Recently, the President of South Africa announced an unprecedented massive infrastructure spend as the country tries to shake off the debilitating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. If we have learnt anything from our recent past, it is that we have the skills expertise and capacity to use this programme to make a massive difference. By Patrick McInerney and Christoph Malan, Directors of Co-Arc International Architects.

In the Eurocentric world of modern architecture, African and South African architecture stands very much on the periphery, seldom published and never taken seriously. But, as is true of many creative fields, the architecture of the periphery is often where the most significant experimentation and breakthroughs occur.

 The iconic tower of the Northern Cape Legislature. 

Credit: Luis Ferreira da Silva; Photo: Christoph Malan.

This holds true for South African architecture, where a review of the Institute’s annual Digest of South African Architecture highlights the construction of a plethora of exemplary buildings created since 1994, many of which are not particularly Eurocentric but rather are place bound and unique to a particular environment. Sadly, while South African architects still largely look to Europe and the Americas for inspiration, the works of Mphethi Morojele and Peter Rich are celebrated more widely in Europe than in their home country.

Without really noticing it, the past three decades of South African architecture have begun to define what a contemporary African and South African architecture might look like. It is an exemplary body of work undertaken in the midst of democratic social and economic upheavals.

Indeed, this is the secret behind South Africa’s consistently high-quality design output since the mid-1980s. The constant pressure of being fully aware of the context in which you are operating forces architects in South Africa to go much deeper and consider the history and the social demographics relating to every project.

A remarkable democratic legacy

A post-apartheid South Africa required visual examples of integration and inclusion, demanding of architects to visualise a shared future. This certainly heralded discomfort and inspired philosophical debate within the architectural fraternity at a time when South Africans were debating our future and framing our Constitution.

In the new South Africa, architects were stretched through government competitions and projects to elicit the best possible design response for a young democracy. These examples stand tall and proud today, including the iconic Mpumalanga and Northern Cape legislatures, designed to reflect the culture and building techniques of the region, and any number of museums displaying the highest standard in terms of architecture and content, such as the Apartheid Museum, Lilliesleaf, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Freedom Park.

The Constitutional Court in Braamfontein was at the centre of this thrust. The fortuitous synergy of Judge Albie Sachs working closely with the architects, OMM Design Workshop and Urban Solutions, resulted in a masterpiece far removed from anything that would have been created in the colonial period. Rather than a bombastic presence the Constitutional Court stands today as a toned-down, accessible building rich in art and in meaning, which reflects and acknowledges the painful history of its locality.

These buildings helped to create an identity for the country in those early years. Sadly, as the time of architecture competitions drew to an end, that initial impetus was abandoned in favour of the current fee tender focus. Spurred on by a desperate attempt to ensure accountability and a competitive fee, this has lead to a dumbing down, to a certain extent, of a number of the national projects. The selection criteria have moved from the possibility of excellence and identity building to a quantitive, lowest-cost, tick-box tender process.

While equitable access to opportunities is vitally important, the result is a cut-and-paste approach that is particularly evident today in public commissions such as housing projects, schools and clinics around the country.

A design revolution

While this cookie-cutter approach is still very much in play, some departments and their architects – particularly in the Western Cape – are challenging this approach. In the process, they are producing extraordinary work which is culturally aligned and designed to create inclusive communities.

The Cheré Botha School, designed by Ilze and Heinrich Wolff, CS Studio’s New Wesbank Primary School and Revel Fox & Partners’ Bongolethu Primary School in Philippi, as well as East Coast Architects’ many primary and secondary schools and the North West’s Lebone II College, designed by Afritects, stand in stark contrast to the generic system of rolling out copycat schools built to a template.

By recognising that public facilities anchor communities and demand quality and sensitivity in their construction, these examples demonstrate that joy, human spirit and local context can be harnessed to develop schools. These projects are sensitive to the socialisation of children and create a sense that a school is much more than just a classroom, an enduring legacy.

Similarly, architects such as Luke Scott, Alwyn Barnes and Ivan Jonker, and Bradley Burger are producing beautiful insertions from football pitches to smart parks which fit into local communities, creating spaces that overlook areas that might previously have been no-go areas and, in the process, drawing communities back together. While, on the housing front, Lucien la Grange has proved masterful in his attempts to understand the original District Six and has undertaken two projects to try re-establish the essence of the area without obliterating the past.

That’s not to say that South African architects have not produced some terrible architecture; after all we have only replaced the Tuscan blight with a modernist frenzy. Certainly, much of our social housing is an embarrassment and an indictment of the process by which housing is delivered; one in which architects have very little role to play.

But despite those stains there are many ground-breaking examples of the potential for architects to make significant difference in the housing field. For example, MMA’s 10X10 housing in Cape Town stands aloft as a modern urban design which merges social space with intimacy and privacy. Similarly, Urban Think Tank’s Empower Shack, demonstrates how housing could be produced; crafting a space which nurtures the human experience. Y+K Architects’ Nerina Ladies’ Residence in Pretoria is an exemplary model for budget housing. In Johannesburg Savage + Dodd have enriched the lives of inner city poor with social housing policies and revitalisation projects that empower people and enrich communities. These creations fly in the face of the social-housing-by-numbers approach and fully embrace the importance of quality, public space and the human experience.

All these projects underline the critical role architects can still play in shaping our society; be it through engaging with urban designers to help conceptualise new settlements or through building on South Africa’s rich heritage for innovative, striking and functional architecture.

If you look around the world and devour architecture magazines, as we do, it’s hard to find a body of work from one place that has such an enormous variety and depth; from architects dealing with upgrades to squatter settlements, crafting high-end homes, and everything in between.

South Africa’s dichotomy and tension is lacking in many other countries, and while one can argue the demerits of being in this position, it does fuel a range of talent and experience that crosses social and economic boundaries. Here at the periphery we deal with real issues and this stretches design to its maximum.

Let us hope that this incredible resource leads the promised infrastructure spend and the opportunity to create a massive legacy is not lost in the rush to build. 

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