Paper presented at EIC – IKI 2010 Symposium – 18 December 2010
International Keio Institute for Architecture and Urbanism – IKI – Tokyo
Teaching and learning with global south – environmental, urban and architectural education for a just world.
The political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa ended in the democratic elections of 1994. Around this time, many groupings developed agendas for political change and social transformation implied by the political liberation. Many aspects of these agendas implicitly invite architects to participate in the project of post-liberation transformation.
Politically generated agendas for change seldom dictate the cultural responses to the memory of oppression and the opportunities of freedom. The development of agendas for social and cultural renewal is taken as one of the primary intellectual tasks of an architect in South Africa today. This paper will explore the productive opportunities that the post-liberation self-consciousness offers architectural practice and education.
The negation of indigenous culture under successive governments before liberation delivers the current generation of students and architects into a present devoid of formal architectural traditions. This void of tradition is characterised by a discontinuity with pre-colonial architectural traditions, a propensity to import foreign styles and concomitantly, a propensity to value local architecture that subscribe to international movements more than architecture that tries so define its own terms of existence.
The void of tradition has two clear implications for contemporary practice and teaching that will be discussed in this paper. The first is an unrestrained opportunity to create a new architecture that will give expression to our social trajectory and the second is to find connections to contemporary culture that will stop our architecture to be adrift in a present without depth. The grounding for this pursuit is found in research into contemporary culture. This paper will illustrate a variety of research topics that were investigated in design studios, theory courses, private research and the work of our practice. The examples will show a mutual reliance on the working methods and conclusions between the spheres of teaching, research and practice.
The title of this symposium asks us to share our experiences about environmental, urban and architectural education for a just world. In South Africa, we have recently left behind a political order that created great injustice. The idea that the current generation should work towards a more just world is an axiomatic consequence of the political liberation. The implications that these socio-cultural changes have for architectural teaching and practice are what this paper will explore.
Some agendas for political change are universal principles such as the provisions of a constitution, whereas most agendas for socio-cultural change are developed in response to a given status quo, problematic or context. Without giving a detailed analysis of the crisis that Apartheid represented, I will point out some of the issues on the agenda for social-cultural change and how it applies to the built environment.
The way the current socio-cultural context is interpreted will be explained in a section titled: “The void of tradition”. The paper will conclude by showing how research into contemporary culture can offer opportunities for learning, teaching and practice.
AGENDAS FOR CHANGE
The political struggle against Apartheid in South Africa ended in the democratic elections of 1994. Around this time, many groupings developed agendas for political change and social transformation implied by the political liberation. Many aspects of these agendas implicitly invite architects to participate in the project of post-liberation transformation. As a brief introduction, I can mention some of the most significant agendas that have bearing on architectural education and practice today:
• Equality of people
• Freedom of expression
• Land restitution
• Right to decent housing
• Unifying the segregated Apartheid city
• Redressing the unequal development of urban infrastructure during Apartheid
• Increased public transport
• Creating economic and social opportunities for all, particularly in relation to social housing
• Bringing suppressed cultural expressions to the fore and countering Eurocentric bias
• Giving expression to a free society
• Finding ways to remember the past in ways that will give guidance to the future
• Nationalism (the growing interest in creating a national identity is real and unfortunate)
Social justice agendas
• Irradication of poverty
• Affirmative action
• Access to education
• Fighting HIV and AIDS
• Bioclimatic design
• Resource usage
• Water conservation
• Biodiversity protection
Politically generated agendas for change seldom dictate the cultural responses to the memory of oppression and the opportunities of freedom. The development of agendas for social and cultural renewal is taken as one of the primary intellectual tasks of an architect in South Africa today. The implementation of such agendas is essential if architecture is to remain relevant in our society. Political and economic transformation must be accompanied by a concomitant cultural shift.
Besides the ethical tasks implied by some of the above agendas for change, there are many opportunities for new expressions. As Homi Bhabha said: “The time of liberation is…a time of cultural uncertainty, and, most crucially, of significatory or representational undecidability…” (Bhabha 1994:35). My contention is that a post-liberation self-consciousness offers productive opportunities for new content in architecture and for teaching students from diverse backgrounds. The opportunity to create new architecture is facilitated by a general sense that the new is a necessity of change.
The strength of the academy is to theorise new agendas for change. The strength of practice is to check the plausibility of such propositions. As my discussions will show, there is no predictable sequence of events in the origination and unfolding of new propositions.
Another agenda for change that has great bearing on the discussion about teaching and learning in South Africa is the need to facilitate access to universities. The objective is to change the racial composition of the student body to reflect the demographics of our country. The slow rate of transformation in student representation has forced the university to implement a policy of preferential access for black students. The result is a student body with differential levels of preparedness which requires thoughtful teaching strategies with a focus on the accessibility of content. One major benefit of the preferential admissions process is great diversity in the socio-cultural references of students. With the student body being more representative of the population, the issues raised should be more representative of those affecting the country.
THE VOID OF TRADITION
To characterise our contemporary moment in South Africa by saying it is devoid of all architectural traditions would be an exaggeration. However, what I term ‘the void of tradition’ refers principally to a present without depth which is characterised by some of the following issues:
1. Disconnection from pre-colonial architecture which was brought about, before liberation, by the negation of indigenous culture under various governmental or intellectual dispensations and after liberation, by an inability to find meaningful connections with the pre-colonial architecture. “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” (Said 1994:xiii)
2. Uncertainty about the value of historic architecture. This point refers equally to the pre-colonial, colonial and Apartheid architecture. The physical neglect of many valuable historic buildings are symptomatic of a society unable the articulate the value of such buildings and incapable of reaching consensus on how these buildings should co-exist with the present.
3. Poor understanding of parallel histories. Most architects in South Africa have a very limited frame of reference about how other countries responded to cultural change in the wake of political liberation. The lessons learnt from these events seem to have almost no impact on contemporary thinking.
4. Propensity to import styles. The use of imported architectural styles as a surface application is not uncommon internationally, but the extent of this practice shows a lack of faith in local culture and the issues of our time.
5. Greater value attached to external validation. The problematic relationship with the architecture of the past as described above, coupled with the fact that publications on contemporary architecture almost always omits African architecture from consideration and validate the architectural agendas of the wealthier countries, creates the illusion that great architecture is always happening anywhere else, except at home.
6. The negation of one’s life-world. The faith in external validation causes the students to project an emptiness onto their life-worlds, which serves to divorce them from one of their most important tools to engage with space and society; their own lived experience.
7. Temptation to accept easy answers rather than confronting the uncertainty and instability of contemporary culture. One easy way out of the cultural undecidability is the subscription to nationalism in architecture (the creation of a ‘South African architecture’).
To counter the tendency of many students to negate their own lived experience in favour of the marvels that they are exposed to at university, we do projects that force students to engage with the world where they are from. In this way, their training adds to their understanding of the world, rather than replacing it. An example would be a project that I ran with post-graduate students on housing in the city. Instead of focussing on inner-city housing or subsided housing, the project asked them to look at suburbia, where all the students in that class were from. Instead of asking them to look at the house itself, I asked them to interrogate the landscape tradition that is assumed by the idea of suburbia. The main question was; could adjustments in the assumptions of landscape alter housing in the city?
Another pitfall that the ‘void of tradition’ opens up is the temptation to accept easy answers to questions of appropriate local identity. Easy answers foreclose the exploration that is fundamental to developing an innovative architecture. One of the ways in which I addressed this matter in my teaching was by presenting a theory course on “Nationalism in 20th Century Third World architecture”. The course aimed at assisting students to understand that our current time of transformation is not a unique experience internationally. The achievements and blunders of countries and architects in similar contexts are hugely beneficial to students. It helps them to understand their own experiences and engage with cultural expressions at a time of political transformation.
The void of tradition has two clear implications for contemporary practice and teaching. The first is an unrestrained opportunity to create a new architecture and the second is to find connections to contemporary culture that will stop our architecture to be adrift in a present without depth. For me, the grounding for this pursuit is found in research into contemporary culture.
RESEARCH INTO CONTEMPORARY CULTURE
As an academic and a practicing architect, the production of new knowledge is pursued through both analytical and propositional work. The outputs of this work are both classic research and design research . In tracking the production of such knowledge, it would be good to consider the beginnings and the unfolding of themes.
An investigation into a theme can be launched through design studios, pure academic research or the engagement with built work. More often than not, a theme / idea is born in one domain of work and investigated and documented in another. The following examples will demonstrate the productive reciprocities that exist between practice and academia and between writing and building.
Six years after the dawn of democracy in South Africa our firm was commissioned to design a school for the provincial government in an area severely neglected during Apartheid. During the design we did research into the following areas:
• New education legislation and the impact it would have on school design
• Gang control of the area around our site and how it could be antagonised
• Wind protection of buildings in areas of high wind (with the Department of Aeronautical Engineering at UCT) and in particular the design of roof lights that will facilitate natural ventilation
• Appropriate architectural representation for a new democratic state
To understand how ideas are developed and disseminated, I will track the development of research projects from this project onwards.
Firstly, it led to a design proposition that was realised. Secondly, the experience gained on this project informed my teaching in the thesis programme for post graduate students.
The success of the first school led to another commission for a similar school, in a different location. The question of appropriate architectural expression was picked up again and became connected with another area of research; painted walls. The articulation and de-articulation of building mass through painting have interested me for a long time and I have documented this phenomenon in South Africa photographically for years. The school was located in an area with no other public buildings. Since shops in this area were differentiated from houses by wall decorations we thought it would be good to graft the formal language of our building on this local tradition.
Again, the design was built and the lessons learnt were shared in my teaching.
Shortly after finishing the second school, I won the DaimlerChrysler prize for South African Architecture. It is an arts award that was given in 2007 to architecture for the first time. Part of the prize was an exhibition and a book documenting the first 10 years of my work. It gave me a valuable opportunity to reflect on the work and to write about some of the over-arching ideas in the architecture. The documentation of reflections on a series of works in a published piece became the next step in developing positions on architecture.
One of the strange spin-offs of winning an award “for South African Architecture” was that everyone kept on asking me what South African Architecture should be. I did not appreciate the idea that the character of architecture should be determined by an invisible geographic border. These questions irritated me so much that I developed the course on nationalism in the Third World, to which I referred earlier. In other words, designing buildings led to exhibitions and a book which led to discussions and ended up being pure academic research presented in a lectured course.
Three further research topics were pursued relation to the school projects. The first was a pure academic paper called: “The dialectic of representation: the tension between the new and the familiar in post-liberation architecture.” The reason for writing a pure academic paper was to try and distil an architectural position without the props that my buildings provide in showing the meaning of my words. This paper tested the validity of the proposition, on its own.
The second research topic that was born out of my long engagement in Du Noon, the area where the second school was built, is research into rentable housing, built informally. Because I spent so much time supervising the school construction, I started noticing a curious new housing typology that has a strong, informal economy supporting it. The potential impact of this development is great, if knowledge of it can be brought into the public domain. For this reason we measured up several buildings and interviewed their owners on various issues from rentals to construction techniques. What is significant about this academic research to our practice, is that it proves the case for a type of living condition in response to which we have repeatedly designed social housing for. Whenever we have tabled such housing projects, there has been much scepticism from bureaucrats as to whether these living conditions exist and whether they are desirable. Some of the outcomes of this research were that the rentals are extremely high and that the accommodation type provided is very popular.
The last research topic that, in a way, has its origin in the schools was on how to make roof lights in a hot climate. At Usasazo we made roof lights that would protect the building components against sandblasting, caused by directional winds over a sand dune system. In the Toussaint house which we did at about the same time, we investigated how to make a roof light that could separate the light and the heat of the sun. The light is always admitted, but the sun only comes through in winter. In summer the sun is cut off and the roof light void is ventilated of excess heat. We are currently busy with a hospital where we are taking the same idea forward in a more extensive application. The same principles are applied as in the house previously mentioned, but it is constructed in a different manner. We are still busy with these drawings although we started making full scale mock-ups . In the case of the roof light research, we are building knowledge through repetitive efforts to resolve a similar problem for different architectural purposes and for different budgets. The achievements gained and the reflections on this work are the basis of knowledge from which one could teach about light, our climate and sustainability. Although much of the research here is of a technical nature, it adds to contemporary culture by connecting concerns of sustainability with our given context.
All these examples originate from two primary projects. I could explain similar sequences that originated out of other projects. To avoid repetition, I might just point out that in some cases where we do not have real commissions to develop specific concerns, I would set up studios around these issues to begin to develop thinking around these issues…hopefully in anticipation of getting a project where we could test these ideas!
All of the research topics mentioned above are current issues that have direct bearing on society today. More importantly, the common denominator in what may appear to be divergent research topics is the opportunity that the findings have for creating an innovative contemporary architecture.
Bhabha, H.K. 1994. THE LOCATION OF CULTURE. London / New York: Routledge.
Carter, F. 2004. REVISITING REDRESS AND ACCESS IN ARCHITECTURAL EDUCATION: AN ANALYSIS OF ENTRY INTO THE UCT UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAMME. 1994 TO 2004 in Steenkamp, A (ed.) ARCHITECTURE SA, Special issue Noc/Dec 2004. p4 – 9
Said, E.W. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage. London.