Day Two of Architecture ZA 2012

Day Two was fact-intensive, but culminated in a truly memorable engagement with a new voice in Architecture for the Global South, Rahul Mehrotra. With large grounds of work covered today, many students and practitioners alike will undoubtedly be left with much to ponder as they rest after a hard day of learning.

Kibwe Tavares’s “Robots of Brixton”, 09h00

A score of students nursing hangovers were offered an easy entry into today’s events with the predominantly film-based presentation by Kibwe Javares. A recent graduate of the Bartlett School for Architecture, Kibwe and a fellow graduate used the animation skills they had learnt to form the Factory15 animation studio.

Kibwe was encouraged to follow his passion after winning a RIBA award for his Masters thesis, entitled “Robots of Brixton”. Using conventional architectural mapping techniques, Kibwe documented the shoots for his intended film, thereby achieving a close-grained control on the filmic quality of the Brixton sites.

In order to play with the idea of history repeating itself, Kibwe mines the past for artefacts documenting the Brixton race riots of the 1980s (a turning point in race relations in Thatcher’s Britain). Scenes from news clippings and photographs were mapped onto today’s Brixton in order to ensure a forensic level of authenticity. The London he represents to us as a result of his method is one in which the coming centuries’ buildings are one more layer over the Brixton of today. The result is a London as varied in age, and as convincing, as the real city of 2012.

Tavares is mapping the past onto the present to depict the future. The film fuses grainy documentary footage with sleek, video game-inspired visuals (which in turn recreate documented events of the past) in a way that poses meaningful questions about whether the past has, in fact, “passed”. This reading is underlined by the Marx quotation that closes the film: “History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce”.

“Accessing the City” Debate, 11h00

The panel of four experts, all well known to each other, began the morning’s debate by confessing how closely aligned their views on the issue of mobility and the city in fact were. They admitted that debate, except at the level of detail, was unlikely between them, and this emerged to FCT as a great missed opportunity. The panel palpably lacked ‘outsiders’: dissenting voices, such as “the engineers” and “city representatives”, who are considered to hinder the smooth flow of an ideal from sketch to ribbon-cutting.

Khalied Jacobs, architect, opened the discussion by underlining for the audience the power of mobility to transform a city. This was powerfully illustrated by the previous administration, who so efficiently divided our cities by deploying Modernist principles in a bastardised form, such that white movement was privileged, and black movement contained, on every level.

Henri Comrie, the man behind the Greenpoint Circle and WC2010 precinct, pointed out how these same Modernist principles have disconnected all Capetonians from the ocean. The Foreshore, it was said, was a shame and a mistake, but other cities, as Comrie pointed out, have overcome and even repaired similar challenges – Boston, for one, reconnected itself to the sea after decades.

Comrie developed his theme through a series of diagrams showing how completely the current Cape Town Station urban strategy funnels commuters into the hands of vested private interests (in the Golden Acre), rather than stimulating the city at grade. Part of Comrie’s answer to this has been to open up the Station concourse and restore real choice to commuters.

Alistair Rendall, the third panellist, deepened the theme of the Jacobs and Comrie by evoking a future for MyCiti and IRT in general that lay somewhere between the formal, clean, sterile first-world subway system and the minibus taxi system. He called for a uniquely African commuter experience, that included music, signage, art, education, infotainment and a new approach to signalling, such as the Variable Messaging System. Bogotá’s city transport system, in which both modes coexist and thrive, was hailed as an immediately applicable example from a middle-income country.

Lastly, Andrew Wheeldon, a sports science professor and bike evangelist, showed the benefits of cycling in curing a disconnected city. Through various programmes, abandoned bikes from Europe are being donated to South Africans, whom they furnish with a triple weapon against social, environmental and economic poverty.

Due perhaps to the lack of antagonism and dissent, the panel moved fast and covered a lot of ground, but, short of real counterpoints, little new ground was broken.

Heinrich Wolff, 14h00

Heinrich Wolff ran the audience through a series of projects showing how the fabrication of terrain can provide value to ordinary sites. Uninspiring erven were reinvented as memorable and unique places through nothing more than the manipulation of scale and slope. Wolff finesses the section in order to remove the middle ground and ‘launch’ the eye from foreground straight into the distance. Over multiple projects, this robust device diminishes the negative characteristics of site and lends them unexpected beauty.

Rahul Mehrotra, 16h00

Rahul Mehrotra – author, Harvard Design School head, and Indian and global authority on architecture, delivered an electrifying close to today’s proceedings that ended in standing ovation. Mehrotra’s voice was the more powerful for coming from a country alongside us, not above us. His emphasis on the Global South (which he prefers to call the Majority World) and its right place in the architectural future was a call to action. It was also a reminder that “Sustainability”, as currently constructed, is a first-world answer to first-world-created problems that privileges high technology and big R&D budgets. India, to Mehrotra, has never stopped being ‘sustainable’. His great breakthrough, as shown across a variety of stunningly successful projects, has been to convince “impatient capital” to adopt millennial Indian technologies such as the jail (stone screen), the courtyard, the trellis and the veranda.

The condition of the weekend house ( not dissimilar to parts of South Africa) which sees the rich build homes for only temporary occupation afforded Mehrotra the opportunity to start to blur the boundaries between public and private. One example saw the house lounge as a veranda usable during the week by the public, even going so far as to host a wedding. This blurring of threshold was again displayed in a house where access to water in a private plantation owner’s house courtyard is given to plantation employees during the week.

Mehrotra, from the height of his position inside the halls of power at Harvard, spoke with disarming simplicity and humanity that also leapt to the eye from each of his projects. Any holdouts in the audience were utterly his after the images of the Hathi Gaon elephant village, which earned a spontaneous burst of applause. David Adjaye will be hard-pressed to top this interaction tomorrow.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at

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