FUTURE CAPE TOWN | African architecture and the future African city – A review of the Design Africa symposium

“there’s no despair about the future African city”

A compelling day of straight talk and open-ended questioning and dreaming wound down to the plenary session inside a darkened and glittering Brundyn + gallery.

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Angela Mingas, an architect working in the unique and rapidly-developing city of Luanda – the world’s largest lusophone capital – recapped her earlier talk on the musseques of Angola. Mingas referred to the influential French-language work of philosophy, Bantu Philosophy, to explain how she came to terms with the gulf between her own experience and those of ordinary Angolans, and how this translated into space. In words that offer an immediate parallel to the disjuncture between the privilege of the annual intake of South African architecture programs and the systemic problems to be addressed in our built environment, Mingas related that in ten years of teaching architecture, she had always set design tasks that assumed familiarity with inherited Western ideas of how space should be divided into rooms. Rather, Mingas said, students should be learning how to design for the overwhelming majority of Angolans who have to make a single polyvalent room accommodate what, in the privileged world, takes a house. Mingas urged more investment among spatial practitioners in their own awareness of self, the better to be in a position to acknowledge Africa’s cities not as defective versions of the colonial city but as new places with new geometries. It was in the musseques, she concluded, that these new spatial relationships and practices had emerged and could be studied.

Talk of the anthropology of architecture drew comparison from Luyanda Mpahlwa with the architectural sociology courses he took in Berlin in the early 1990s – courses that prompted him to deeper reflection on the logic and the method behind traditional African architecture. Building on that sociological lens, Mpahlwa framed the topic for the closing session: the question of collaboration, and whether architects have sufficient voice within their societies and their governments.

Do our architects champion sustainable materials as iconic objects of desire in themselves?

One person who has tackled the latter question with full force is Joe Osae-Addo, a self-described ‘classic diasporan’, who returned from studies at the AA (1980-1986) and practice in the US to find that the Ghanaian architectural reality demanded more from his practice: not only the making of built form, but of the building blocks for architecture itself, down to the very practical level of building materials. Here, Mpahlwa joked that Addo was known as ‘Mr Bamboo’ – to which Addo replied that, very much as in South Africa, Ghana has a cement monopoly that exerts a heavy influence on built form. This sparked one of many good questions of the evening in my mind – why is there no South African ‘Mr Bamboo’?

Do our architects champion sustainable materials as iconic objects of desire in themselves? Maybe our love of stone gabions is halfway there – although I doubt we’re dreaming big enough. As Addo said, “Bamboo in its raw state…is it really accessible to the mass market? That’s my next challenge – how we make it accessible as lumber. I love it when I see bamboo – but I think that’s because I understand what it needs to become”.

The idea of what African cities could become is something that the next respondent, Rashiq Fataar of Future Cape Town, has made something of a life’s work. When asked by Mpahlwa on whether architects’ attempts to reach out to strategic constituencies had a bearing on the search for an architectural language, Fataar replied that simply being heard must be the first step for the profession. Our media, Fataar explained, is not yet an arena where architects can freely share ideas – and yet they are uniquely positioned to capture the public imagination through their ability to draw, to visualise, and to project their dreams into a precise, imagined future. For Fataar, this subtle yet persuasive power to literally depict an alternative future is the most powerful, and least used, of the tools at our profession’s disposal. He mentioned that he had met many community advocates passionate about, say, Mfuleni or Khayelitsha, who had never conceived of the opportunity in these places in architectural terms – yet few architects (with present company furnishing some noteworthy exceptions) were venturing into these communities. Perhaps, as Joe Addo had said earlier, there was a need to “share our failures, so that we can get better next time?”

Fataar ended with a simple challenge – would we, in the year to come, see even one architect posit a spatial vision for the entire city of Cape Town? Some might ask what right architects have to dream on that scale, but I personally think the mood at Design Africa that night swung towards the inverse question – what right have we not to? Who else can?

Sithabile Mathe, Botswana-based current vice president of the Commonwealth Association of Architects, took up this theme with conviction and clarity in her call on all architects simply to leave their comfort zones and develop the discipline of seeing the nine-tenths of space that isn’t planned at all, and looking for ways to realise its potential. The first step on this journey, said the Mackintosh School-trained architect, was ‘simultaneous translation’ – the difficult and gymnastic emotional and intellectual skill of learning to speak in full cognisance of one’s position in relation to others, and of how one’s architectural visions might find footfall in the imaginations of others. For Mathe, architectural discourse is only beginning to learn to speak self-consciously, considering how its message is received and by whom; it is not yet universally understood in the profession that a serious and non-tokenistic process of dialogue must be the beginning of real change in the built environment. Mathe gave a succinct quotation that, for me, was one of the most salient of the entire session:

“In all of this [discourse], there is one ultimate aim: not just to educate architects, but to educate everyone. The primary reason I waste so much of my time sitting on these very boring boards – the reason I do this – is because the way we fix our problems has to happen in a multitude of forums [beyond those internal to our profession]. And we have to be represented in those forums. We have to speak in these fora, and be present there, because only we understand the possibilities and not just the limitations of our profession.”

The plenary session had begun with an invocation by Ruben Reddy to do precisely that: to use other fora, like major sports events, as levers to shift thinking about what architecture is capable of. In the context of Ephim Schluger’s discussion of Brazil’s preparation for the unprecedented feat of hosting a back-to-back FIFA™ World Cup and Olympiad, Reddy pointed out that there were events that were much less demanding for cities, but which still offered a sizeable opportunity to advance an architectural argument. In Glasgow, for example, only 1000 housing units were required for the recent Commonwealth Games, while host cities had a range of sports events to choose from, which limited the chance of white elephant infrastructure. Repeating Joe Addo’s call to “share our failures”, Reddy urged the profession to play a little, to take chances. We might get it wrong, he conceded – but we might also get it very right.

In this spirit, Mpahlwa opened up the floor to comments, which saw some of the biggest names in Cape Town architecture take the floor. Almost all made a point of expressing enthusiasm for the mere ability to be convened, talking in an open-ended way, about the profession as a collective; some made ringing and detailed calls for an urgent about-face in the way that architects conduct themselves. Several voices commented on the fact that, although the terms heard at the symposium were likely to sail over the heads of commercial clients, there were surely untapped opportunities to subvert the dominant paradigm a little, here and there; another strain of comment held that talk shops like the symposium were a very good start, but that they’d remain just that without a concrete plan of action that contemplated a collective strategy.

A passionate contribution was made by Gita Goven, who spoke with great conviction of the crisis that architecture currently faces in its abdication of responsibility for the deepening crisis in South Africa’s infrastructure and built environment generally, while the finest minds strive to outbid each other for 3% of discretionary design work. While architecture, a short-skill sector, fought for small projects, communities were imploding with the kinds of pressures they are facing in everyday life, and some of our best developmental practitioners had left the country, Goven said. For her, it would take a conversation – of which tonight was but the beginning – to develop an awareness of how much institutional memory existed within the profession and of the difference it could make if applied to our major social problems.

Marco Geretto, a lone voice from the City of Cape Town, brought an entirely different perspective to light in his call to those present to recognise that change agents existed within government, however embattled they might be, and that minds were beginning to change as it slowly became common cause that our cities will not be able to maintain current infrastructure on the basis of projected revenues into the future.

The entire symposium had this feeling – a polite debate among people keenly aware that they operate in a close-knit industry in a small city. And yet the debate simmered on the edge of boiling point without really bubbling – which is why more symposia are sorely needed. No one who left the Brundyn+ gallery that night was in much doubt that the passion and expertise in the room were not of the order that could meet the city’s present and coming challenges; as with so much in South Africa, it is probably going to be coordination, more than capacity, that is the decider.

Luyanda Mpahlwa’s closing words: “There’s no despair”, he said to scattered applause, “after all, we’ve come here, and sat from 3pm to nearly 10pm. This is part of the action plan!”. The built environment has never received so much interest from policy-makers and decision-takers at all levels. If the symposium was polite, it may with more iterations become more adversarial, more honest and less consensual; with that, we might get down to brass tacks and build up a real consensus. As a profession whose past decisions are everyone else’s daily surroundings, we have everything to gain from supporting more, and more frequent, debate of the sort that makes real change possible – soon.

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  1. Luyanda Mpahlwa initiated the Design Africa Symposium in partnership with the World Design Capital Cape Town 2014, in order to create discussion among African architects on design visions for African cities of the future.  www.designspaceafrica.com
  2. Visuals: Screengrabs from the video by DesignSpaceAfrica

About Brett Petzer

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