South African architecture has hit a brick wall

When I look around at how architecture is making—or unmaking—the landscape of our cities and suburbs and townships, it is clear that it is failing in one of its primary roles: that of the speculative, experimental and inspirational reframing of South African society post-1994.

From Tuscan villas to RDP houses, from gated housing developments to mall architecture and mock baronial office estates, the lack of an expressive and experimental architectural lexicon is visible across the board. If we are not condemned to brutally naked structure, we are beset by rapacious decoration.

Too often in wealthy South African suburbs, in the media and in the desires expressed by clients and developers, I see architecture reduced to the inane level of “style”, often warped beyond recognition—think “extreme makeover”.

Architecture becomes “lifestyle” coupled with the lowest common development denominator. In the poor “suburbs” architecture is realised in the old and unacceptable paradigms: mute and repressive, anti-communal, anti-urban.

In urban terms architecture’s most complex and simultaneously most basic function is as the unit of urban strategy.

But I do not see contemporary South African architecture addressing the wider community or expressing the legibility, accessibility and lively iconography that guarantee a world-class city.

It neither actively encourages nor critically engages with the formation of an inclusive public domain.

The basic unit of urban strategy in Jo’burg seems to be the palisade fence—considered acceptable because it is a “transparent” form of fortification. Architecturally speaking, these fences allow the current weak practice of architecture to continue. Fences constitute an artificial separation of building from the urban domain.

I consider architecture an art, a complex, technical, cultural and philosophical spatial language. Architecture is one of humankind’s most potent material manifestations and is therefore extremely revealing of the way we conceive of ourselves, the way we construct our particular places and selves and aspirations in time.

If you think of architecture not simply as a container for style-driven interior decoration or as a fashionable means to keep the weather out, then you can see that it is not just the spatial medium in which we construct and house our desires and our necessities.

Architecture quite literally frames our view, it conditions our seeing, it interferes with perception. It is, in other words, active in the formation of ourselves and our society.

This is why the RDP housing developments, the gated housing complexes, the quasi-public space of shopping malls and the endless unrolling of franchised and homogenised suburbs are so deeply cynical, so intrinsically dangerous to any real imagination of a new South African society.

These architectures stifle our potential as human beings participating in a democratic and public society.

Melrose Arch is possibly the most cynical of these developments. Presented as “public urban space”, it is essentially an unroofed and stylistically sanitised Montecasino.

It is a theme park vision of Europe, a gated and exclusive alternative to the “dangerous” African CBD.

The irony is that the African sensibility of the CBD is read as ungovernable, yet it is built on flux, on flow, on connectivity, on trade—the very things on which the wider wealthy city builds itself.

What we see in South Africa is a continuation of the historical regulating—an active crushing even—of the public domain.

It was, after all, the overt relations between commercial and public interests that made the living urban landscapes of London or New York possible—both cities we continually defer to and long for in their evocation of what we think of as “cityness”. Ironically, these were the cities directly cited in the design campaign that generated Melrose Arch.

Architects in South Africa are generally seen to provide a trade-related service and they have handed over their historical prerogative as urban visionaries to developers and urban managers who rarely have any architectural backgrounds or training.

South Africa has experienced a rapidly weakening public debate in architecture. As the philosopher Jean-Pierre de la Porte has put it, South African architecture has been put into the difficult position of “a public art without a public realm—other than in the imagination of the universities. Every imaginative revolt in art has been a strictly private matter: Walter Battiss harbouring a republic in his backyard, Alexis Preller painting cosmopolitanism in private while Jackson Hlongwane addressed the multitudes in heaven. For most of their history, the South African state and the economy have been too tightly woven together to bother about legitimacy through public opinion.”

It is time to challenge this South African problem of “private versus public”—to put an end to complicity through private rebellion, to restore to architecture its many potentials.

To this end, the Gauteng Institute for Architecture has initiated monthly architectural design masterclasses entitled “Rapid Thought Transport: Architects Re-imagine Joburg”. We would advance the idea—hardly new in the world beyond our borders—that architectural design should be considered a form of research.

We need to begin some sort of experimental re-imagination of ourselves as “new” South Africans, of ourselves as thought-makers against (and in) the world at large. We are undoubtedly both and have to read ourselves in both lights all the time.

Sarah Calburn is an architect in private practice. The results of the masterclasses will be presented at public events—see Jo’burg ‘Art Pick of the Week’ in Friday for details

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