. This structure was lined with marine plywood for the concrete face. Where the curves became too sharp for this method – in shaping the tops of the columns – special wooden moulds were constructed from models made to scale.

After the shuttering had been removed, all inner and outer concrete surfaces were finished of with pneumatic hammers, and a layer, 2 to 3 mm thick, was removed. This slow procedure continued throughout the period of building.

The height of the main columns is ± 57 mm (186 ft.); that of the republic column ± 26 m (85 ft.); and that of the first language column ± 13,5 m (44 ft.).

Building operations lasted two years. To preserve this monument as a timeless structure for future generations, it was constructed from the granite of it’s environment, and from concrete, hammered in an effort to imitate the texture of the neighbouring rocks.

The result is a structure of handmade granite which, with its curving lines, its rounded surfaces, and its ever-changing interplay of light and shade, attempts to produce an image of the refinement of our language as a vehicle of communication and in so doing to give in sculpture expression to N.P. van Wyk Louw’s words, ‘something which is not nothing’.

Diagram

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