The architect as an activist

A row of colonial Victorian-era houses stand in front of me, each a different candy-coated tint of the colour wheel — a throwback to Haight-Ashbury, the origin of the American counterculture in the Sixties, the structures have a certain psychedelic charm, but they’re hardly the sort of place I expect to find an architect living in. I’m about to pick up the phone to make sure I’m at the right address when a door swings open and a rangy man with a broad, endearing smile beckons me inside.

“Please remove your shoes,” he says as he welcomes me into his home. “This is a shoe-free zone.”

It’s clear from the outset that Kevin Kimwelle is not what one might call traditional. Short dreadlocks creep out of the sides of his beanie and bare feet peek out from under his bell-bottom jeans as he ushers me into the kitchen for coffee. The walls are adorned with cardboard maquettes and the counters, shelves and large dinner table outside the kitchen are made out of pine shipping pallets. In a windowsill above the sink, wine bottles are stacked horizontally like a glass honeycomb.

The parallels between his kitchen and his work on the Silindokuhle Crèche in Port Elizabeth’s Joe Slovo township are obvious. Made of the same recyclable materials, such as the wine bottles and pallets in his kitchen, the crèche is a marvel to behold. It stands out like a beacon amid the sea of shacks and uninspiring government RDP houses.

Yet it’s not simply form over function: the structure, which accommodates about 80 children, is temperature regulating, has a functional kitchen and flushing toilets and was built for less than the cost of a single RDP house.


Originally from Pangani in Nairobi, Kimwelle came to South Africa in 2004 to study building arts and architecture at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

“At the end of 2004 I got into a stupid dare with a couple of friends,” he tells me, “to travel from Port Elizabeth back to Nairobi by any means other than airplane. The trip was a real eye-opener.”

That dare and the long road back to Kenya proved to be seminal to the then undergraduate’s development. He recalls an instance when he had to spend the night at a bus terminal in Lusaka, the facility serving as a makeshift dormitory for himself and a mass of other weary travellers.

Before first light the next morning he watched as a downtrodden man washed himself from a bowl of water with a sponge, put on an oversized suit and tie and walked out into the still-dark morning to meet whatever the dawn would bring.

In another instance he gave a lift to a pregnant woman who was going to the clinic “ just around the corner”, she said. It was two hours away by car.

Witnessing first-hand the struggles, but also the inherent dignity, of the people he met along that road cast a shadow of doubt over the path Kimwelle had chosen, one that grew longer after he entered the world of commercial architecture. He became uneasy about designing mansions for elite clientele and found himself more and more attracted to the green agenda of sustainability and development.

His contemporaries were beginning their careers as architects, but Kimwelle left his job, re-entered academia and is now studying for a multidisciplinary PhD between Nelson Mandela University, Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and Hochschule Wismar, University of Applied Sciences, in Germany. His thesis: Alternative Design and Architecture as an Agent to Social Change.

He cites his two co-ordinators, Professor Mugendi K M’Rithaa at CPUT and Professor Janet Cherry, a doctor in political sociology at Nelson Mandela university, as hugely influential in his life.

“When I first told Prof M’Rithaa about my PhD, he sat me down and asked me: ‘Kevin, why are you going this? Because, if you are going to do this PhD, it must be about the people, not about yourself.’ ”

This approach is apparent in every aspect of his work, of which the Silindokuhle Crèche is but one small part. When Kimwelle was introduced to the crèche by Love Story, a nongovernmental organisation based in Port Elizabeth, his only task was to design a new, safe and more practical structure. But, after a year of negotiations, Kimwelle convinced everyone that a bigger opportunity had presented itself.

The Joe Slovo West Community Project consists of five phases: the crèche, which will also serve as an after-hours youth centre; a special needs school and a frail care facility; a community-education centre; a “science shelter” demonstrating the various green technologies used in the project; and small business development.

The small, medium and micro-sized enterprises development phase is already underway. Kimwelle reached out to the Hope Factory, an NGO focused on holistic entrepreneurial mentorship, to develop and incubate five local businesses, and his trademark innovative structures provide them with business premises.

Joshua Jacobs, who makes furniture from pallets, owns one of the incubated businesses.

He works in his backyard and his wood and equipment are exposed to the elements, but he is optimistic about his future now that construction of his workshop is about to begin and he is about to start his training at the Hope Factory.

Kimwelle calls himself a community architect, with more emphasis on the “community” aspect than on architecture, and his work is more focused on the opportunities that physical spaces can provide than in the spaces themselves.

He also believes that design and aesthetic beauty still serve an integral role — the Silindokuhle Crèche was nominated for Most Beautiful Object in South Africa during the 2017 Design Indaba.

“The role of beauty in design goes beyond the function of the building itself,” he says. By transforming objects that are commonly seen as rubbish, he hopes that concepts such as recycling, renewable energy and business development will become more tangible and accessible.

“Beauty has the power to make the normal extraordinary and by doing so it gives objects and people more value in their communities and societies.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Daylin Paul
Daylin Paul is the visual editor at New Frame. A photographer, writer and educator based in Johannesburg, he is the winner of the Ernest Cole Award for photography and a trainer at the Market Photo Workshop.

Related stories

A quick trek to ancient Egypt during lockdown

Well, the pharaonic Voortrekker Monument to be precise for John Davenport

On bioclimatic architecture: ‘We have our own science, but we have forgotten how to transmit it’

This conversation between Mpho Matsipa and Mamadou Jean-Charles Tall, focusing on bio-climatic architecture in Senegal, is part of the larger African Mobilities project

Covid-19 is teaching us how to design healthier cities

The pandemic has transformed the way we live, attend school and do our work, and our cities must change accordingly

Eastern Cape university goes all in to assist provincial health-care efforts

A special steering committee seeks to fill urgent gaps in the system in order to fight the coronavirus

Covid-19 and its legacy in cities

Italy’s response to the pandemic can be used as a cautionary tale not only medically but also infrastructurally

Coronavirus uncertainty affects asylum seekers

Some refugee reception offices in South Africa have stopped accepting new asylum applications as the government enforces stricter measures to deal with the Covid-19 crisis
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Vitamin therapy is for drips

It may be marketed by influencers, but intravenous vitamin therapy is not necessary and probably not worth the hype, experts say

Facebook, Instagram indiscriminately flag #EndSars posts as fake news

Fact-checking is appropriate but the platforms’ scattershot approach has resulted in genuine information and messages about Nigerians’ protest against police brutality being silenced

Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community

Mam’Ntshangase was described as a fierce critic of mining and ambassador for land rights.

Unite with Nigeria’s ‘Speak Up’ generation protesting against police brutality

Photos of citizens draped in the bloodied flag have spread around the world in the month the country should be celebrating 60 years of independence
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday