REACHING FURTHER FOR CAPE TOWN’S BUILT ENVIRONMENT
What if positive change for the country’s cultural hub wasn’t just a forgotten blueprint? It has been called one of the best cities in the world, and architect Robert Silke couldn’t agree more – Cape Town is the place to be. For architects like himself, the opportunities to make a difference to the built environment are endless, as well as highly achievable. Sitting down to hear Robert’s thoughts on the future of building in the city, we explored what it means to truly contribute quality and joy to a town budding with potential.
As someone who appears to place design at the forefront of your work, do you feel that architecture as a discipline is inherently more of an art form or a practical endeavour? Or does it naturally strike a balance between the two?
At university, we were taught that architecture is the greatest of all the arts, and by greatest I think they meant that it is physically the largest of the arts; I don’t think it can possibly be the greatest of the arts. In fact, I’m not so sure architecture is even an art at all. It’s more of a craft, maybe the greatest of the crafts, but not the greatest of the arts. It’s a built environment profession, and we’re in the business of making things and we try to make them nicely. The difference between arts and crafts comes down to originality. I once read that fine art is something that, when it’s good, it’s so good that it ought never to be repeated by anyone. That’s the bar for originality, whereas craft is the opposite. Craft is if you produce something so well, that it is so good it ought to be repeated by everyone. For architects and craftsmen, originality is not as important as building up generations of skills, and generations of techniques and technologies in order to make quality buildings as it were. We’re trying to build a movement in architecture, so that everybody starts producing quality buildings.
Until the 20th century, life was pretty easy for architects in that there was almost a manual as to how to be an architect. You didn’t have to be a genius. But we’re taught in architecture now that each building has to be totally original, and cannot be based on anything you’ve seen before; you must reinvent architecture for yourself. Well, the nature of architecture means it’s not always possible to do that.
The expectation is to make it art, but it’s not necessarily achievable.
Because we’re not all artists. The standard of originality that applies to the fine art world, architects have applied to ourselves; we think we must do something truly world changing with every building that we do. In a country like South Africa, where we are effectively building a new built environment, it would help if there was some consensus between architects as to what would be a good thing to do in the city and what kind of direction the building should take, and that we’re all on the same page as we try to build a better society.
Do you think a focus on striving for a balance between functionality, beauty, and budget is the way to go for the future of architecture?
It has to be. It’s a very practical profession. 90% of what you’re dealing with is technology, budgets, technical constraints, and commercial requirements. If you ask neighbours in any neighbourhood if they want a new building in their neighbourhood, they generally don’t. Nobody wants a block of flats on their doorstep. My role as an architect is to make acceptable those things which people don’t believe should ever have been done in the first place. If you cut to the chase of where environmental politics is going, we shouldn’t be building anything. But the craft of the commercial architect is to mitigate these things, so that they are somehow more acceptable. The element of creative arts in architecture can be quantified at a level of about 10%. That’s the margin for creativity, and the rest is all budgets and commercial concerns and technical concerns. As an architect, even if you only have a 10% influence on what that building ultimately looks like, you can use your 10% to make that building more joyous and attractive. It’s about getting joy from that kind of making, which we as a practice do when given the opportunity to make something to improve a street.
You’ve mentioned before that you want to make for a better city with your buildings. What does that mean in terms of your practice and approach?
The streak in society, and particularly in a city like Cape Town, is that it is essentially conservative. This is a town that has a self-image of being ‘little Cape Town’, despite being a big, heaving city. And we resist the new, which is not a bad instinct to have necessarily, that conservative instinct. But there are a lot of parts of Cape Town that are really not very beautiful. There are large swathes in the city, which are desperately poor, and terribly built, and ugly, but ugly is the least of their problems. There are also parts of the city that are not so poor, and still terribly built. Of course, to be an architect in Cape Town, as one of the greatest city settings in the world, is a privilege. But if you set aside the natural beauty of the city and you just look at the buildings, it’s an ordinary city. There’s a lot that could be done to improve the built environment.
At the moment, the commercial scene is the biggest scene in town, and all the developers we work for believe that they are improving the cities and improving the suburbs that they are working in. There really is a feeling among them of passion about the built environment. There are far easier ways to make money than to build buildings, so you have to be passionate to be building. The people who come to us, they want to do something special.
How do we know we’re improving the built environments? When we do a building in a prominent spot, if you can stand outside those buildings, and watch cars slow down, and people stop and take photos and just point and talk. We’re not going to change the world with our buildings, we’re not going to socially reengineer the cities. We’re not going to address homelessness; we’re not going to address all of spatial injustice. We can’t take an ugly street and turn it into a beautiful street, but certainly if you create a beautiful new building that gives people hope, it creates a little bit of positive sentiment in the air. My favourite point in any construction project is when the scaffold comes down on a façade and people can’t help but look at the building – that’s the joy.
Your recent project, Spindle, is one everyone’s already ogling at. Did you have a personal goal when designing it, and did the history of the area influence your design?
The history of the area and the context of the area – that has to influence the design. It leaks out through the pores of the building, the area that it’s in, and sometimes we don’t even set out to do that, it just happens. Spindle is a chaotic creative idea, fully based on where it is and the constraints of the absolutely tiny site in the middle of the city centre, but probably one of the most beautiful parts of the city, with incredible architectural heritage around it. Spindle is a tower, it’s tall and thin, it literally cannot help itself but ooze out the beauty of its context; it’s a product of its context and history within the city.
When we named it Spindle, there was no conscious awareness of the silk spinning history in the area. It was not at the top of our minds. It was that it is on Spin Street, and it’s tall and thin, like a spindle. The history was unintentional. It’s not to say that there wasn’t some subliminal knowledge of the history, but it literally comes to you in the middle of the night, from the depth of your subconscious mind, not predetermined, and it happened to work well as an addition to the city’s story.
Tropicana is our latest and has just started construction in Sea Point. It’s another wild new one that we’re doing for Signatura and again, you’ll see there’s a lot of context. It just screams Sea Point.
It seems like something that would have naturally appeared in Sea Point. It couldn’t have been a better location for it.
Certainly, and it just comes out that way. We don’t do a survey of all the buildings around, but if one’s got a feel for the area one tries to build something that encourages and boosts the spirit of that area.
What are you hoping to see more of in Cape Town and what excitesyou about the possibilities in the city?
When you’re working in a fully developed society, there are very few opportunities to make a change. And if you’re living in most developing societies, the challenges to the built environment are so great that to do one little building is really lost in the developmental challenges of a regular developing city. Cape Town has got this amazing balance, with parts that you can work with which are very highly developed, but they still need a lot of help. It’s the most amazing natural setting, but most importantly, it’s one of the creative industries in South Africa in which there is a real demand for the skill. Cape Town is this bottomless market, with people that need places to live, and we’ve got to make room for everyone. It’s not a drop in the ocean when you do an eight- or 10-story building beautifully in Cape Town; it’s enough to reset everybody’s imaginations. The standards are improving. Everyone wants to create something more special and so developers are starting to push the envelope on design.
When we get a building to do, even if it’s a little one, we can’t help but get excited that there’s a chance to positively influence the way the city is going. Cape Town is small enough that a little building can change an environment. The industry has the most tremendous opportunity to reshape the urban environment positively. This is our one big chance to get things right. We’re not a particularly wealthy society and we can only afford to build things once. This is not the dress rehearsal. This is it.