More Natural Space

The Financial Mail
14 August 2014

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“Our map of the world is the wrong way up. There is no reason, other than convention, that all maps orient northwards. Should the south not position itself as the top of the world, or should our gaze forever wander northwards as we continue to emulate Europe and North America? Hilton Judin posed this provocative question at the opening of the International Union of Architects World Congress in Durban last week.

As a key member of UIA2014’s scientific panel, Judin was central in conceptualising the event’s challenging theme,"Architecture Otherwhere". The word "otherwhere" captures the profound change advocated by the event, where old words, old orders and old practice were seen to have little relevance to a rapidly changing and bitterly unequal world.

A large fringe programme, a film festival, exhibitions, tours and parties supplemented the four-day event. With more than 4200 delegates from102 countries, the Durban International Convention Centre hummed with architects and allied professionals. A vast array of architectural professionals was represented, from practising architects to academics, researchers and writers. Students from all over SA made up a large proportion of the audience, with their stylishly unkempt hair, slightly dishevelled fashions and laissez faire attitudes upping the event’s cool factor substantially.

From behind the mask of apathy, however, the students’ highly motivated and deeply concerned voice echoed throughout the congress.As custodians of the profession, they presented a charter at the end of the event outlining important changes that need to be made to architectural education globally in order to ensure that young professionals are equipped to make the change that "Architecture Otherwhere" demands. Changes proposed include broadening architectural curricula and placing more focus on the design and architectural process over the finished product.

The timing of the congress was important, because, as stated by SA Institute of Architects president Sindile Ngonyama, "architecture is a physical expression of the ideals and aspirations of society". Unfortunately, as the experience of the SA architecture profession today demonstrates, architecture has instead become a tool for property developers and governments to build infrastructure, housing, residential estates, office blocks and shopping centres. These often do not build society, but enforce spatial inequality, which, as highlighted by the National Development Plan, remains one of post-apartheid SA’s greatest challenges. As a result, our cities have become battlegrounds where the poor arrive desperate for opportunity and the wealthy retreat into their secured enclaves. Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban have systematically eroded their public realms some more than others.

Public space is important because it democratises society and allows people of different incomes and backgrounds to meet, mix and experience each other. It is the very reason South Africans travel to Europe in order to "be public" in truly civic spaces. As a result, it is not too seditious to describe our urban realm and the architectural profession as being in crisis. It is for this reason that the UIA, the world’s only international body for architecture, and the SA organising team chose the "otherwhere" theme. As succinctly described by UCT professor Iain Low, it "represents those places yet to be made" and speaks to the "speculative nature of the creative mind".

Architecture Otherwhere calls for a drastic change to the status quo, demanding architects rethink their practice and imploring society to act differently. The 2013 winner of the Pritzker Prize, Toyo Ito, presented the modern city as a massive concrete grid. He stated that there is no grid in nature and declared that his practice had been focused on releasing his work from the grid in order to create buildings in greater harmony with natural systems and society. Ito offered an insight into the kind of change that was required, while other speakers showed built examples of how they were practising architecture differently.

A sense of urgency at the conference was palpable. The world is in a fragile social and environmental state, where the effects of climate change are already being felt. Harvard professor and Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra described cities across the world as being "bullied by impatient capital".This capital erodes architectural practice by sacrificing ideas and quality to time and numbers, with the city, society and the environment suffering as a result. Instead, Mehrotra calls for a local approach or the localisation of the global — where slower processes that value local idiosyncrasies, respect natural ecosystems and serve society are valued over voracious development.

This was brought to light when Chinese architect and 2012 Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu declared that his was "a way of architecture that assembles abundant differences".China has more than 120 cities about the size of Johannesburg. Chinese cities have seen such rapid change that Beijing, for example, no longer resembles the form and values of Beijing a few decades ago.As a result Wang lamented the destruction of the city’s "real life".As his numerous buildings and urban upgrades show, growth does not have to be realised through China’s destructive and soulless urbanisation project, but can be achieved through celebrating Chinese tradition and drawing references from local streets, buildings, materials and people.

Francis Kéré, an award-winning architect born in Burkina Faso who received his architectural education in Berlin, brought the house down with his innovative approach to building rural schools, a clinic and opera house in his native country. Kéré embodied the core values of the congress and presented the audience with examples of how he had empowered communities through designing buildings that required local materials and could be constructed by community members with few or no building skills.

His undeniably scalable approach pushes the boundaries of design, provides opportunity to communities in the form of the construction process and the function of the final building, and also remains very close to nature by building with and from the local environment. The congress was supplemented by two large exhibitions that collated top SA exhibitions together with trade stands, national stands, student work and competitions.

The event closed with the UIA bestowing its greatest honour, its gold medal, to Chinese American architect IM Pei, who at 97 is one of the 20th century’s greatest architects. George Miller, an award-winning partner of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, accepted the award on Pei’s behalf with a presentation of the architect’s greatest works the best-known being the Louvre’s glass pyramids in Paris.A statement from the UIA2014’s patron, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, followed. Read by Hassan Asmal, president of the local organising committee, it called for Israel to be barred from membership of the UIA in light of the recent bombardment of Gaza. As Judin made clear in his opening remarks, architecture is indeed political.

UIA2014 highlighted the important role that architecture plays in society. It is far more than the practice of construction; buildings form our human habitat and architecture offers the tools to shape our world in the most ethical, responsible and democratic way possible. With the baton passed to the next host city, Seoul, it is hoped that their 2017 theme,"Soul of City," will be able to retain the innovative, activist and urgent spirit of "otherwhere". A remarkable success for both Durban and the organisers, UIA2014 was a milestone for the SA architecture profession and challenged the world with a new global architecture agenda.”