As a practising architect, I am interested in making. Making architecture is a complex, large-scale, drawn-out, and highly collaborative process, and perhaps for these reasons — i.e. architecture’s un-immediacy and mediated-ness — architects tend not to think of themselves as ‘makers’. And yet, architects are makers. Making informs unique ways of thinking; for makers, the value of making is less about problem-solving than problem-finding. Makers learn through making. Making is research. How buildings are made, get made, and could be made, are questions central to that research.
Architects are in constant dialogue with the materials and processes of making. Materials and processes are never neutral; they’re bound up in economics, culture, and politics. A given material, say a brick or thatch, may take on a new nuanced meaning in each different context where it’s employed. How we build says something about who we are. Architecture produces culture.
Architects are generalists — we know a little about lots. Material science, craft, and engineering are key elements in making architecture. But whilst our creations rely on the rigours of the sciences, we are, at best, amateurs in these disciplines. Architects consult with specialists for expertise, but a degree of naivety is not necessarily a drawback — it serves us in some ways, allowing for speculative leaps unencumbered by the tyrannies of empiricism. Sci-fi is often a precursor to science.
Creative dialogue — exchanging ideas, asking ‘What if?’, courageous listening — these are powerful tools for social transformation. Architects have a unique ability to imagine realities beyond the constraints of the present. We are society’s imagination engine. We are skilled collaborators, good at navigating the complex conversations of multiple stakeholders, able to reconcile the big picture with the details. Architects (worthy of the title) are Spatial Activists.
Taking a walk around our city, one notices many building products previously manufactured in South Africa that are no longer available. From reeded glass and clay breezeblocks, to channel glass, terrazzo stair treads, linoleum flooring, lightweight concrete mouldings, trowelled-on renders, and asphalt shingles — for one reason or another these are no longer made here. Product ranges have shrunk. There is an epidemic of homogenisation in our built environment. Perhaps cut-and-paste laziness, perhaps sheepish convention, perhaps faddish biases have led architects to unwittingly contribute to the worrying atrophy in the range of materials available to us. As the specifiers of materials, as influencers of taste, architects must shoulder part of the blame.
The market is Darwinian — demand determines supply. Specify or it will die. The aesthetic enrichment of our built environment notwithstanding, there’s an obvious economic growth and employment angle here too. How to reverse this depressing trend? We desperately need to re-energise the country’s ailing manufacturing sectors — who better to inject a boost of innovation moxie than architects? My own practice is heavily engaged with local manufacturers on product development ideas. (And I encourage my students at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, where I teach a unit titled ‘Methods and Materials’, to do the same.)
These are the broad interests of my own architecture practice; we experiment with emergent building methods and materials. We encourage brave, imaginative leaps into future tectonic and spatial possibilities. We tease out subtle twists in traditional techniques and forgotten technologies. We borrow and adapt from other making disciplines. We learn through making.
Director and Professional Architect