What to do when you are building tomorrow

The Digest of South African Architecture is an annual publication of the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA). Its mandate is to review and document the annual production of its active members.

The publication is available at bookstores but is mainly distributed free as a benefit to all in the architectural profession who are members of SAIA, as well as to members of related disciplines in the built environment.

It constructs a detailed record and archive for the institute, and also provides an exceptional opportunity for architects to present themselves to and engage with the public and society at large.

The comprehensive coverage our agreement with publisher Avusa/Picasso Headline enables us to present almost all projects submitted by members. The result is a set of projects that is unbelievably diverse in scale, location, type, cost and levels of design. Each year the body of work selected assists us in constructing a profile for the magazine. This year the organisation of its contents include categories such as community and public buildings and even communal residences.

A transformed built environment

Countering the stereotype that architects are predominantly involved in designing for the rich, at least half of this year’s edition represents public and community projects. With spatial segregation being one of the most enduring legacies of the apartheid era we are highly conscious of the value of good design in the shaping and making of a robust and transformed built environment.

While private residences have perhaps become synonymous with architecture throughout the world, in South Africa interventions in existing townships are well reflected by new schools and alternative approaches to housing, as well as by local community centres. In a society under radical transformation these projects contribute a vital role in maintaining a public realm and often are required to function beyond the everyday on a 24/7 basis.

Coming directly after last year’s Fifa World Cup, the current edition also contributes a bumper review of the incredible changes that were inflicted on our built environment. The design and development of new stadiums, transport interchanges, urban parks and community soccer fields have had a significant impact on most of our experience of our cities.

Spatial transformation has altered the way we perceive and experience the places we live in. Sometimes this is in the form of new landmarks—Soccer City and Moses Mabhida and Cape Town stadiums are cases in point—while the violence protection through urban upgrade in Khayelitsha and Tsai Design’s Safmarine container sports centre in Piketberg reflect a more measured ‘production of locality” for particular communities and in specific contexts.

Principles of ubuntu

In residential architecture the emergence of designs that support new forms of social organisation commands attention.

Challenging the ubiquitous single-family residence pattern, it has been encouraging to receive entries that genuinely address both plurality and densification. The Seven Houses project reconfigures an old Parkview site in Johannesburg into a communal live/work compound to support a new community and Luke Scott’s Bathandwa children’s day/night care centre in Mandela Park, Khayelitsha, demonstrates imagination in addressing the problem of HIV/Aids orphans.

Here we are able to observe one designer’s response to the principles of ubuntu, which we like to claim underpin our nation and its identity.
I am on record for, and stand by, my critique of sustainability as it is projected in the public domain in South Africa. For the main, much sustainable architecture involves the expenditure of vast sums of money in attaining First World standards that are generated under completely different conditions to our own.

All good design should be sustainable—it arises from the application of design sensibility in a responsible manner. Most often this approach will result in the deployment of passive systems whose thoughtful integration can also contribute to provocative form-making.

Without doubt Gauteng-based Daffonchio and Associates is the leading practice in pioneering this approach to architectural design. Its temporary Untamed pavilion in Kirstenbosch has contributed a novel architectural moment to our design experience.

A similar approach was adopted by ST&AR architects, Stuart Thompson and André Rademeyer, for their Green Goal expo pavilion on Cape Town’s Grand Parade for the Soccer Fan Fest, where a temporary pavilion was constructed from recycled materials with the support of temporary scaffolding. The result of a design-and-build contract, the project also contributed knowledge to interdisciplinary design and transformational development in professional practice.

Interrelation between image and text

The Digest of South African Architecture is also remarkably consistent in its aspiration for good design. Each sheet is designed and laid out by an architect, Jenny Sandler, whose unique critical insight enables a precise and highly considered interrelation between image and text.

Consequently, the value of this publication resides in both its design and its content, contributing a strand of provocation to a somewhat spatially illiterate South African public, yet another legacy from the apartheid era.

For many people design equates largely to style and image, and not necessarily with utility and developmental potential of content.

The fact that good design is intimately connected with its structural and material tectonics and that specific modes of production can have direct implications for economic development eludes most citizens.

Architectural design is probably one of the only true interdisciplinary pursuits. When applied with rigour and imagination, its application holds
a key to solving many of society’s problems. In other societies, most particularly in our South/South partnerships such as with South America, there exist government ministries dedicated to space, to urbanisation, to cities —

Perhaps it is time to take more serious note of the potential that architecture and design can have in contributing to socioeconomic problems facing societies in our rapidly globalising world.

Iain Low is a professor at the University of Cape Town and editor of the Digest of South African Architecture

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