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Architecture must pivot around people

03 March 2020

By Patrick McInerney and Christoph Malan, directors
at Co-Arc International Architects

is fundamentally important to the human experience as it frames the world in
which we live. At its core, architecture is about people, about humanity and the
human condition. As British prime minister Winston Churchill observed in 1944:
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

stands to reason, therefore, that we approach architecture with our humanity
fully engaged.

countries such as the Netherlands can demonstrate exemplary models of well-integrated
social housing development and management, the world is, unfortunately, also
replete with failures, from Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, Missouri; the
Komtar Tower in Malaysia; Cabrini-Green
in Chicago; Pink Houses in Brooklyn or the infamous Grenfell Tower in London.

Africa has also failed to shine in this respect.

the outset, the development of new South African housing policies in the 1990s
buckled under the social pressure of demand, leading politicians to regard
housing delivery purely as a statistical exercise. This approach has side-lined
architectural and urban design professions. In spite of lip service being paid
to social integration in the later “Breaking New Ground” housing policy, the
settlements that continue to be developed across South Africa remain a sprawl
of carelessly designed and built, anonymous, disconnected and sterile huts.

the pressure to deliver housing by numbers was meant to prevent South Africa from
spinning into revolution, some might argue that the country’s highly unequal
society puts us on the verge of just such a revolution today; one fuelled in
part by the lack of respect afforded to many South Africans in the design, development
and management of their living environments.

Image vs identity

architecture loses its focus on humanity, and the particular social and
physical context, the process becomes more about image than identity. This is
highly problematic and, to a certain extent, a great deal of the commercial
architecture around South Africa has certainly fallen foul of that search for
image while neglecting the community, the pedestrian and the liveability of the

remarkable project from Urban-Think Tank, a global interdisciplinary design
practice, shows us that architecture and humanity can effectively merge to
create something truly special. The Empower Shack project found a home in Khayelitsha,
Cape Town under the watchful eye of local architects Design Space Africa. The
concept is simple: Develop a new open-source housing prototype and urban plan
which could be a model for informal settlement upgrading across South Africa.
Using the existing footprint of the shack and working closely and transparently
with residents and city planners, structures are built using local labour and
materials according to architectural principles focused on creating homes, not
just houses.

Key obstructions

Shack is an extraordinary and innovative way of working, and an approach South
Africa should certainly replicate. But standing squarely in the way of a fully-formed, human-focused approach to
architecture are several threats:

  • In
    our focus on the individual housing unit we fail to design for communities at
    an urban scale.
  • Our
    obsession with security fragments society, and results in areas like Fourways in
    Johannesburg which has a dearth of urbanity and is exclusionary by nature.
  • Economic forces persistently trump the social and human factors
    in favour of treating buildings solely as assets to be draped in billboards and
    neglected when times get tough.
  • Political inconsistency undermines our ability to translate
    policies into long-term projects and to see these through to completion. Constant
    changes in focus within government inevitably alter the focus of the city and
    make it harder to deal with critical issues like restitution.
  • A disregard of natural environmental considerations and
    opportunities erodes the very foundations of sustainable settlement
    development. The likes of Johannesburg and Soweto could capitalise and preserve
    their water courses as ecological footprints which could form the sort of urban
    planning green areas that make the likes of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens
    and New York’s Central Park such outstanding features. Instead, developers have
    been allowed to build right up to river banks; in spite of possible ecological

are other evolving considerations of which architects should also be aware,
such as mankind’s growing technological addiction, which creates opportunities
to re-think social congregation through interventions like free Wi-Fi coupled
to public spaces. In Argentina, free Wi-Fi has resulted in city squares and parks
filled with young people on their cellphones or interacting. It’s impossible to
ignore this new force shaping our society.

Listen, and learn

adaptation is critical, fundamental human needs continue to underpin the
essence of good architecture; and that starts with a sense of belonging and
community. This is demanding that we, as architects, listen and engage with the
communities we serve. After all, the success of any project requires buy in and
a sense of community ownership.

the 1990s we were asked by our partners, Aziz Tayob Architects, to assist with urban
design in Marabastad, the Pretoria equivalent of District Six. The initial
community participation meeting was tense and fuelled by anger at the constant
re-planning of the environment from which the community had been expropriated.
It took a series of around 20 community participation meetings in which we
structured the process and gradually identified the stakeholders and interest
groups, took note of all the concerns and workshopped designs and management
processes. It became self-evident that land rights restitution was the driving issue,
so we made that the heart of our urban development framework.

the project was successful only in that a restitution process was completed.
But it took too long. Regrettably the city dragged its feet in investing in the
area, allowing Marabastad to sink even deeper into decline. By the time the
small core of remaining business owners and residents secured ownership of the
land nobody was really interested in investing; a missed opportunity in an area
so rich in diversity and heritage.

Marabastad did underline was the need to engage, and the patience required when
working closely with communities. It takes time to break down barriers to trust
and to interact openly and honestly; the starting point to any human-centred
architectural process. But there is no easy work-around to this process of
engagement if humanity is truly to be brought to the forefront. 

the buildings we create today will shape the societies of tomorrow. Without
putting people at the centre, we can never hope to develop sustainable and
healthy communities; instead we perpetuate a cycle of reinforcing old divides
and, in the process, erode the importance of our own profession.

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