In 2000, the University of the Free State adopted a structure plan for the further development and consolidation of the campus. The Student Centre was identified early on as a facility that could be a catalyst in these events, especially to link the east and west portions of the campus, currently bisected by D.F. Malherbe Avenue. This busy thoroughfare was lowered to allow campus traffic to cross over via two vehicular bridges. The library was built on the west campus, as it was thought in the 1970’s that this would in future be the heart of the campus. This projected development was never realised and today only a few buildings have been built on the west campus, with large numbers of students accessing the library and other lecture facilities via the two bridges.

Although there are many shopping centres and other amenities in the vicinity of the university, little or nothing was available on campus. Although the Student Centre would offer a range of different shopping outlets, it was never the intention that it would compete with the off-campus facilities.

The location of the centre was clear from the outset, yet almost everything else about this project is different to what an architect would encounter in a typical traditional practice situation.

The Architects found that although the University wanted a Student Centre, and everyone thought it was a good idea, no one seemed to know what to do next. An attorney introduced the architect to a developer who has had some experience in developing this type of facility on other campuses, although with varying success. Long discussions were held, to decide what a student center should be. An independent survey was conducted among students and academic staff and the choices and preferences expressed were compared and tabulated in a descending order of popularity. It should be noted that the students thought a bookshop important, but the staff considered coffee shops more important than a bookshop. It was also decided that a student union be accommodated in the Student Centre. This would give the university a direct financial interest in the development, something the developer insisted upon from the start. Furthermore the developer wanted a cheap building that would yield a good return on his investment. The client on the other hand wanted a good deal more. The client saw the building as something that would signal a new and fresh beginning on campus. It should be attractive to prospective students, and it should be a place where students would like to socialize and spend time. The building should also become link between the east and west campus, seeing that new developments on the west campus now seemed like a realistic expectation.

The site consists of two portions of land adjacent to the two edges of the road cutting formed by D.F. Malherbe Avenue. The zoning of the portion of land on the east campus, differs from that of the west campus. D.F. Malherbe is a public road, and building across a public road is never an easy undertaking. This development also called for the closing of a road on the campus and in this process about 100 parking bays would disappear. The Drama Department, that occupied a temporary building erected some 30 years ago, had to be demolished. The closing of the street and the loss of the parking bays created a storm of protest. More complaints about this were received from parents than students. These complaints were ignored and Bannie Britz convinced the university that the heart of the campus should be pedestrianised. This development has now been substantially completed and has proven to be a huge success. The Student Centre is now accessible from the centre of the campus without crossing any streets. The campus has a number of fine old buildings, dating to the early 20th century. The majority of buildings, however, were built prior to 1960 (due to lack of subsequent funding), with the library being an exception and finished in the then fashionable resin plaster (a dirty beige colour).

The drafting of a contract between the university and the developer was fraught with difficulties and in the meantime the Architects were preparing many designs and models for presentations to various interest groups ranging from cleaning staff to the University Board.

The Student Centre was conceived of as a bridge building, and it was felt that this aspect should be emphasized. As a building type, it is akin to the pot maison. The student union offices only occupy a section of the first floor so that the sloping roof reduces the height of the bridge over areas where a double storey height is not necessary. The building has six elevations including the view from below as you pass underneath, as well as the roofscape visible to most of the buildings in the immediate vicinity. It was decided to articulate the roofscape so that the other buildings would be visible from inside the centre, and the surrounding buildings would view it from above. Finishes were kept simple. Floors are generally covered with black slate tiles. Walls are plastered and painted, and exposed concrete surfaces left in situ, with a number of structural wall elements constructed with unpainted fair-face brickwork. Some sandstone cladding was used to emphasize the large curved wall that gathers the students so that they can be transported across the bridge.

The Student Centre is now officially known as the Thakaneng Bridge. Thakaneng means, “a place where boys and girls come together to play”. The building has now been operational for a few years. A number of small food outlets are located on the bridge and there are also banking facilities, a coffee shop, bookshop, computer and printing facilities. A large cafeteria was planned, but this space has since become known as the multi-functional space and is used by various parties for various parties. A large computer centre containing 200 computers, fulfils a great demand on campus. This centre remains open day and night. Early indications are that the facilities are well received by the students. This centre appears to be very busy from Monday to Friday, but quiet over weekends and during certain vacations. The tenants have a rent-free December.

This is one of the first partnerships that the University has made with a developer. After 30 years, the centre will become the sole property of the University, or that which remains. These partnerships are not without their problems, and might not even be an ideal situation given the diverging expectations that the contracting parties have. Yet, architects have to accept that this is probably the way in which many institutional buildings will be constructed in future. The advantage of this approach should be recognized in the fact that being involved from the start of the process, the architect is afforded more time and information to understand the issues involved.