It’s in the Structure

The Financial Mail
December 2010

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“Architects are problem solvers, design specialists, urban thinkers and project managers by nature. It is unfortunate however, that the skills of the architect are often sidelined in South Africa, reduced to the paint effect selector, or plan draughter. South Africa faces important architectural challenges moving into 2011. The sustainability of our built environments, our constantly changing inner-cities and a need for better low-income housing demand deep and substantive engagement by architects, government and the public alike.

Inner City
investment approach initiated by the Johannesburg Development Agency, which sought to reverse the formal economic decline of the inner-city through improving specific nodes, such as Constitution Hill – the idea being that investment would consequently spread outwards, improving entire inner-city regions.

The development of better controlled, more sanitised environments have in places, had an adverse effect on the vibrant, flourishing informal economies which filled in the gaps left by the exodus of their suit-clad counterparts. Architect and academic, Hannah Le Roux recently highlighted these juxtapositions in an architectural analysis of the vibrant and diverse Ethiopian Quarter at an exhibition at Goethe on Main, the German Cultural institute’s project space at the inner-city compound of art galleries and eggs Florentine, Arts on Main.

The Ethiopian quarter and Arts on Main represent two distinct inner-city conditions, the former being a community’s knee-jerk response to having to live with little resources in a foreign city, and the latter being a foreign concept inserted into the city, in order to attract the investment of wealthy suburbanites in search of an urban experience. Both city conditions do not integrate into the city, and thus do not respect or relate to each other, and other precincts.

Inner-city investment has left us with isolated pockets of development. Looking forward to 2011, Le Roux is worried about the dangers of simplistic solutions that might overwhelm the provisional nature of the urban changes already happening at a small scale. Informal economies, as further described by Le Roux are vital to the city’s character and success, “We, as professionals, know so little about other economies. The immigrant traders pay rentals on the corner of Jeppe and Delvers of R3000 per square meter per month. Over the road, B-grade office space stands empty at R55. The main complaints are from people who can’t get a stall.”

Be it high-end artist enclaves, or multi-level building reuse, we can now look forward to the creation of a 24-hour city, alive and vibrant, and a possibly more integrated city, as the boundaries between developments zones and informal economies blur, creating a city used by all residents, all the time. Arts on Main has allowed many suburbanites to spend time late into the night in the inner-city, and hopefully 2011 will see this individual interest spread to other inner-city zones.

A significant government and architectural concern is the South African housing backlog of around 2.5 million houses. While people living in South Africa wait for houses, the quality of the housing product, and the urban environment, or lack thereof, created is often of concern to the architect.

Many significant inroads have been made into changing the problematic models of housing delivery, largely through political engagement with role-players and NGOs. Zunaid Khan, Deputy Director of Housing Policy & Research for the City of Johannesburg, feels that a move away from a strictly numbers based delivery target to one that is more comprehensive and focussed on the associated problems facing housing is imperative in reducing the backlog. He also identifies the need to move away from an absolute dependence of the community on the state, as communities are highly capable structures.

Dr Amira Osman, an architect at the CSIR, challenges architects to engage with the complexities of informality. Architects, through their professional organisations, need to initiate and lead the spatial re-structuring of cities to become more inclusive and equitable.

Architect Thorsten Deckler advocates a higher density courtyard based typology, which “needs to be developed not just for the low-income market but also for their middle and high income counterparts. The notion of a free standing house is in itself disingenuous.” He also argues that housing settlements need to be positioned closer to employment opportunities, and that existing funding models need to be rethought. A design flexibility that allows for the easy alteration of a house is also important. An extra room for example, could be rented out, or used as a business; here the house is an economic development tool. Turnover from better economic opportunities, combined with sweat-equity and financing facilities like microloans, can be combined with the housing subsidy to provide a better housing product.

Despite years of repetitive housing rollout on the peripheries of cities, the housing model is finally changing as the debate intensifies. The next few years, according to Khan, will be very positive for housing in South Africa – “there is sincere political will behind housing delivery and this will play a pivotal role in the years to come.”

South Africa has responded to the global sustainability challenge quicker than other developing nation partners. One important result is the development of the Green Building Council of South Africa. An organisation focussed on advocating green design by equiping architects to engage with sustainability issues, while producing the Green Star Rating, a green building classification index.

Although architects have a moral obligation to design energy efficient buildings, the impetus is however also on the client or developer, basically to demand nothing less. Eric Noir, architect and Director of WSP Green by Design, notes that sustainability in the built environment is becoming more financially achievable and cost effective. “Although the initial capital outlay is generally higher than for conventional developments, the long term cost saving, environmental and social benefits are much higher, financial markets are well equipped to respond proactively to sustainability issues through a variety of measures, incentives and initiatives.”

2010 has seen the completion of South Africa’s first independently Green Star rated building, the Nedbank Phase II Development in Sandton, for which Noir and WSP consulted on a range of services. Visiting the building, one would expect a plethora of sun shades, solar panels and wind turbines. The decidedly commercial design of the building doesn’t look any different, however, from Phase 1, which it mirrors. Here, architecture is as much about the hidden workings of a building as it is about its spaces - green design is integrated into every building decision and system, and does not need to affect the appearance of a building.

Noir expects an exciting year ahead for green building in South Africa, “The social and political determining factors are changing for the better, and 2011 is looking extremely positive from that point of view.”

As a nation gripped in the complexities of development, strategic decisions have to be made about the urban environments we create today and the kind of future they represent. While architects grapple with issues of social inclusion, economic entanglement, sustainable housing and environmentally-friendly buildings, the significant change has to come from the public and government the profession serves. 2011 will be an encouraging year for architecture in South Africa as attitudes change, debate intensifies, and investment continues.”