Opinion: Hugh Fraser

UIA Durban 2014

The International Union of Architects (UIA) closed its triennial conference in Durban after a week of meetings, workshops, exhibitions and a generally stimulated contribution to the urban fabric of Durban. Its closing gesture was to award IM Pei, the UIA Gold medal for his contribution to architecture. The 94 year old Chinese American, renowned for his towering skyscrapers, is too frail to travel but it was received on his behalf by George Miller, a colleague from his office.

Ours would surely be a dull world without his or other architectural icons, indeed many world cities define their very identity with famous buildings. It was this work that informed the 9 keynote lectures of the conference which started and finished each day. However, it was the 300 parallel lectures between the bracketed talks that  comprise the guts of architecture for the everyday person and their experience thereof. The workings of a hospital or school or life under a bridge in Cape Town for a Tanzanian stowaway.

It has already been established that more people in the world live in cities than not. So what are the real factors that define architecture for us. In this awkward three legged race between architects, developers and society, there are a number of factors that influence the urban fabric. For South Africans its our history, both colonial and apartheid, the impact of the motor car; public transport systems and food production, to name a few.

The world capitals of New York, London and Paris roughly have the same density of about 5500 persons per square kilometre. Johannesburg has a density of about 665. This is clearly going to have an impact on lifestyle and everything associated with city living. The expanded road networks, services and space required, down to the quality of the street life. Johannesburg needs to densify but this has a profound impact on the infrastructure and to convince the public to reduce their appetite for space is no easy task.

It takes a long time to change direction for a supertanker. The ship in question here is architecture. The impact of too many people on this earth and the critical need for sustainable architecture are finally being felt in the profession. This is evident not in the lectures of beautiful structures by starchitects, but in the sessions like Vukuzakhe by architect Richard Stretton and the City of Durban, who have started to record the informal creature of urban design in an attempt to properly understand how South African cities evolve and ultimately make proposals to guide this ungainly process. South African cities fail to provide think tanks to offer conceptual solutions for the future.

The problem is not insurmountable when one sees similar processes in Mumbai, Mexico City or Sao Paulo. South African conditions remain achievable as our cities are unlikely to become Megacities (over 10 million inhabitants) for a couple of decades, but urgent interaction is required now, while we have the time.

Ironically, Rob Adams, urban designer from Melbourne declared a while ago that no building like IM Pei’s in Melbourne would be built again. Two blank façades and no street relationship does nothing for the human experience of architecture.

One Durban resident commented how sad it was that it took a conference like this to liven up the city, when endeavours like the spectacular interventions that were created, should happen all the time. Compared to previous triennials, which are often more political than inspirational, this was a colourful and invigorating conference.

UIA 2017 will be held in Seoul and Rio de Janeiro beat out Paris and Melbourne for 2020. 

View the highlights of Architecure Otherwhere Durban 2014 with Hugh Fraser