Re-Gaining Lost Ground
In the past few months, as I watched the various socio-economic; political and environmental factors at play within our country and beyond our borders, I could not help but ponder as to where we fit in the greater scheme of things, as a profession. While mentally processing these issues, I could not help but pose a question- What do we need to do in order to contribute positively “Towards re-gaining the Lost Ground” ?
This thought might be interpreted by some, as being triggered by perceived “architectural profession arrogance”, and yet in my terms, this question is humbly triggered by the realization that the once noble profession of architecture has, in recent years, been systematically pushed to the periphery of the socio-economic stream. I somewhat accept that, in a way, professional architects and academics, have partly allowed this sad state of affairs to happen, and are therefore partly to blame for this “Lost Ground”.
It is a fact that architects were once held in high esteem by the societies they served, the fundamental reasons being that:
- Architects understood what their communities needed, and as such, they in turn responded by providing workable solutions to their societal needs.
- Architects fully accepted roles of being community leaders, collaborated with policymaking decisions and in doing so, accepted the reality of interacting with politicians, and lawmakers of the time.
- They played central roles in determining where strategic “community convergence spaces” were to be developed within settlements, and provided design leadership in those space shapes and scales and sizes.
When one thinks of fundamental development drivers, one discovers that at a principle level, these have not changed drastically, since the aforementioned golden days.
- Community security still continues to be a primary issue;
- Community health and welfare still remain prime societal needs;
- Community members still require access to land, and access to food and clean water;
- Transportation; communication and inter-connectivity amongst various communities for trade and other purposes, is still a necessity.
- The celebration of arts; culture and religious beliefs still endure today.
Sadly, throughout the ages preceding the eighteen century, good architecture tended to be reserved and enjoyed by royalty, clergymen and those who were in the ranks of nobility. Architecture, in the main, seemed to be the means by which to celebrate design and construction of:-
- King’s palaces;
- Grand places of worship and burial (especially of the elite);
- Places for the celebration of arts and culture;
- Palaces of justice and other government buildings.
It can be historically proven that architecture, as a discipline, has always been centre stage in the development of many, if not all societies, and that it has always been responsible for the visual expression of societal development stages, related socio- economic and cultural changes.
Both World Wars and the emergence of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the likes of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. These forward-thinkers, who, in realising the damage caused by the wars, spearheaded what began to be regarded as the modern town planning and urban design principles, which were somewhat also influenced by the Marxist and other socialist theories, who:
- Accepted the reality of the need for urbanisation
- Recognised the fact that the wars and Industrial Revolution had caused people to move towards centres of employment resulting in the desperate and urgent need for urban mass housing.
- Embraced the emergence and discovery of new materials, such as mass produced steel and glass not as a threat, but design opportunities for the enhancement of the built environment.
It can be said that these Modern Movement architects directly or indirectly influenced the thinking of politicians and economists of the time, as to how “modern cities and towns” were to develop. Sadly, architect Mies van der Rohe, who was part of this group, made a big name for himself in America but could not brush off the stain of being a close ally of the Nazi Germany and for his close links to Adolf Hitler.
Architects have power to express political statements through the usage of visible and tangible symbols (buildings and memorials).
Architects played a major role during the period of Imperialist rule. It is no wonder that one would find remnants of Georgian and Victorian architecture in African Cities which were under the British rule and one would find remnants of Portuguese influenced architecture in places like Angola and Mozambique. Be that as it may, the message in the aforementioned examples is clear “Architects cannot afford nor pretend to be immune to the socio-political agenda of any country.”
Our own Union Buildings (Administrative Seat of Government) in Pretoria and our Houses of Parliament (Political Seat of Government) in Cape Town are living examples of the British rule in South Africa, and are a clear demonstration of the close links and influence architect Sir Hebert Baker had with the Crown of England.
I could not help but wonder why the students found it necessary to launch the much talked about “Rhodes must Fall campaign” on the most visible public spaces at the University of Cape Town, Upper Campus. I am aware of the fact that there are different views on this matter, some people condemning the modus operandi by the students. However, I wish to put forth the flip side to the matter. I ask if this is not another way of bringing a debate to our table, as professionals operating within the built environment space, to critically examine and review issues around built spaces and monumental structures, protected under our current heritage laws, vis-a -vis the transformation agenda embraced by most citizens of our country.
Architects have power to facilitate a city’s economic transformation, through spatial transformation.
The City of Bilbao is a good example. This was a city with an economy which was completely run down and did not feature in the Spanish tourism sphere up until the late 1990’s. Then architect Frank Gehry was commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation, to get involved with the Museum for Modern Art in Bilbao. Without this architect’s intervention the City of Bilbao’s situation would probably still remained as before . The unique and creative manner in which this building was built and commissioned in 1997:-
- Attracted 4 Million visitors, from all over the world, in the first three years of its existence.
- The ripple economic effect of this huge and sudden influx of visitors to this relatively unknown city, all of a suddenly, generated revenues in excess of 500million Euros (R6.5billion) during this first 3-year period.
- The nett effect of the improved revenue streams for the City of Bilbao, helped her to transform herself, to one of the major tourist attraction points of Spain.
Closer to home, it took the vision and courage of people like architect Dave Jack to identify the opportunity at the underutilised section of Cape Town harbour, and convinced the City not to miss this untapped golden opportunity. In 1988 he proposed the transformation of the harbour through the notion of “re-uniting the City with the Sea”. This architectural vision resulted in Cape Town’s well known V & A Waterfront.
- Economists would attest to the fact that over the past ten years V&A has contributed R200 billion to the South African economy.
- It is also a proven fact that this development attracts in excess of 24 million visitors per year- 55% of which are from the Western Cape; 19% being RSA nationals and 26% being internationals.
Without sounding negative, we need to do more than what we have done in the past 21 years of our hard earned democracy, in stitching the divide created by our painful past. Our cities are still very reflective of what the previous status quo had been, despite the transformation policies which have since been put in place since 1994. It is my assertion that one of the main reasons for the slow progress in this regard, is the notable disjuncture or apathy between built environment professionals (both in private and academic space) versus the political and big business principals, tasked with the duty of developing our cities and towns.
Unless we quickly realize:
- Which battles are worth fighting and winning
- What we need to do towards redressing the societal challenges our country is facing
- What role do we need to play as a profession towards contributing to the social cohesion and national identity of our society?
Our profession will continue to be pushed to the periphery of the development agenda. You be the judge!!
Enhancing our stakeholder engagements ………
We are fully aware that whilst regulations are a necessity in our built environment, more often than not they tend to impact extremely heavily on our member’s business operations and in some cases their ultimate survival. To that end, we have been enhancing our engagements with relevant stakeholders and our regulator, SACAP.
In the month of February 2016, we held our Board Meeting in Mpumalanga in order to afford the Board the opportunity to interact with Regional Stakeholders. It is important to note that the field of stakeholders with whom SAIA engages ranks from local government authorities to participation by SACAP at the very highest level (President & Registrar).
Key issues affecting our profession includes, procurement of professional services, approval processes from local authorities which include building plan approvals and the professional regulatory context (which includes Competition Commission rulings amongst others). We, as the representative board of architects, are pursuing all possible avenues to ensure that the interests of our members are safe guarded.
Our National Architectural Awards programs have kicked off on a good note this year and will culminate with awards events during the latter part of the year. Let me add a word of thanks and appreciation to all the entrants for submitting work of a very high standard.
As usual, l end off with a reminder of who we are;
“A collective Voice serving the interests of Architects in pursuit of excellence and responsible design”
SAIA Architects to be the Authoritative Leaders in the built environment
Chief Executive Officer (CEO)