Building Relationships

The Financial Mail
21 October 2010

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“Architecture in South Africa is not often celebrated. As a society we appear to prefer our buildings much like our cars - quick, bling, imported and energy inefficient. With rapidly urbanising centres, increasing peripheral sprawl, and a growing low-cost housing backlog, the skilled urban visionary is often excluded, misunderstood and squeezed into narrow fee margins, leaving little room for serious creative thought. The truth of the matter is that a relationship between the architect and the general public doesn’t exist. Neither speaks the same language nor understands why the other “doesn’t just do what I tell him”. The result of this disjuncture is a complete lack of engagement in any greater architectural conversation by the public, and a mediocre building from the architect – uninspired and content.

The struggling South African architectural context is of no real surprise - architecture has seldom functioned as a key component of South Africa’s cultural identity and debate. The very idea of engaging an architect on a project of any scale is often questioned. After all, the expensive professional merely produces a set of drawings, while whinging about the client’s lack of conceptual comprehension. The dreary building goes up and our urban centres become further scarred, fragmented and unfriendly - the disengaged public becoming further disillusioned and disconnected.

The architect is also at fault here. Self criticism is the first step in the production of a great building – every architect should question their decisions, assessing the design’s urban relevance, pedestrian friendliness, materiality, social, environmental and ecological impact among other important factors. The architect cannot be content with mere mediocrity, for the city becomes their canvas. The backdrops to our lives should be determined only by the most astute, engaged brains. The design, problem solving abilities, system and management skills, inherent in a well rounded architect, are intrinsic to a successful metropolis, bustling with activity, investment and leisure.

A number of architects and academics, fed up with the fragile state of the profession, and the significant public disconnect, have spoken and published widely on their concerns. One such individual is the architect Sarah Calburn, who often vociferously objects to the laissez faire attitudes of the apathetic practitioner and in 2009 set up masterclasses by top architects to enhance the skills and refresh the tired minds of willing professionals.

Calburn, an electric, indomitable and talented architect was one of the initial voices calling for a greater debate on South African architecture - essentially a forum to reinvigorate the conversation, re-inspire architects and to further engage the South African context with international precedent and thinking, while maintaining a persistent eye to the local. Together with other leading architectural figures and the South African Institute for Architects, Calburn was involved in the initial conceptualisation of a large scale architectural festival, a celebration of architecture, design and theory and its forms, all engaged and rooted in the city - much like the Rotterdam, São Paulo and Venice Biennales. The event was branded Architecture.ZA 2010 (AZA).

Newtown was chosen as the greater setting for the week-long event. An architectural festival in Johannesburg’s cultural capital would finally fuse architecture into the domain of public thinking often dominated by music, art, dance and literature.

The venue – in true urban architectural style, was the colossal, unused Potato Shed directly behind Museum Africa. The decaying steel structure, uneven concrete floor and patchwork roof, described by festival organiser Eben Koen as “our beautiful monster”, felt appropriately inner-city and appropriately Johannesburg – immense, rough, yet proudly defiant.

Within hours of the first event opening – a debate on Housing in South Africa headed by Kieno Kammies, large drapes were being hung to mask off the – perhaps too urban – aspects of the sheds, while a strong, seasonal wind howled through the exhibition stands recoating all in a ubiquitous dust. The Boekehuis bookstand, inspired by the city skyline and designed by architect Alex Opper, was alive with staff wiping down glossy hardcovers, while other exhibitors escaped the elements in preparation for the anticipated barrage of architects and students at the formal opening the following morning.

The conference component of the Festival got off to a suitably encouraging start with revered, yet locally unknown Tenerife based architect Fernando Menis. With an island attitude, dark hair and Spanish lisp he excited the audience with his curvaceous concrete forms – and an ingenious floating swimming pool designed with Berlin artist Susanne Lorenz for the Spree river.

The real draw card of the first talks was however Lindsay Bremner. A professor of architecture, and previously the chair of architecture at Temple University’s School of Architecture, and the Wits School of Architecture and Planning before that, Bremner is revered by fellow architects and academics. An accomplished author, Bremner maintains a keen eye on Johannesburg, capturing its idiosyncrasies, moods and changing identities in her numerous books and papers, the most notable including Johannesburg: One City Colliding Worlds (STE Publishers 2004), and most recently, Writing the City Into Being, Essays on Johannesburg 1998-2008 (Fourthwall Books 2010).

Bremner’s latest research and the topic of her talk was the Indian Ocean. An architect researching an ocean, you might ask? Bremner was quick to explain how the study and understanding of information flows, networks, geopolitics, spatial contestation, and economic migration, particularly between cities on the Indian Ocean was intrinsically architectural. Bremner took the audience on an extremely insightful journey, investigating the cities, economies and scales of trade of this massive global region. She, in a decidedly Murder She Wrote investigative determination decoded the Bangladeshi ship scrapping beaches, and investigated the geopolitical stresses placed on an island, between India and Bangladesh, which has peculiarly since disappeared. The research was sharp and relevant.

The conference continued with key note addresses from the renowned Iranian born, French architect Nasrine Seraji, who introduced us to a reactionary attitude in architecture. Then South African born, Wits undergraduate and Rotterdam based architect Duzan Doepel presented his work centred on sustainable structures and entire networks that integrate buildings into an ecology of systems. New York based architectural academic superstar, Michael Sorkin wowed the audience with future visions for integrated, sustainable and planted cities. And the conference concluded with a slick presentation from the Spanish architecture power duo, Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa from Ensamble Studio.

A series of masterclasses, headed by a number of key speakers followed the main conference. Architects and students were able to question their understanding of Johannesburg through a varied number of lenses. Duzan Doepel and Lindsay Bremner hosted a masterclass which interrogated the vast southern mining belt of Johannesburg along Main Reef Road. The area was divided into portions and each student was asked to design an ecologically sound, future city in their strip responding to the current needs and complexities of the city. Thought provoking designs included a city of salt, a city based on high pressure water stored in disused mineshafts, a city-scale greenhouse for food production and a historical city, where old mineshafts form the backbone to large, complex communities. The M2 freeway, crossing through all the proposed cities became a major transport spine and a long, raised linear park. The final work was exhibited at Main Street Life in downtown Johannesburg, the new residential/mixed use partner of the successful Arts on Main development and urban regeneration scheme.

The festival also celebrated architecture in many other forms too. A beguiling event, aptly named “Peepdance” had architects swirling around a set of large screens punctured by small portholes eager to catch a glimpse of the action inside, right in the middle of Mary Fitzgerald Square. Each screen masked a performer, dancing a choreographed piece. The peculiar format of the show allowed the audience to get up close to the performer, while peering at their movements through a peephole, Talia Freed, of the Israel based Tami Dance Company and choreographer of the piece described it as a comment on a society of social “peepers” - think who, while spying on each other are under the surveillance of the omnipresent security camera.

AZA was a celebration of a South African, and particularly Johannesburg, urban culture. An eclectic, vibrant, gritty, energised culture of raw attitude, sophisticated ingenuity and hard-edged creativity. This was brought home at the closing party, aptly named Jozi Night, where an array of urban performers (Sappeurs, Oswenkas, Smarteez) strutted their fashions beside possibly our most impressive urban space, the vast graffiti’ed cathedral of pillars under the M1 highway. A World Class African City? How banal to brand a city as diverse and energised as Johannesburg as a single whole.

This festival of architecture firmly placed architectural theory and debate squarely in the context of South African culture. Hopefully an important catalyst, architects and the involved public have a strong, inspired point of reference in designing our futures. AZA is a milestone - the architectural fraternity came together and organised an event on a significant scale, and common purpose. Long may it continue, motivate and generate a serious, engaged and representative architectural and cultural dialogue.”