South Africa : SA Architecture – Homegrown or Imported?

The 2009 OpenThinkBox™ Design Debate

Research, Resources, Discourse :

the ingredients for identifying South African Architecture

Lively debate, heightened by some Panelists ‘crossing the floor’, was experienced by an audience that included 61 architectural practices and design firms during the first OpenThinkBox™ Design Debate on Wednesday 18 February at The Venue, Melrose Arch.

The panelists - architects Karen Eicker, Zola Kgaka, Eric Noir, Henning Rasmuss, and Aziz Tayob, Matthew Krouse arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, and architectural students Andries Haasbroek and Karabo Pitsoe – debated on the one hand whether South African Architecture should be generated from ‘homegrown’ principles and on the other, whether it should be driven by imported ideas. Diverse opinons were evident and well facilitated by Donna Kipps Glanvill. Errol Ashwell, Managing Director of Autodesk® Africa, said that the initiative is intended to be an ongoing forum where architects in South Africa, and related sector representatives, can engage in conversations on topical issues relating to architecture.

The Debate kicked off with Kgaka’s question “from what base are we building our architectural heritage and discourse?” Buildings are here long after we are gone and according to Kgaka we need to identify who we are and how South Africa’s multicultural uniqueness can contribute to our architecture by moving beyond consumerism into exports. Another important factor she raised is that architecture schools tend to derive teaching from euro-centric ideas with the exclusion of the indigenous culture of the southern hemisphere.

Rasmuss countered that we can learn from the world by examining sustainable ideas that keep on working. He referred to the importing of ideas in Johannesburg’s buildings as an example. This was countered by Krouse who said “our future is written in the past…while Johannesburg buildings may be sustainable they look like they’ve been ‘made’ by aging hippies. We need to give people in our cities an identity – the past is expendable, we must move on.”

Mass scale urbanisation, with its spatial constraints and infrastructural demands, and changing social and political systems were cited by Eicker as reasons for the loss of regional cultural identity worldwide. She believes that we cannot escape global issues such as finance, climate change, food, water and energy security; and that culture manifests itself in people. This led to the issue of control and the questions posed by Pitsoe, “who is in control of our architecture and how? How do you envision changing architectural principles already imposed in our cityscapes?” His impression of some of the comments on the Design Mind website - - is that people disembarked from boats in the pre-colonial era and imposed their culture on architecture in South Africa. He went on to say that people with money have no interest in vernacular architecture.

This sparked passionate comments from architect Sarah Calburn in the audience. Calburn said that it’s all about the public versus private dilemma and that there is no discourse on South Africa’s landscape – the landscape on the whole being blighted by developers. This view was similar to Krouse’s reference to an industry problem – that of the State and the rich being the main clients. Urban and rural poor have little or no choice because they cannot afford design. Shack dwellers are usually only too happy to relocate to an RDP house. It appears that decision-makers are often influenced by the extent to which an architectural design is perceived to be ‘Tuscan’. Eicker questioned whether the approach to RDP housing is a fundamental apartheid error that’s being carried through by the decision-makers.

An analogy of doves that automatically seeks the north side when looking for shelter was used by Tayob to describe the need to be influenced by our environment. His views are that we need a sense of place, we must strive for timeless in preference to architecture preoccupied with style, and that it is more important that our architects be ‘homegrown’. We must utilise South Africa’s uniqueness – our ‘roofless’ environment.

“In some cities like Rome, the architecture makes you feel the city’s identity” said Pitsoe. Haasbroek’s reference to the risk of settlements in SA becoming anonymous societies as a result of a breakdown in the sense of community, raised another question from Pitsoe, “how can one design a settlement if you’ve never lived or worked in an informal one?”

According to Noir the problem is greater than culture and we are capable of creating African cities that respond to its needs. What we must do is address what he refers to as the four ‘time bombs’ - energy, food security, population density, and water. Calburn suggested that we need to re-imagine ourselves as has Australia, a country that has managed to distance its approach to architecture, and a member of the audience suggested the ‘open architecture’ premise that allows for changes in the design of city buildings and the determination of internal aspects by the occupants.

The mention of palisade fencing or razor-wire drew comments such as it not being the architect’s decision, nor part of the design which should be deeply conceptual – it’s viewed as the service industry’s response to the developer’s requirements and part of the bigger problem, security. In turn this raised the comment that the reason for this need seems to be mainly in urban centres – the inference being that it contributes to the high crime as the fencing implies that there are things of value on the other side! On the issue of clients dictating their briefs, architects may sometimes need to respond with an opposing view or try to broaden their minds with advice that may even result in a better bottom line, albeit it at the risk of losing a project.

Other views from the panelists and the audience included the responsibility and accountability of architects, the need to not get stuck in culture but to respond to people’s needs, and the need to educate clients on the issue of sustainability. While some say that this debate is ten years old and others says it’s been around for at least twenty years, the OpenThinkBox™ Design Debate initiative should be seen as a springboard for a meaningful national debate that generates solutions.

The Debate challenged South African architects to find a richness that includes the ingredients of research, resources, and discourse. Other important considerations are spatial orientation and buildings that have the potential to be relevant to the regional traditions of using space. We must talk more about style in the context of the way we do things.

For more than 25 years, Autodesk® has supported design – particularly the design discipline of architecture. Autodesk® South Africa, with the guidance of sharpCITY, demonstrated its commitment to the profession by giving birth to the OpenThinkBox™ series of architectural design competitions three years ago. The objectives of engaging architectural professionals and students include using the vehicle of design competitions to fuel a culture of excellence, raising the profile of South African architects, and promoting the vibrancy of local design. The first OpenThinkBox™ initiative kicked off in 2006 by posing a small but fun annual design competition challenge with the social ambition brief changing from year to year.

The Debate was followed by the handing of awards to the winners of the OpenThinkBox™ 2008 competition, ‘Child Zone’, and a brief on the 2009 competition ‘First Fix’. The 2008 competition introduced a ‘best green design’ category and Autodesk®, as part of its ten-year commitment to OpenThinkBox™, is in the process of building of an SOS Children’s Village in Rustenburg from the design of the overall OpenThinkBox™ competition winner. | Contact author | Autodesk® OpenThinkBox™ Design Debate initiative