/ 6 April 2017

The architect as an activist

Form and function:  Kevin Kimwelle designed the distinctive Silindokuhle Crèche in Port Elizabeth’s Joe Slovo township.
Form and function: Kevin Kimwelle designed the distinctive Silindokuhle Crèche in Port Elizabeth’s Joe Slovo township.

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.”