FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Cooke vs Koolhaas: The inaugural Roelof Uytenbogaardt Memorial Lecture

“the humility and humanity of a lifetime of Cooke’s work is testament to a tradition in South African architecture “


A review of the inaugural Roelof Uytenbogaardt UDISA Memorial Lecture of Julian Cooke by Rebecca Looringh van Beeck.

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by Rebecca Looringh van Beeck

“You know,” begins my friend, “we come from the Julian Cooke pedagogy.”

He continues, “haven’t you noticed how we drool over the work of Aldo van Eyck, Alvar Aalto and Alberti but younger students rather get a kick out of Koolhaas?”

I was reminded of this conversation during the welcome to the Roelof Uytenbogaardt Memorial Lecture when Khalied Jacobs introduced Professor Julian Cooke as the inaugural event’s honouree speaker. Jacobs light-heartedly mentioned how, since Cooke has been a lecturer for a staggering 35 years, so many South African architects and urban designers are “products” of his teaching and have been inspired by him. This seemed quite fitting for the to-be annual Uytenbogaardt -inspired event as Uytenbogaardt was also a long-standing lecturer who inspired many students and fellow colleagues, Cooke included.

challenged Apartheid planning dogma and fundamentally influenced a generation of architects and urbanists

The lecture series, initiated by the Urban Design Institute of South Africa (UDISA), aims to commemorate Roelof Uytenbogaardt’s contribution to the fields of urban design, planning and architecture. Having established the first urban design university programme in South Africa in 1985, Uytenbogaardt is highly respected as an advocate for the then newly established sphere of work. Although he’s often remembered as the architect of Cape Town’s heavily criticised Werdmuller Center, many of his finer and more successful projects were those that crossed boundaries between urban design, planning and architecture. Uytenbogaardt is known for his curving concrete formwork (think: UCT’s Sports Centre), as he is for his influential and well-established theoretical standpoints which challenged Apartheid planning dogma and fundamentally influenced a generation of architects and urbanists who would seek the un-doing of South Africa’s spatial segregation.

Continuing in his footsteps, Cooke’s humanist approach to design has encouraged a second wave of students, many of whom are now working professionals, to persist in prioritising people-centred projects in an attempt to address South Africa’s rampant spatial disparities. After receiving country-wide nominations, UDISA’s steering committee selected Julian Cooke to be the first recipient of the honouree lecture for this reason. His nomination drew specific attention to his investment in and care for the quotidian and joyful aspects of city and place-making.


Having been taught by Cooke in second year, 2011 – the last class to have had him as their design studio head – I have clear memories of his early morning impromptu design lectures during which he would relay a lifetime of knowledge through effortless drawings on the classroom blackboard.  From topics as simple as window recesses, to grander urban provocations, his clearly articulated observations and explanations had a significant influence on how, why and what I and many of my fellow classmates design now. Although he has continued to teach history and theory courses at both the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) (I fear this year is his last), in architecture school, one’s design classes are what significantly shape the beginnings of your architectural approach.

We all come from a certain teaching perspective, with its certain precedents, references, and theoretical standpoints. The PoMo kids loved Venturi, LeCorb inspired (and continues to inspire) millions of modernists while Team 10 provided many from Cooke’s generation with their moment’s motivation. During his lecture, Cooke brought attention to his pedagogy, stating, in a rather strict tone, how he was educated as a modernist and taught to believe in the 60s vision of a new and better city. However, looking rather to the rebellious Team 10 for insight, he developed a critical position early on in his career. Team 10 and Cooke noticed a lack of identity in these proclaimed-to-improve city typologies, recognizing spatial alienation and an over concern for representational space as key problems in the modern movement.

As if timed on purpose, sounds from Langa – a banging noise, dogs were barking, a man screamed – could be heard during the lecture at around the same time that Cooke began relating these “missing ingredients of modernism” to South Africa’s context. Just as the words were being spoke, they were echoed by the lived reality outside Guga S’Thebe’s theatre’s walls; the scene was set, both in the lecture and out. So often events like these are organised within a zone of comfort and separation, happily blinded by city comforts and familiarity, and so I commend this year’s venue choice both for its relation to Cooke’s work and for the necessary degree of discomfort it generated during the lecture.

Cooke recalled experiencing a similar unsettling feeling when he was a student while visiting Soweto, bringing attention to two urban realities that would continue to cause him much grief: namely, the monotonous nature of government-provided housing and the resulting lack of community, commercial and entertainment facilities necessary in, what he referred to, as “an urban existence”. Starting with his final student project at WITS for which he designed a neighbourhood centre for Naledi, Soweto, Cooke would go on to generate many more counter visions, realised in a variety of projects throughout South Africa; from transforming township hostels to building higher density social housing schemes, designing university residences and developing a number of spatial frameworks, all the while maintaining his private practice.

Cooke_3Cooke’s involvement in the Western Cape Hostel Dwellers’ Trust, formed in 1985 to bring about improvements to the inhumane living conditions present in government-funded hostel accommodation, was a defining point in his career. In the UDISA’s event’s accompanying exhibition the project’s premise was explained, providing needed perspective on its Apartheid-derived context:

“As a result of government policy towards urban Africans, those African men who did not qualify as “permanent” urban dwellers (under section 10(a) or (b) of the Black (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945) have been accommodated in single-sex hostel dwellings. This arrangement has generated a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst hostel occupants: the quality of accommodation is generally very poor and has been deteriorating; men are legally barred from having their wives and children living with them (although in fact many do so, and this contributes to the extremely serious overcrowding problem); further, many men spend large parts of their working lives in these hostels, although they are supposedly intended to provide temporary accommodation.” (Western Cape Hostel Dwellers’ Trust Document, 1987)

Much time was spent in his lecture elaborating on the various outputs of the upgrades programme, with Cooke reflecting on the project’s initiation process, design and implementation. Working with architect Paul Andrew, improvement schemes for hostel areas in Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga were developed. To overcome interlinked problems, they designed across scales; moving from neighbourhood layouts, to street conditions, to construction details. Family units were designed as add-ons and renovations to the then desolate hostel sites, with great care and attention given to place-making articulations and additions – both in and out of individuals’ homes. Positive public space was prioritised (Cooke recalled fighting for the addition of trees) along with the need to generate community ownership and a ‘sense of home’.    

Much of his work and much of his teachings are orientated around a vastly influential period he spent living and studying in Venice. As Uytenbogaardt was exposed to Rome (being the first South African to receive the Rome Scholarship), so too was Cooke exposed to the pedestrian-rich streets, squares and alleyways of Venice. Relating this experience to reading the city as a ‘home’, Cooke was able to bring new meaning to this common architectural analogy and one which I had never quite understood until then. Just as one would navigate through your home with an ingrained knowledge of its routes, relations and daily rhythms, so too should one experience one’s “city rooms”.

Similarly to Uytenbogaardt, Cooke considers society at large as his client and a deeply personal fascination with the human condition has crafted his architectural profession over many years of refined and self-criticised work. When he taught, you could tell he loved learning from his students, as much as we loved learning from him. He would always listen, reflect and then clearly articulate a critique. And his crits were tough, but honest and endearing. This past (and perhaps last) public lecture of Cooke’s, entitled ‘Seeds of a Human Scaled City’, was delivered in his distinct down-to-earth manner; an attitude which has gained him much respect over the years.

This shared and resounding respect for Prof. Cooke could be particularly felt during the lecture’s ending standing ovation. We count ourselves lucky to have had practitioners of the scope of Julian Cooke working in our urban environments, and many of us can count ourselves lucky to have been taught by him. As we are presented glossy images of today’s batch of ‘star-chitects’, the humility and humanity of a lifetime of Cooke’s work is testament to a tradition in South African architecture which is centred around the people who use its spaces.


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  1. Project renders: http://www.claarchitects.co.za/about_julian.html