Commemorating the Aula

Posted on August 27, 2012

The student council repeatedly requested for a student meeting hall, while the students themselves collected money year after year for this purpose.  One of the most active student bodies in this regard was the “Teater Groep” (Theatre Group), who crisscrossed the country in their tour bus, entertaining the South African population with music and drama productions.  
In 1951 a number of students mounted a protest action against the slow pace of progress by camping out on the lawn in front of the Old Arts Building.  The rector, Prof Rautenbach, sympathized with their plight and pointed out the great need for a student centre for a student body of considerable size, of which only a fifth lived in the residences.  He pleaded for its erection “without delay”. By this stage the idea had grown that it should not only be for the use of students, but something bigger and grander.
The same year an architect was nominated for a large auditorium and a student   recreational hall.  The Building Committee of the Council was particularly pleased with the sketch plan architect Philip R. Nel presented them with in October 1952.  The Council gave instructions two weeks later that further planning should be done based on the Nel design, with the understanding that the outside of the hall be designed in such a way that it would fit with the rest of the complex of buildings and the other buildings in the area.
When the final aspects came up for discussion on 9 December 1952, there was definite hesitation:  the estimated costs of £180,000 exceeded available means.  Consequently the plans for building the hall were temporarily halted.
In the meantime fundraising continued.  In 1952 a large University fete was held – the first of its kind since 1937 – which provided £6,601.  In 1953 the public relations officer launched his scheme of asking for a hundred pounds from alumni and other in exchange for attaching their names to a seat in the front section.  By April 1953 there were already 34.  The press began to write about the theatre for 1,100 people, which would attract the world’s best artists and orchestras.
But there were many delays and only on 10 September 1956 was a tender accepted and the final estimation of costs was set at £210,000 (eventually £230,000 on completion).  It would take another 20 months to complete the building, the biggest built by the university at that time and the most beautiful of its kind in the country.  Offices for the SRC, a student hall with a sprung floor under the enormous auditorium, seats for 2,5000 people, a student restaurant – it would all be there in the building to which students had already contributed £9,000.
The Aula, the Rautenbach Hall and Student Centre completed in 1958.  The opening of the auditorium and student centre was undoubtedly a highlight in the University’s large expansion phase.  On 2 November 1958 His Excellency the Governor General, Dr EG Jansen (a longtime member of the University Council), opened the building and thereafter a concert with Mimi Coertze began a splendid gala program of two months of rich diversity of drama, symphony, art exhibitions, singing, piano and choirs.

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