Debating the Role of Architecture in SA

Marianne de Klerk reflects on the debate surrounding architecture’s role in South Africa. The debate was written when South Africans were still reeling after the racist comments were made by real-estate agent Penny Sparrow - igniting heated exchanges on social media.

I started considering the nature of debate on social media platforms, where topics needing nuanced opinions and considered debate are often expressed in 140 characters and the extent of engagement is pressing a ‘like’ button. However, this platform (Twitter) also allows for wonderful wit expressed with great economy and brings multiple in-depth articles, opinions and visual materials to one’s virtual doorstep.

Against this background of fleeting impressions and vast bodies of information, how does one identify and engage with issues impacting the architectural profession in an ever-evolving society? What makes platforms supportive of meaningful engagement and is there enough interaction between architects and larger society?

As visual people, we live in a time of information overload. Images of buildings, landscapes and cities are instantly available, and architects increasingly self-publish and promote work on digital platforms. Reactions to this published work tend to be brief – either positive or scathingly negative – but seldom the result of careful consideration.

In-depth critical discussion and analysis increasingly falls within the sphere of academics and specialist commentators, with the casual observers providing footnotes. In the virtual sphere, consumers spend little time analysing the spatial and material properties of buildings or considering their relationship to context. I have also noticed that the architecture students, who grew up in this world, have great command of enormous visual resources but lack a synthesis of and insight into these materials – which takes time and consideration.

A learning evolution

As traditional frameworks for educating architects are being questioned, learning is evolving to help students formulate meaningful frameworks to contextualise and frame a body of disparate facts and images; to make meaningful decisions as designers; and to create cross-disciplinary relationships. I would argue that the same evolution in learning and doing is needed in practice.

Traditionally, architects serve wealthy and powerful patrons (and institutions) who largely dictate the manner of engagement in poor communities and the provision of housing. This will no doubt continue, but will we remain relevant in a society where resources are controlled by a few and some of the greatest needs of society fall outside of the sphere of practice?

Over the past couple of decades alternative approaches started emerging, building on Modernist-model workers’ housing from the 1920s and ’30s, experiments with alternative culture in the 1960s and the sweat-equity movements of the 1970s and ’80s.

A prominent example of a shift in design discourse was the 2007 Design for the Other 90% exhibit, staged by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and followed by the Cities exhibit in 2012. Ground-breaking work by Indian architects PK Das and Rahul Mehrota, and this year’s Pritzker Prize winner Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, have become known for innovative and flexible housing solutions for the poor, flexible infrastructure solutions in stressed urban environments and creative social engagement processes.

Architects as activists and entrepreneurs have a proud history in this county, but their practice constitutes a tiny proportion of all work done. We largely stand outside the endeavour to provide mass housing, planning initiatives to change the structure of our cities and the upgrade of informal settlements.

There is a wide recognition that current development patterns – especially with regards to RDP housing delivery – continue apartheid spatial policies, yet delivery systems are entrenched and dictated by land values and economic constraints. Alternatives offered by social housing models are exciting on a policy level, but rarely lead to well-designed buildings that have a positive impact on communities. Further, while there is much excitement around the transformative potential of large infrastructure projects (especially the vaunted ability of large transportation projects to weave together our fragmented cities), the creation of meaningful buildings that define inviting public spaces around such nodes remain the exception rather than the rule.

Fresh engagement

Yet innovative architects, urban designers and academics are engaging in this field – focusing on development models driven by community engagement, sustainable practices built on cross-disciplinary engagement and activism in the urban realm. These endeavours take them outside their practice into communities and universities, and onto social media to advocate a new way of engaging and doing.

In a conservative discipline our clients/patrons and the institutions they represent favour established practices, ways and methods of delivery. This is understandable, as large investments require caution – but stale solutions are produced time and again with the same limited impacts. Thus these repetitive patterns of development contribute to an ever-widening gap between established interests and the needs of those in underserved communities, who are starting to react by threatening the establishment.

In conclusion, I will briefly expand upon the three possible tools available to architects, which can allow them to expand the boundaries of architectural practice. I acknowledge, of course, that the list of practitioners and academics mentioned are by no means the only people doing meaningful work in their fields:

  • Social engagement with communities as an important driver of informal-settlement upgrades needs to become part of the toolkit of all architects. The research by academics, such as Dr Carin Combrinck of the University of Pretoria and Professor Marie Huchzermeyer of the University of the Witwatersrand, has contributed to critical discourse in the field and developed tested methods of active engagement in communities. Grass roots initiatives, rather than government-driven projects, are slowly laying the groundwork to empower residents of these settlements.
  • Cross-disciplinary engagement is admittedly a hot topic, but such projects are seldom realised. Architects working with other professionals in health, food security and waste management have opportunities to address problems beyond the resolution of a programme within budget. These cross-disciplinary projects also require a more entrepreneurial approach to design and development than those of the norm. An interesting example is a project by Local Studio’s

Thomas Chapman who, after years of research and engagement (including an Urban Design Master’s thesis at the University of the Witwatersrand), entered the realm of cultural curator and social facilitator via the design of a Sophia Remembrance Screen for an NGO building. He is currently in the process of financing the Screen via crowd funding.And…

  • Activism in the Urban Realm. Too often, urban design tends to be a dreary and formulaic discipline, with indifferent results and sporadic implementation. In response to frustrations among those who would like to debate and change aspects of their profession, the Urban Design Institute of South Africa (UDISA) will be hosting an urban design conference, in Pretoria in mid-June, as part of an envisioned debate series entitled Re-Imagine Urbanism: Inner +City +Transformation. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the organisation of the congress.) This event is not intended as the typical academic congress, but will provide a platform for vigorous debate and workshops that consider the problems and potential of African inner cities. Architects and professionals from related industries, government officials and interested members of the public are all welcome. Time will tell if such initiatives will have an impact.

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