A South African architecture:

What is it, where is it?

Alan Lipman

paper presented at the Harold Wolpe Lecture Series

University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 24 April 2003



Global capitalism - regional architecture

Smooth-talking experts tell us that corporatism has changed - its been globalised. Big money is shifted electronically to now squeeze or starve people in any corner of the world. But on the factory floor, down the mines, out on the farms, it feels the same: folk still toil for massive profits manipulated by others. So what's new?

The entertainment that’s thrust at us, the information fed to us, the clothes we wear, the goods on sale, even the types of food we eat are becoming more and more alike, everywhere. We are swept by similar fads, subject to the same massaged fashions. That’s good for business, for mass production, for world-wide distribution and, of course, mass consumption.

Increasingly, buildings also change to look alike houses, clinics, libraries, hospitals, schools, shops ... the lot. They often look and are the same, wherever they're built. Central Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban look a great deal like each other and like downtown Bangkok, Denver, Warsaw, Delhi, Sydney. Anywhere is drearily everywhere, everywhere is wearily nowhere.

The same style pollution" - mirror-glass office blocks, concrete hotels, steel apartments; the same glitzy, flashy anywhere is everywhere. What was suburbia is filling with look-alike office parks, shopping malls, town-house enclaves, huge intruder-proof walls; Rosebank, Randburg, Sandton become yet more like downtown anywhere, everywhere. Now, our newspapers report, Soweto is going the same way.

Who cares? Progress is, well ... progress. What matters are profits - investment, speculation, the quick turnover; making a mega-buck killing.


Local architectures under threat

Many of us, perhaps a majority, do seem to care. We relish the richness of variety, the wealth of differences, the lessons of human dignity to be learnt from mutually respected distinctions. We love the hybrid, mongrel-like nature of lively, world-wide local identities. Cynics say were naive; rather than bland uniformity, we innocently believe that there can be unity in cultural diversity.

Some - too few - architects are troubled by what is happening to their work. They are concerned about how this or that feature of other architectures are being lifted out of context to be plonked down in unsuitable circumstances; in conditions that are climatically, economically, socially inappropriate. They attempt, in their efforts to resist this alienating sameness, to identify what is genuinely local, what is loved and viable about the ways of life and the built worlds in which they live. They try to pin-point and study what is distinctive about the buildings that have helped to shape their physical and cultural settings.

This is not easy. In most instances, traditional local architectures grew from relatively consistent patterns of living; climatic conditions did not vary markedly across the relevant local regions; building materials were usually drawn from local areas; methods of building were recognised locally and often passed directly from generation to generation. Most important, the values and ideas which buildings came to represent were acknowledged commonly. But today living patterns are in transition, climate can be controlled mechanically, materials for building can be imported from elsewhere, building methods are coded and can be similarly used everywhere. Now commerce dominates the value, the very motivation for building.

In the face of this, local traditional architectures - like so much else we cherish as locally distinctive - is fragile.


Critical regionalism

As more and more people rebel against the indifferent monuments of transnational, corporate capital, so a shabby cover-up is foisted on us. We are presented with the same old boxes, but with tacky signs and symbols stuck on; apparently in the belief that if one shouts loud enough, no one will hear what is being said or notice what is being done. This "post-modern" architecture has led to the unnerving phenomenon of our cities not only looking out of place, but being out of time.

The arbitrary pillaging of history, of cultures, in the search for bits to stick onto the facades of our buildings, has produced an urban environment in which we no longer know where we are or in what historical period we are expected to be living. We are culturally polluted.

Efforts among architects to resist this process have become associated with a set of ideas known as critical regionalism. First formulated by Tzonis and Lefaivre in the 1980s then developed and given wider circulation by Kenneth Frampton, these notions offer ways of engaging critically with universal, global elements of our world and with particular local circumstances.

Such critical sets of ideas begin by recognising that if we are to feel at home in our built worlds, then those worlds must express who we are. Architects must draw on the particular physical qualities of the places where we live - the light, the climate, the shape and pitch of the land - as well as on the experiences, historical and current, of the people by and for, with whom buildings are produced. At the same time, critical regionalists recognise that most local, regional areas have been subjected to the depredations of colonialism, corporatism, racism. There are no utopias of the past, of the local, the vernacular.

Critical designers seek to reminds us of where we have been so that we are better able to go where we wish. They do not simply push aside the products of an increasingly global economic system. On the contrary, they attempt to use contemporary materials and techniques by counter-posing the new with the old, the local with the universal, so that we may see each in a different light. This is an architecture of resistance to global meaninglessness, not a superficial synthesis. This is an approach to design which recognises, and invites us to recognise, that it is only by attempting to understanding our pasts critically that we will be able to give shape to the future.


Critical architecture in South Africa

There are local practitioners who search for contemporary architectures that are locally rooted. They are few, their work is scattered and its regional qualities are not readily recognisable. A caution: the few from whom we are able to draw examples are predominantly white. The profession has and, for the present, remains confined to the middle_classes. The last figures of which I am aware (1993) indicate that of 2,480 registered architects, 12 (0.48%) were black; of 1,454 students architects, 56 (3.85%)were black and of the 144 who graduated that year, three (2.08%) were black.

That some among the dominant group care about struggling for regional expressions is a tribute to their sensitivity; especially as their colleagues eyes have remained and do remain fixed on overseas.

Norman Eaton was amongst the most significant of these pioneers, especially in his 1930s and 40s designs for comfortable middle-class homes in Pretoria. There he tried to capture a regional feeling by sensitive use of familiar vernacular materials and forms: by such adaptations to the hot sun as small windows, projecting sun-shades and roof eaves, by installing traditionally Cape timber window-shutters, and by the sweeps of earth-coloured brick pavings he used externally.

Around the same time, Douglass Cowin employed contemporary ideas of spatial design while attempting to accommodate our Johannesburg climate. Here, in a series of compact suburban houses, he used daringly constructed over-hanging eaves, cleverly placed screen walls and similar means to keep out unwelcome sun and cold prevailing winds. He tried, with considerable success, to match the plans of his designs to the relaxed, informal, the servant-dependent lives of his middle-class clients.

These efforts have contemporary echoes. Springfield Terrace, with Table Mountain beyond, is a recent design by Roel of Uytenbogaardt and his colleagues. It is a distinctively local application of British terrace housing or the accommodating brownstone homes of Brooklyn, New York. Those adaptable town-houses of three or four floors have gone regional: solid masonry construction with hard-wearing local materials, wide projecting eaves and small windows on exposed sides for sun-protection, trees planted to shade entrance fronts that open directly onto the streets, and well-sized rear gardens for household use. Cars can be parked at front doors where they are readily visible, pedestrians can move safely along traffic-free shaded alleys that link the terraces. Its a fine instance of regional adaptation.

This also applies to the public library that Uytenbogaardt designed for Hout Baai. Here too a cool interior has been snatched from heavy rains and strong sunlight: more wide, low_slung eaves; more sturdy local materials; another set of informal internal spaces and alcoves, a gesture to relaxed  southern African ways of life; more framed views onto nearby gardens and distant mountains; another imaginatively controlled use of construction, especially of the roof-trusses, to shape internal and external spaces.

Back to Gauteng, where Jo Noero has sought to adapt the new traditions of township, and even shack settlements to such socially urgent buildings as career centres and schools. This body of work includes attempts to marry the new, often makeshift means of construction and dynamic aesthetic of everyday township buildings to readily available, local materials - like corrugated iron and plywood boarding. Noero has contributed to a vibrant, modern architecture that is part of current city-life, a township jazz of architecture; one that could well mature as that music has done.

Thereafter, in an attempt to illustrate some of ones central concerns about the debased state of most contemporary South African architecture - shared, I trust, with the late Harold Wolpe - I sought to outline a number of putative first principles in our troubled discipline. These were drawn from a published piece among my regular contributions to The Sunday Independent newspaper.


Architecture - space, order and relationship

My celebrations, and criticisms, of architectural work have appeared in these pages for over a half decade. The time is probably long gone for explanations of what might lie behind the general design comments I have offered. Better, I hear it suggested, late than never. This, then, is a tardy correction; a passing dip into the bases of building design. It is not, be assured, another of the prolix, numbing exercises in the abstruse constructs which architectural theorists indulge so often.

Architecture is, I submit, about order and relationship, rather than surface appearance-that hoary chestnut, taste. It is about space, light and organisation, not style, charm or whimsy. A work of architecture springs from the nature of its materials, the quality of its site and the methods of its production. The most exacting questions about a building that is recognisably architecture are: how is it made? what gives it order? how does it respond to its context? what is the idea, or set of ideas, that lies behind its form, its image? What, in short, is its human purpose?

Architectural design, I was told early in my then unquestioningly male-dominated studies, is the manipulation of space for the convenience of man." Amended to embrace all humanity, that maxim has stuck with me through the vicissitudes and abrupt changes of my career. Architectural designs, I have long come to appreciate, are conceived, erected and used purposefully. Sound architecture is socially responsible and responsive.

Order is given to a building by the disposition of structural and constructional elements -disciplined by its geometry and the properties of the materials deployed in its making. Structure comes in basic, elemental bits: bricks, stones, beams, joists, rafters, boards, nails, ties, struts, columns and .... others. These are combined in a relatively limited number of ways to form the more complex parts of buildings: walls, arcades, floors, courtyards, galleries, entrances, windows, roofs. All or selections of these are combined to provide physical and, on occasion, emotional or spiritual shelter. They enclose space, articulate spatial relationships and modulate light.

Buildings are revealed as spaces sequentially, as people pass through and around them. They have social value only in so far as they offer settings for human interaction - at play, work, in contemplation ... in living.

The geometry of buildings may be elementary or complex. Order may be lucid, banal or puzzling, complicated or simple, grand or domestic, majestic or mundane. It must, though, be appropriate to the purposes to which the buildings are put and the contexts - physicalas well as social - in which they occur. There is here, scope for change, for adaptation to shifting purposes, varying contexts.

All worthwhile architecture is concerned with ideas of form and shape, of content and organisation. Appearance, style, grows out of elaborations of design ideas within the customarily firm limitations set by materials and techniques of construction - of, that is, assembling the selected materials.

All this is but the grammar of fine building. These are the crafted basics that underpin architectural design - a conscious, distinctively human activity. As far back as 1624, Henry Wotton linked these properties to a further, similarly humanistic goal when he coined the oft-cited aphorism, Well building hath three Conditions. Commoditie, Firmenes and Delight. Delight in building, while resting firmly on the two other factors, calls on distinctive desiderata - the aesthetic qualities to which, one imagines, all but the most philistine, cynical or practice-weary designers aspire.

It is, at best, extremely difficult to realise aesthetically cogent architecture if the starting point is "what is to be the image of this building? what style am I going for this time?, whats in fashion now? This does not mean that each new building is a wheel re-invented. Designers can and must draw on the past. Not, though, by plucking images, styles, from history books, exotic journals. Not by papering such images onto contemporary building structures and materials. Drawing on history must, surely, take place on the basis of a studied understanding, a disciplined grasp of the social and constructional principles which underlie historic buildings. Or, indeed, those of cultures other than ones own.

These precepts of spatial order and relationships have, directly and indirectly, been the subject matter of my reviews. They have included the single, elemental spaces of, say, ancestral Zulu beehive structures, the cylindrical, conically-roofed buildings of, among others, the Sotho peoples, the ingenious shacks that are home to so many impoverished urban dwellers. They also include the physically elaborated, the symbolically laden pre-colonial settlements of southern Africa. And, more recently, the same concepts are readily evident at complexly inter-related sets of spaces such as the Baxter theatre, Cape Town, the stoep houses on the Berea, Durban, or the Bauhaus influenced houses that Hellmut Stauch designed in Pretoria during the 1950s.

The observations which I offer here, are, patently, also drawn from wider, from world-wide examples. My own tiny sample comprises sacred buildings like the powerful Sanchi Tope of India (BC 150), the Byzantine glory of Santa Sophia, Constantinople (AD 532-537), the phlegmatic Pantheon, Rome (AD 120-124). There is nothing simple-minded or reductive about these huge single-volume spaces, each excels as architecture.

Then, persisting with this rough but ready division, there are multi-cellular buildings the world over. Here, my immediate choice falls on favourites such the rectilineal Egyptian house at Tell-el-Amarna (circa BC 1400), the strict right-angles of the layout at the Taj Mahal, Agra (1630-53) and the inventive planar design of Gerrit Rietvelds modest Schroder House in Utrecht (1924).

Architecturally credible and creditable buildings of this order are, patently, not oversized pieces of sculpture; they serve the physical and social needs of their occupants as well as of those who use the spaces about them. In this, they are pre-eminently social entities - architecture is nothing if not a social practice. Designers need, then, seek to make the most of the social and physical climates in which they work. That, I take it, is the rooted meaning of regional, critically regional, architectural design.

Finally, I passed onto a briefly illustrative instance of consciously sought, critically regionalist, resistance to the current status of architecture in South Africa, and elsewhere; one that is located directly across the valley to the rear of where we were sitting in Howard College.


Searching design at Cato Manor

Some five years ago, I was invited by the Cato Manor Development Agency to join a panel of assessors for an architectural competition. Competitors were to submit proposals for the agency’s headquarters in the central node at 750 Francois road, Intuthuko Junction. The new complex was to include accommodation for rental by, particularly, non-governmental bodies. The contest, like the eventual structures, was funded by the European Union in Brussels.

We assessors were as one in assigning the award to a team of designers who practice in Natal under the title East Coast Architects. Their success highlights a vexing juxtaposition: while they are, have long been committed to seeking distinctively southern African architectures, essential financial support comes from Europe. What price, then, the widely expressed fear of eurocentrism? Though not fully complete, the project is sufficiently advanced for comment on that score.

My co-panellists will, I imagine, agree that our thoroughly debated choice has been vindicated. The architects have produced a well-designed, handsome set of buildings in what promises to be a coherently arranged immediate environment. They have, to date, fully fulfilled the potential of their proposals for the competition. Further, and possibly of wider significance, they have continued their probings into the architectural compatibility of indigenous building practices, of the extant Cato Manor settlement and of modern, industrially-rooted building processes. That alone could prove to be an eventful advance in local design thinking.

The accommodation is distributed across six separate but linked structures; which the architects refer to as pods. Two are yet to be completed. Each relates in an appreciably un-orthogonal manner to the others. Each is rectangular in plan-form and contains a square-shaped inner garden-court which extends from ground through to upper-floor roof level. With mature planting, this will open intimate and/or distant views of greenery to all occupants. The units on the western and southern frontages - directly facing two main roads - are built up to the pavement lines; the remaining two pods help to shape the enclosed form of a large open space at the rear. In this, as in like matters, echoes of traditional settlement patterns are as patent as they are adeptly adapted to current circumstances.

The private office suites and associated accommodation are situated on the first and second floors, leaving the ground level free for planting and retail premises. These, plus an extensive undulating screen-wall, mark an exact distinction between public, street, space and the private inner courtyard in which, inter alia, secure parking for tenants vehicles is available.

The corner has, the architects report, been treated negatively, it remains free of buildings in order to provide an open for public meetings and like gatherings. There are also other related elements; such as screening for semi-private events, a raised bandstand-stage and a curved wall that forms an inner sound-reflector and outer sign-board. The space is, in short, an off-street facility for formal as well as casual, impromptu use. It is a robust urban rather than a genteel suburban amenity.

The reinforced concrete structural frames of the pods are enclosed by panels of cement block-work that span between the windows. These stretches of block-work are finished in textured materials and colours that resonate with the surrounding building fabric - there is a recognisable continuation of what might be termed the grain of the sprawling Cato Manor township. That reaches through to the thin, almost flimsy eaves projections of the mono-pitch roofs over the pods. These resemble familiar neighbouring features not least the fragile, frequently boulder-weighted roofing materials found on many informal shelters.

There are other such explicit acknowledgements. They range widely: from the use of traditional thatching purlins which, here, provide an innovative means of securing a pleasantly dappled system of sun-screening on the west and north-facing facades. They include plywood dados on the pods stair-landings. Since it is employed as packaging for motor-vehicle imports, inexpensive plywood can be obtained by Cato Manor householders from nearby docks or factories. In this context, the architects have suggested further ways of exploiting this and similarly versatile - usually unconventional - building materials.

Then there is the somewhat cumbersome gum-pole access bridge that has, in my view, been uncomfortably thrust into the parking courtyard. This certainly capitalises on a significant local, even trans-regional building material. It does not, however, begin to measure against the majestic, soaring central tower and other imaginative adaptations of this home-grown timber which the same architects have installed at Somkhele, northern KwaZulu-Natal. But more of that especially distinctive design in a future report from this column.

Returning to the Cato Manor buildings, my reservations apropos the gum-pole bridge must, surely, differ markedly from the designers views. They stress an obligation to make ... legible a dialogue between the diverse poles of disparate and divided communities in Durban to respond to the often discordant tension between normal/permanent and informal/temporary, between cheap/loud and polished/polite. These abrupt polar categories are, they say, characteristic of the still divided peoples of post-apartheid South Africa. At Cato Manor, they are expressed in the subtle geometries typical of informal settlements geometries that distinguish much of the overall and specific planning of this project but are rarely found in our formal/permanent, polished/polite inner city or suburban areas.

However intense the customary vicissitudes of day-to-day practice which the architectural team probably confronted, its members have cleaved to their original intentions. They have not shuffled into the snug retreat of another re-cycled vernacular, nor have they succumbed to smug, souped-up hi-tech architecture, increasingly the hallmark of corporate machismo. To the contrary, they have been and are even now striving for local authenticity; for appropriate, integrated, new vernaculars.

They report that the development is almost fully let at comparative rents. As was anticipated initially, the tenants come predominantly from institutions such as Cato Manor Tourism and the Cato Manor Interpretative Centre. Their presence is leavened by smaller tenancies - an internet café, a curio shop ... a real estate company. The place is already abuzz, even while final building works continue.