In Conversation with Kate Otten

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Kate Otten: The name alone conjures images of captivating homes, considered community spaces, and inspired interiors. Kate’s practice is guided by a keen eye for creating meaning through the unusual, the spirit of which shines not only through her architectural designs but also her installations, such as ‘threads’ at the 2023 Venice Biennale. Hanging onto her every word at each brilliant talk she has presented, what better way to hear more than through a conversation with the architect herself?

You recently had an incredible exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2023 – The Laboratory of the Future. Talk us through your involvement.

Participating in the Venice Biennale was simultaneously exhilarating, nerve-racking, and inspiring in equal measure. Lesley Lokko’s skilfully conceptualised and curated vision required every party to this magnificent collaboration to do and be their best. The focus on the global south was a breath of fresh air. Unlike previous architecture biennales where existing built work is re-represented in some way like an expo, most of the work for this exhibition was specifically conceptualised and made for the event, carefully curated such that the end vision and experience was so much more than the sum of its parts.

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How did the reading of Johannesburg through the medium of thread come about, and how did it align with Lesley Lokko’s vision for the
show?

Our section [at the biennale] was called ‘Dangerous Liaisons’. I live and work in Johannesburg – a city that is formed along a ridge with some of the deepest and richest seams of gold in the world. Our architectural work records, weaves together, and re-creates layers of Johannesburg and its people into new physical landscapes, all linked by an invisible thread – this ridge of gold.

Our biennale piece, ‘threads’, is a 3-dimensional distillation of these ideas, or threads, that run through our work – mohair, glass beads, and shadow are used to tell this story. It is an intuitive reading of the physical, social, and political landscape of Johannesburg; a dangerous liaison between land and people, between great wealth and exploitation that followed the discovery of gold along the ridge.

‘threads’ tells a story that is a reading of the history and social geographies of Johannesburg. The play of light and shadow, the use of colour and pattern, and the hand-making and collaborative processes, all reflect our architecture, our proposition for the Laboratory of the Future.

How are you planning to keep experimenting with local crafts?

This is very much part of my language of making architecture, and I use the word ‘making’ quite pointedly. The choice of craft and material is a specific response to the context of each project. Available materials, available skills, and thinking about how we can use these resources to make meaning all influence how a local craft might be used. Your approach to activism is largely inspired by your passion for architectural education that reaches beyond Western teachings. How is this exploration present in elements of your design? A belief in the value of many knowledge systems other than a Western canon underscores all of my work. It speaks to how the use of earth as a building material, for example, or an interest in Islamic architecture, are threads woven through the work. Talking, drawing, and making are our tools of communication in the act of collaborating and sharing ideas and skills. Through our participation in lectures and mentorships, and by maintaining links with several schools of architecture, we engage and share knowledge with future generations of architects. We are alive to the social and environmental impact of architecture and its potential to destruct and to heal.

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Your firm has a brilliantly varied portfolio across many sectors, but which one speaks to you the most at the moment?

It’s the variety that speaks to me. Different projects all have different briefs, sites, and client needs, so the response is tailored specifically to that project. This is not to say that the work does not cross-reference previous projects or core thinking; there is a common hand that can be seen through the work, but it is not a stylistic repeat button that gets pressed.

What are you currently working on?

We’ve been doing quite a lot of work at the University of the Witwatersrand, including the conversion of the iconic Planetarium into a Digital Dome. I love the challenge of working with a powerful historic building like the Planetarium; how to maintain and enhance this resource but simultaneously move it into contemporary use. Another exciting project is the restoration and adaptation of a house designed by Pancho Guedes in Forest Town. My final year at Wits was also the last year Pancho was head of department and this house was being built while we were at varsity. The house was stripped of all its finishes and left abandoned for about 5 years. It’s wonderful to be able to nurture it back into shape. Both projects engage with reusing existing buildings – a very sustainable practice.

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Your Women’s Jail Living Museum has been widely published and often referenced as your most influential work. What do you think has made this such a special and successful project for you?

The Women’s Jail Living Museum was a really important project for me. It happened at a very specific moment in South Africa’s history, and, in many ways, embodies the story of South Africa. Shortly after the elections in ‘94, there were several civic projects undertaken by the JDA and funded by Blue IQ that sought to make connections between the formerly separated communities and parts of Johannesburg. Constitution Hill, where the Women’s Jail is, was one of these projects. Working at Constitution Hill also connects back to ‘threads’ and my interest in the ridge, and the invisible link between the Johannesburg Fort, the Women’s Jail, Wits University, the randlord houses along the same ridge, my lulu kati kati on Melville ridge, and our work in Soweto.

We love the design of lulu kati kati, which houses the KOA Studio. Could you tell us about the idea behind this uniquely designed space?

My beloved lulu kati kati, my house that is not a house per se, but rather a living ‘organism’ that I have recently moved our studio into. It’s a wonderful full circle to be back in my castle on the ridge of Melville looking out at the koppies and beyond, nestled in the tree and surrounded by all the other trees, my babies that I planted 14 years ago! Lulu kati kati is one of my boldest ‘constructions for self’ – a real experiment in construction where the top floors are suspended from six massive gumpoles, 9.5m high, weighing over half a ton each. It is wonderful to experience the different levels of the structure; bright and sunny at the top, our studio, leafy and breezy in the middle, our lounge and meeting room, and our soon-to-be events space at the bottom nestled in the rocks and opening to the garden. I love being here.

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Who has been your biggest professional influence?

The late Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, has long been my hero. He worked to re-ignite the knowledge and skill of building with sun-baked mud bricks and believed that beauty was a human right, especially in the homes he designed for the poor. His work is sensual and sustainable. From Lesley Lokko, I learnt that architecture is not only in the built form, and that deep thinking and questioning are part of the process of making better architecture. Lesley challenges and inspires, and she sure isn’t scared of hard work!

How would you describe yourself?

A ‘cheerful humanist’, as Alan Lipman described me. I rail against mediocracy and see beauty in unexpected places. I am very particular, but more mellow as I grow older.

This article is an extract from our April volume, click here to read the follow volume!

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