The architecture of foreign policy

One should never lightly ask architects to revisit a public building they have designed because it brings them into painful contact not only with the flaws and foibles that occurred in the execution of the design, but also with the unimaginative ways that public servants tend to use space.

Mark Pencharz, an architect with TC Design Architects, was already exhibiting degrees of discomfort by the time we reached the guardhouse of the OR Tambo building, which houses the new headquarters of the department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) at the foot of Meintjieskop in Pretoria.

There, the clean walls of his 2006 sketches had been plastered with photocopied notices. A potted aspidistra lurked in a corner and two stickers depicting the great Oliver Tambo’s head and shoulders were in the process of peeling from the windows.

“We gave Dirco 15 hectares of beautiful gardens. Why we now need greenery inside I do not understand,” Pencharz said, as the security guard politely asked, “Have you visited before, sir?” Inside the main building Pencharz would be further pained by missing escutcheons, dirty surfaces and a series of hoardings printed with Nelson Mandela’s life story, which snaked prosaically down the otherwise chaste internal street.

But for a moment, as we turned the corner and the building’s magnificent southern façade came partially into view, he permitted himself a flush of pride: “To think this was a doodle on a piece of paper five years ago.
It reminds me of why I’m an architect and not a property developer.”

Pencharz has every reason to feel proud. Winning a bid for a public-private-partnership building is grounds enough to begin with, for it’s a process widely considered by the architectural fraternity to be an advanced form of psychological torture. That the South African Property Owners’ Association deemed the Dirco HQ its overall South African building of the year ahead of the World Cup stadiums, accords further bragging rights. And then there’s the satisfaction of hearing that the Dirco staff love their new home.

We had not come to evaluate whether the building succeeded aesthetically and functionally, however, but to judge whether the design demonstrates anything interesting about South Africa’ s foreign policy aims, in the way the Union Buildings down the road successfully demonstrate the historical aim of unifying boer and Brit.

Promoting values
“The brief was mouth-watering at first glance, because it envisioned a building that would promote values of democracy, justice, peace, ubuntu, batho pele (people first), human rights, and so on. But when you think about it, these concepts are very open to interpretation,” Pencharz said. Ultimately, the openness of the brief became problematic, as an architect’s memo from 2009 indicates: “It must be stated at the outset that the bidding process excluded any possibility of an interactive and iterative consultation process between designer and the end user.

It was therefore not possible for the architects to discuss their design theory and put forward argument for the further development of some of the key principles.”

Pencharz describes how the consortium leading the design team would try to second guess what the department didn’t like about its designs. One such aspect was the proposed northern façade, or the public face of the building. This was to have been almost identical to the existing southern façade (which was built in 2008 and 2009), with giant, rib-like bits of concrete flowing off the mainframe, bringing to mind the skeleton of an elephant, or whale.

In fact the ribs are meant to symbolise the ribbons of a wrapped gift, or alternatively a blanket—the idea being that the building should represent a gift to South Africa and to Africa with a reference to the fact that Africans bearing gifts traditionally don blankets.

However, someone from government felt the symbolic armature would attract too much attention and the building was flipped around, making the back the front and the front the back (the cynical will no doubt see this as a comment on the inconstancy of diplomatic stances), and turning the designers’ lives into hell, as a further memo tersely indicates: “The north façade received a considered neo-classical column design in lieu of the purist arching column and beam structure as currently characterises the south façade.

The integration of these two languages became one of the big design challenges facing the architects and served to introduce a certain degree of stylistic manipulation that the designers had been ­trying to avoid.”

Less formally, Pencharz calls the building “a bit of a hotchpotch”, and “not as pure in terms of design philosophy as it could have been”. As barmy as the decision seems (imagine Jan Smuts ordering the dome and colonnades of the union buildings hidden behind the office blocks) it does point to a trait of South African foreign policy consistently espoused through three presidencies: the trait of understating the country’s power and ambition, especially in its relations with other African countries.

University of Johannesburg politics professor Chris Landsberg puts it this way in his 2010 book The Diplomacy of Transformation: “Mindful of the previous decades of destructive destabilisation and in efforts to reassure its neighbours of its good intentions, foreign policy sets out to avoid a narrow, short-term approach aimed at promoting self-interest, emphasising instead the need for confidence building and cooperation.”

Ethical values and principles
Deliberate act of humility or not, one is still tempted to make the following comparison: that as architectural mix-ups result from broadly defined briefs and consultation failures, so foreign policy confusion tends to result from policy definitions that are too broad to be useful.

For this is exactly the problem that has bedevilled South African foreign policy since Mandela’s time, although Dirco is in the process of developing a white paper on foreign policy which it promises will define national and international interests more clearly, as well as how these are supposed to relate to the country’s ethical values and principles.

Landsberg said: “While there has been much fanfare about the Zuma government’s position on pursuing a foreign policy driven by national interest, there is a palpable sense that the new government is struggling to spell out in clear terms what such a doctrine would entail.” After passing through the security checkpoint one encounters very few doors, and the activity in most of the offices is visible through glass wall features which dovetail with the Dirco value of “integrity, spirit of community and honesty”. However, Pencharz said these features are also “simply corporate best practice”.

Halfway through the tour I began to wonder whether the building actually communicated anything specific at all about South Africa’s foreign policy. Certainly the vastness of the interior had me constantly anticipating an airport-like ping followed by the message: “SAA regrets to announce—” which means that the building succeeds in articulating an important marketing concept for the country’s diplomats—that of South Africa as a “gateway” to Africa and the world.

In the west wing state-of-the-art Southern African Development Community and African Union conference centres tie the building firmly to Thabo Mbeki’s dream of an African renaissance. The importance of African unity and of finding non-confrontational, mediated solutions to conflicts in Africa has carried through to the Zuma era and in fact the African agenda, which incorporates peace-keeping, mediation and reconstruction and development, has been promoted to a top foreign-policy priority.

However, these are aims that the building’s design enables rather than embodies. As mentioned above, the nearby Union Building complex is an excellent example of embodied aims and it is worth remembering some of the reasons why Herbert Baker’s design succeeded in communicating this so clearly.

For starters, his brief was straightforward: design a building that communicates the theme of unification. Secondly, the architect and his designs had the resolute backing of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha, even in the face of fierce opposition. There is also evidence to suggest that the two politicians wanted to spend as much as possible of the Transvaal’s money on the Transvaal before unification, so there was no shortage of cash.

The creation of the OR Tambo building, by comparison, was constrained financially. The project also lacked clear political direction. “In the end it was effectively a case of design by committee, but that committee never included high-level politicians and was very hands off,” Pencharz said.

Design isn’t the only way a building communicates, though. “The building is dying for good art,” said Pencharz. Yet, after a year of occupancy, the walls, vistas, nooks and crannies that Pencharz created for artworks are blank. “This building was built to be representative of Africa and South Africa’s place in Africa and the world. This could be achieved within six months if someone would simply ask African diplomats for an exemplary piece of art from their part of the world. I’ve said this repeatedly, but have now given up,” said Pencharz.

It’s a suggestion Dirco should heed, if it accepts the motivational mantra “good communication begins at home”. South Africa’s leaders would do well, if they wish to communicate the country’s values and goals to the world through architecture, to be more hands-on in defining these goals and values and in helping the country’s architects to bring them to life.

This article was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. Its views are those of the author and the Mail & Guardian.

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