A Kind of Magic: Zip Zap Academy


Born from a simple dream, a trapeze bar in a tree, a costume box, and a rusty car, Zip Zap Academy has set the stage for creative self-discovery. Thirty years later, the circus school has gone from tent to triumph, providing free education programmes in a uniquely designed building that empowers children through the art of circus.

Site history and context

The site for the new Zip Zap Academy is located in the semi-industrial area of Salt River. It is surrounded on three sides by two-to-three-storey-high factory buildings and its sole street edge faces a row of single-storey residential houses. There was a dilapidated factory building on site, but after careful evaluation, it was deemed unsafe and too costly to reappropriate to fit the project brief. Consequently, the architect decided to demolish it to make room for a new building that would be tailor-made for Zip Zap Circus School. For years, the school operated in a temporary tented structure on leased land behind the Artscape Theatre Centre in Foreshore, Cape Town. However, the tent was not conducive to a teaching environment. Noise levels were high and classes were not adequately separated. Zip Zap had long dreamed of having a permanent home, with separate classrooms and its own Trapeze Hall, and with the help of their sponsors, the school was finally able to procure a site in industrial Salt River.

zip zap

Project brief

The client’s brief was to design a one-of-a-kind building that meets the practical needs of the circus school and stands as a landmark to inspire young kids. Since there are no clear precedents to draw reference on — most circus schools around the world operate from converted warehouses — the architect worked closely with the client to develop a new hybrid architectural typology that combines a circus, a theatre, and a school. The design combined three building types to meet the spatial requirements, and evolved around the following three main questions.

How do we capture the magic of a circus?

Drawing inspiration from the iconic, traditional big-top circus tents, the street façade is designed to generate maximum visual impact. The building’s dynamic angular form, clad with a big, brightly-coloured aluminium screen, generates a sense of excitement and inspires the children upon entry. The street edges create a user-friendly urban environment to be shared by circus students and the local community alike.

Zip Zap Circus Academy 04

How do we bring the drama of a theatre?

The building is arranged like a theatre to highlight the drama and excitement of circus training. The triple-volume Trapeze Hall takes centre stage. It is surrounded by the U-shaped school building in a layout that is reminiscent of a theatre auditorium, with viewing balconies and royal boxes. The multifunctional training spaces can be adapted to host a wide range of performances and events.

How do we create a unique learning experience for the school?

Zip Zap’s goal is to provide an alternative learning opportunity that will empower children through physical activities and self-discovery. To this end, the design layout includes many spatially-distinct training spaces and classrooms. To immerse the children in the full circus experience, all of the back-of-house operations are exposed and visible from the Trapeze Hall. This is achieved by a simple didactic signage system and clear windows to all the rooms

Zip Zap Circus Academy 13

Site orientation

Using passive design principles, the building is orientated to maximise natural daylight and cross ventilation to all the spaces. The triple-volume Trapeze Hall and the adjacent courtyard are orientated towards north to ensure constant natural light for training activities throughout the day. The courtyard, intended as a spill-out outdoor training space, is sheltered from Cape Town’s south-easterly wind. The classrooms and offices are south-facing to reduce the glare from direct sunlight. The steel screen on the east street façade serves as a sun louvre as well as a security barrier. All the rooms are naturally lit. Artificial lighting in public bathrooms is controlled by motion sensors to reduce power consumption. Other passive solutions include high whirlybird vents to reduce the heat load during summer. In the Trapeze Hall, the industrial roller shutters can be opened completely to ventilate the big space — especially in summer. Moreover, the thermal mass of the concrete and brick retains the heat during winter.

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