What would define the human city? Who are the participants in design – and who are being ignored? These were questions posed at the 2018 Architecture ZA18 (AZA18) held in Tshwane’s city centre’s regenerated space 012 Central this past weekend. DIANE DE BEER reports on the conference that explored sustainable, adaptive and integrated cities that can respond to growing social, economic and environmental challenges, under the theme WeTheCity: Memory & Resilience:
Transform or die!
That was one of the first slogans thrown out there at the conference almost as a challenge to the more than 600 architecture students from across the country and Namibia who made up more than half of the participatory delegates, the rest of who were professional architects.
The role of architects in the built environment is being increasingly highlighted as new opportunities are created towards improved resource consumption, economic and social dynamism, market creation, human development and climate change adaptation. But we must pay attention.
“We have already seen the results of rapid climate change,” said Prof Christina du Plessis introducing the themes of the conference. And we are ill prepared even though all the predictions, for example, pointed to the drought situation in the Cape.
“People think that with some rain, things will return to normal,” she says. “What we have now is the new normal. It is not an emergency situation, it’s here to stay.”
She pointed out that we have created a world we don’t know how to inhabit, and we find it difficult to adapt to the fast changes that are constantly barrelling towards us. “We have to start thinking out of the box” or we will be overwhelmed by the increasing social divisions so dominant in our world and becoming worse every day.
“We aren’t separate from the environments we create. To be resilient, we have to think and respond positively to change,” she said, kickstarting the conference into action.
That’s exactly where Mexican Architect of the Year in the 2017 Women in Architecture Awards by The Architectural Review and the Architects Journal, Gabriela Carrillo, is focussed.
In a country where only 7 percent of the population can afford architects, it becomes a profession for the elite, something she battles constantly and for which she has developed strategies because of working in a place always in crisis.
“It’s all about working with what you have and being as inclusive as possible while transforming. We are in constant dialogue between the contemporary and the original. It is important to take advantage of the old structure when thinking of renewal,” she says.
One of these projects was an oral court in a country where many people are incarcerated for decades without trial and often innocent. “It was about creating democracy for people who don’t have liberty,” she explains. “The main difficulty was to adhere to strict security rules while at the same time suggesting an idea of space that would give everyone a feeling of freedom and transparency.”
She argues strongly that spaces in city can transform social encounters. And in South Africa with our still separate spaces and living areas that would be especially valid. “We need to practise architecture that can evolve and embrace problems.”
It’s all about how architecture can articulate what a space is about.
She is also constantly aware of people who can’t afford architects. “We have to look at ways to do it economically by for example reminding people when they have forgotten where they are.” Here she pointed to Mexicans in rural areas where wood is freely available and yet they feel they have to build in bricks or concrete.
“We can help and be part of everyone’s dignity which is part of wellness for everyone,” she maintains. She knows that life is about more than simply having food and water. “Better quality spaces are important. But we politicise space,” she warns.
From her university period, she set her sights on a specific future by attending a largely free university where the population was completely mixed- the full strata. “Many of us still teach there even though the pay is dismal,” she says. “We know the difference it makes to lives to learn in this kind of inclusive environment.”
She chooses her projects very carefully and those that are profitable will allow her to expand into areas where she might not make money. “I don’t make money but my life is rich in many different ways. My job is not a job, it is a passion,” she says.
Still in the first years of his career, Cameroonian architect Hermann Kamte has similar ideas about designing for his people while retaining a spirit of Africa in everything he does. “It’s important to preserve who we are,” he says.
Wood is currently his preferred building block and won him much attention in the architectural world when he designed a Lagos-based wooden skyscraper for an international competition.
He explains that because Lagos was in its earlier life a tropical rain forest, it makes sense to turn to wood. “It’s about our past and what it represents symbolically,” he says. He also believes that you use what you find around you and often, in Africa, it is wood. “People think you are simply providing food for termites,” but for him it is about this moment and place and the relationship between the people and their environment.
He advocates strongly for the culture of a specific place to be reflected and views it as the legacy between the past, present and future generations. And then go bold, he advises, which is exactly what he does with his Yoruba-dictated design and patterns so much part of his wooden tower-block building, which won the WAFX Prize in the inaugural cultural identity category in 2017
It is all about specificity. Only two days into his Pretoria visit, he realised that bricks and concrete are the preferred building materials here. “You have to pay attention to the culture,” he warns.
And he is serious about his architecture future and interventions. “You can’t make it happen, but you can make it possible,” is his motto.
Sponsored by the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP), the National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC), PPC and Boogertman + Partners, AZA18 offered an important platform for engaging around solutions and ideas that are regenerative, adaptive and diverse in the face of new scenarios – in discussion with some of architecture’s key thinkers and practitioners.
The conference organisers were clear about their forward thinking in their selection of both the venue in Pretoria’s city centre and their choice of speakers. Be socially responsible and do socially responsible projects or sustainability won’t even come into play.