Archbishop Desmond Tutu received a special surprise on his 86th birthday: a monumental arch honoring his diligent efforts in successfully ending South African apartheid and implementing a democratic constitution.

Joint Designers

Snøhetta, a world-renowned architectural design practice, and Local Studio, an architecture and urban design firm that specializes in creating strong public focal points, worked together to create the memorial structure.

Behind the Design

When Archbishop Tutu was indefatigably fighting for democracy in the late 70s and early 80s, his ardent followers lovingly nicknamed him “The Arch.” In light of that moniker, the memorial has been named “Arch for Arch.”

The structure is made from 14 arched pillars (which themselves are comprised of entwined lengths of bent larch wood), symbolizing the 14 chapters of the South African Constitution, an historical document that was instrumental in the struggle that eventually brought apartheid to an end. A keystone supports these pillars to maintain their integrity and solidity, just as the Constitution serves as the bedrock for South Africa’s free will and sovereignty.

The arch is nearly 30 feet tall, with its spherical form bringing to mind images of a globe. The larch wood is tough, waterproof, and durable, and it’s also expected to develop an appealing finish over time. Minimalist concrete benches surround the base of the arch. The designers explain, “We felt it was important to move away from the conventions that are associated with the design of traditional monuments by using warmer, tactile materials like wood, which invite people to engage directly with the piece.”

The Unveiling

The prototype design of the arch was initially unveiled during the 2017 Design Indaba conference, an annual event held in Cape Town, South Africa by founder Ravi Naidoo. At the three-day event, Tutu took the stage to rejoice and dance as a 48-member choir encircled a model of the arch and sang a celebratory chorus to honor the archbishop and his accomplishments.

“The moment was unforgettable, and there was not a dry eye in the audience,” the designers shared in a recent interview. “The archbishop danced to the accompanying choral ensemble, and the audience all connected in moment of unity, fulfillment, encouragement, and energy.”

The completed project was presented to Tutu on his birthday a few months later, on October 7, 2017. The monument is conveniently located between St George’s Cathedral and the national parliament, a spot where Tutu himself spot often spoke during anti-apartheid protests. “Arch for Arch” continued to be a crowd favorite at the 2018 installment of the Design Indaba conference.

The prototype model of the memorial has found a permanent home on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The intention was to build a link between that institution, South Africa’s highest judicial court, and the national parliament.

Designers from Snøhetta and Local Studio clarify: “The Arch for Arch is more than a monument for Archbishop Tutu. It builds on the legacy of South Africa’s foremost campaigner for democracy to create a platform for public participation in upholding the constitution. The arch will stand as a permanent tribute to what was sacrificed in the pursuit of democracy, and the vital necessity of protecting these rights for generations to come.”