A mood of nervous excitement and busy enterprise characterised parts of central Durban over the weekend as the city made final preparations to host the 25th congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA), an industry body representing 1.3-million architects in 124 countries. The congress kicks off on Monday and runs until Wednesday, although many social events marking the congress started earlier.
On Saturday evening, at an architectural exhibition in the historic Beer Hall on Florence Nzama Road in the city centre, four young men with shovels bagged rubble. They worked just metres away from a makeshift stage where nearly a dozen architects, city officials and funding partners took turns to welcome guests.
Despite some speakers stumbling on their words, eThekwini Municipality councillor Loganathan “Logie” Naidoo was in an ebullient mood. He proudly repeated TV news channel CNN’s assertion that Durban is one of the world’s top 10 “underrated cities”.
Many in Durban’s small but respected architectural community shared Naidoo’s upbeat mood, possibly in spirit more than letter. Earlier on Saturday, some of these architects, including Janina Masojada and Andrew Makin, whose practice OMM Design Workshop designed the Constitutional Court, gathered on a vacant plot in Berea.
They had been invited to watch Samuel Carvalho and Marius Busch, of Berlin-based practice raumlabor, supervise the final assembly of an eccentric roadside shelter.
Produced in collaboration with La Lucia businessperson Zidhaan Pillay, the shelter features roofing made from scrapped cars. Situated adjacent to a walkway leading to the busy Warwick Junction market and traffic interchange nearby, the shelter overlooks a popular hitchhiking spot on the N3, an informal practice proscribed by city laws.
This awkward interface of the formal and informal city, a pervasive feature of life across the African continent, is an important theme at the UIA2014 congress, as it is known.
“Sometimes people don’t understand the reality of our continent, the reality of where we practice,” remarked visiting Cameroonian architect Jean Jacques Kotto, who watched the roadside shelter’s construction with bemused interest.
Beyond just students and academics
Kotto is the executive director of the Higher Special School of Architecture of Cameroon, the central African state’s first university of architecture. Based in Yaoundé, the privately-owned university opened in 2010 with one classroom and predictions of its certain demise. It now boasts five classrooms and a visiting faculty of mostly French architectural professors.
Kotto, who has been attending UIA’s nomadic congresses for two decades, dismissed allegations that the event was pitched at academics and students, stating that the congress is an opportunity to facilitate understanding amongst architects. “It is a forum to speak about the situation of architects everywhere,” he said.
By Saturday some 3 400 people from 96 countries had registered to attend the Durban congress, including 900 student delegates, some of who pitched ideas for a UIA-sponsored student competition. The competition invited proposals for short, medium and long-term interventions around Warwick Junction, with the winners due to be announced during the congress.
Well-known for its agitated traffic and mercantile hustle, the Warwick Junction can now also claim to be an outdoor gallery. Cape Town graffiti artist Faith47 was invited to produce six large-scale figurative murals on the concrete supports for an elevated flyover that was recently introduced to the area to relive congestion. Like the nearby pedestrian shelter, the mural project was sanctioned by the eThekwini Municipality.
“The UIA is a huge stage,” explained Nina Saunders, an architect in the strategic architectural projects branch of the eThekwini Municipality and member of the UIA organising committee.
Revamped beer hall
Amongst the activities directly undertaken by Saunders’s office in the lead-up to UIA2014 has been the overhaul of a former beer hall frequented by black working class patrons during apartheid times that in recent decades has been used as a storage warehouse by the Durban Art Gallery. Rechristened the Beer Hall, the municipal-owned redbrick building is located in Rivertown, an inner-city neighbourhood currently in the early stage of redevelopment.
On Sunday, to coincide with UIA2014, Johannesburg property developer Jonathan Liebmann hosted Rivertown’s inaugural fresh produce market in a derelict warehouse at 8 Morrison Street. Situated two blocks from the Beer Hall, the market attracted a mostly white and moneyed crowd.
A young couple sharing duties carrying their new-born paused to view a poster display in the market outlining Liebmann’s plan to erect an apartment complex on the site. Liebmann, best known for his Maboneng Precinct project on the eastern edge of Johannesburg’s city centre, has acquired a total of four buildings in Rivertown for redevelopment.
This weekend also saw the South African Institute of Architects host its annual awards, the country’s premier accolade for architects. Introduced in 1990, the Corobrik-SAIA Award for Excellence is conferred every second year and this year recognised eight projects. In a discipline still marked by its dominance by male practitioners, four by female architects snagged the top award.
Durban architect Richard Stretton proudly hoisted the city’s flag on a big weekend for the city when his visitor’s center at Hopewell Conservation, a 3 000-hectare nature reserve in Port Elizabeth, was also singled out for an award.