Architecture must pivot around people

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Architecture 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.”

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

South Africa has also failed to shine in this respect. From 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.

If 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

When 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 space. 

A 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 

Empower 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 concerns. 

There 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

While 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. 

In 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. 

Ultimately 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. 

What 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.  

Ultimately, 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.