Architect/academic ‘Ora Joubert is adamant that her book celebrating young South African architectural students calls for a wider audience. She tells DIANE DE BEER why she feels the acknowledgement is important – and she’s absolutely right:

As a former head of two architecture schools in the country and an outspoken critic of poorly considered architecture, Professor ‘Ora Joubert is often remembered for the public outcry that ensued following the publication in a national newspaper of her inaugural address at the University of Pretoria.

Her critical stance against the South African obsession with faux Tuscan (or “Boere-Toskaans” as it was dubbed derogatorily) coupled with the incessant questioning of what then qualifies as authentic, contemporary South African architecture, compelled her to compile an anthology of meritorious work.

The publication in 2009 of 10+years 100+buildings – architecture in a democratic South Africa (Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing) was well acclaimed and received an Award of Excellence from the South African Institute of Architecture.

The “blue book” (as referred to by students) was followed a couple of years back by a yellow version: another 480-page tome titled 10+years 100 projects – architecture in a democratic South Africa (Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing) though, this time, celebrating the creative endeavours of South African students of architecture which receives hardly any recognition outside the colloquial confines of the architectural fraternity.

Per chapter, the book features exceptional final-year design projects by future architects from the respective South African universities offering tuition in architecture. Although the projects are intrinsically visionary, I was nevertheless astounded by the work ethic, the responsible design ethos and the remarkable aesthetic sensibilities on display.

Joubert describes 10+years 100 projects as an impressive record of the theoretical discourse within our particular socio-economic and political circumstances. The book is also a barometer to gauge how radically our design priorities have shifted in recent years and is both a reminder – if not reprimand – of where our architectural output should be situated.

“The making of meaningful place with limited and sustainable resource in a biosphere as remarkably diverse as ours, remains as fundamental to the architectural discourse as it was centuries ago – albeit far less unselfconscious and far more self-referential; inevitably, of more considered social, urban and environmental consequences,” she says.

 Reflecting on the themes adopted by the different schools of architecture, Joubert points out that architecture is by definition a reflection of a particular zeitgeist: “The collection of projects is clearly situated in South Africa’s socio-political paradigm, with students acutely aware of the country’s social discrepancies, spatial distortions and economic disparities. This is compounded by the calamities of negligent environmental practices and their impact on the built fabric.”

Presumed differently to anywhere else in the world, the themes explored by South African students are noticeably ‘serious’ with candidates positively ‘burdened’ by a sense of historic accountability, as well as a pronounced societal and environmental responsiveness. Yet, with our current and ongoing economic catastrophe, especially amongst the young, it is encouraging that future professionals are devising innovative built alternatives.

The reader is exposed to a journey through a South African cultural kaleidoscope where an extraordinary narrative unfolds.

In broad brush strokes, students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal are in the forefront of addressing the plight of the indigent in urban areas through the fostering of skills-development programmes.

Cameron Finnie’s Skills Development Centre, revives the arts and crafts discourse of the early 20th century in a contemporary and appropriately South African context, whereas Dennis-Lee Stols’ Cardboard Recycling Facility addresses the needs of the informal recyclers that have become a permanent feature of our cities. In turn, Memory Market by Nischolan Pillay, celebrates the achievements of South Africa’s Indian community and pertinently adopts an architectural regionalist approach rather than a somewhat-passè, culturally-driven stylism.

Students from the University of Tshwane engage in the humanising of the institutional facilities, as well as imbuing rudimentary public amenities with civic dignity. One such example is Adriaan Louw’s Low-security Correctional Facility which recognises the potency of architecture in aiding human rehabilitation, for not only the inmates but in the long term the whole society. Another is the community responsive Pretoria Police Headquarters by Danie Steenkamp and a deliberate attempt to alter societal preconceptions through built form. The Culture Heritage Centre by Vidette McLellan transforms the Old Synagogue in Pretoria (where the Rivonia Trial was held) into a centre of preservation of endangered languages and cultures, which could well contribute significantly to both our capital and capitol collective. 

The Nelson Mandela University can be singled out –in our current health crisis – for their proposals of much-needed healthcare and educational facilities in especially township environments, with distinct urban and community intent. These objectives are vividly demonstrated in Nikhil Tricam’s proposed Mother and Child Centre for Kwazakhele in the Eastern Cape, as well as the generic Community School Cluster developed by Ruan Marsh. The Port Elizabeth Railway Intermodal Interchange by Mofulatsi Rampou draws attention to vital role that well-designed transport infrastructure plays in the economic mobility of any country’s inhabitants and glaringly absent locally.

For the students from the University of Pretoria, the so-called productive landscape calls for enquiry, promoting an eco-systemic integration of recycled buildings, innovative economic production and community profiting. Proposals range from a Perfumery & Glass-blowing Facility (Norbert Koch) situated in a former flourmill, a sewage plant converted into a Textile Mill (Heidi van Eeden) to a Brass Foundry (Cliff Gouws) in a former military installation. The rejuvenation and contemporary use of the number of forts on the periphery of Pretoria and dating from the Anglo-Boer/South African Wars also came under scrutiny.

Identity and memory are at the heart of the University of the Free State design projects with explosive results. Wagener Hancke’s Magerfontein Mausoleum heeds the oversimplification of the trauma that has cast a long shadow across the country’s subsequent history, while Bernard Viljoen’s N(9) Museum explores – in abstract terms – the abundance of nothingness on a stretch of road between Aberdeen and Willowmore in the Karoo. Ilani du Plessis’s Centre for Indigenous Knowledge is imagined at the entrance of Pretoria’s Freedom Park with the site interpreted according to ancient African practices of divination. The Museum for Labour designed by Katie Salzmann reminds us of the immeasurable price of sweat equity and is theatrically (and not without irony) situated on the edge of Kimberley’s Big Hole.

The University of the Witwatersrand challenges everything from corporate thresholds, mining monopolies to funerary practices through alternative architectural appropriations. Nontokozo Mhlungu’s Refugee Sanctuary for Hillbrow explores the restorative and therapeutic role of architecture in a sadly xenophobic-riddled environment, whereas Amit Nanoo’s Hindu Funerary Facility (appropriately titled an “existential theatre”) conceptualises a reincarnated form of architectural expression. And in an environment where mining still exerts considerable influence, Yvonne Brecher proposes an Opera & Choral Chamber in a former mineshaft – described as a portal to an underworld inaccessible to the public, whilst drawing attention to the fact that our mining landmarks are fast becoming relics of a burdened past.

From the University of Johannesburg, the topics range from Dirk Coetzer’s uncanny Acid Mine-water Purification Stations, envisaging multivalent, self-sustaining habitable environments, to Daniel Lyonga’s Regional Home Affairs Offices, which spatially interrogates how ‘public’ our public services really are. In Dark City – an illicit occupation of vertical settlements in the heart of Johannesburg – Harold Johnson introduces crucial acupunctural interventions to alleviate an acute housing shortage.

The students from the University of Cape Town reach across time and space with Maria Gabriella Aragão’s District Six Memorial which explores the capacity of architecture to capture the memory of the loss as a result of forced removals, while Danielle Reimers designed multi-facetted Playgrounds for Change to improve fundamental infrastructural integration between the Mother City and its satellite outskirts. Michael Lewis proposes a ‘violent’ Exhibition Facility for the second-oldest colonial building in the country, the Slave Lodge built in 1679, manifesting as an intricate geometric-inspired architectural contortion.

This is cherry picking from the 100 projects of which many more capture the imagination. What ‘Ora Joubert hoped to achieve is to give substance to these projects described as “fantasy” and to create a platform where the work of our young design talent in architecture could be captured.

What encourage Joubert was that the students took from a negative past and turned it into a positive by designing responsibly, taking their world into consideration and trying to fuse that past with the future by not making the same mistakes.

And dealing – hopefully – architecturally, with our apartheid legacy in a responsible but also hugely creative manner.

 Now we have to hold thumbs that some of these student dream projects will some day be turned into reality. In the meantime, page through this tome if you have the chance and admire what could be our future. The book is packed with imaginations running wild but wonderfully so. And with their eye on the future, students were intent on making a difference – something this country needs to embrace.