Identity in architecture - The First Chapter


by Arthur Barker

How do we define ourselves as designers? Are we always fully conscious of the way we make design decisions and do we establish a relationship between our personal design identity and that of the world out there?

Due to the day-to-day pressures of the design professions and the impact of economic realities, designers often struggle to maintain personal creative identity and a consistent ethical approach while also having to recognise, and somehow respond to, the influence of other identities. These include the requirements of corporations, institutions and the reaction to local, regional, national and global forces. It seems as if the latter identity is guiding much architectural production of late. Although ’iconic’ architecture, derived from international precedent is a valid design response (in some instances), internationally inspired and regionally influenced architecture can also be considered.

One is reminded of the Brazil Builds influence on Pretoria’s Architecture after the 2nd World War. Brazilian Modernism (most influenced by Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012)) adapted the International Style to suit climatic context and cultural traditions and, in turn, South African architects like Norman Eaton (1902-1966) and Helmutt Stauch (1910-1970) adopted these principles to create a Pretoria regionalist style that, today, still maintains a formal yet climatically appropriate and consistent city identity.

Oscar Niemeyer's Ministry of Education and Health (1936-1943) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. © Arthur Barker 2012.


Left and middle: Helmutt Stauch's Meat Board Building (1952) and Right: Norman Eaton's Polly's arcade (1959) (both in Pretoria CBD) both directly influenced by Niemeyer through the South African architects' visits to Brazil. © Arthur Barker

In the 1950s, the South African architect Gawie Fagan (1925-) persuaded the erstwhile Volkskas Bank to adopt a regional design approach for their banks rather than expressing a national corporate identity. Fagan has described these buildings as “ekskuus my dat ek hier sit!” (excuse me for being here) and most of his 'corporate' creations are still present today. The Ladybrand building still operates as a bank but others, having been designed adaptively enough, now house other functions in their remote locations. 

Fagan's 1950s banks in Roodepoort (Gauteng), Montagu (Western Cape) and Ladybrand with its local stone columns (Free State). © Arthur Barker.

Having recently been part of a panel (together with Gus Gerneke and Yolanda van der Vyver) assessing awards for Namibian Architecture (2014/2015), I was pleased to be confronted with what authenticity in architecture, through a range of identities, could be. We were privileged to be taken to see the recent work of the UCT educated architect Nina Maritz and her design of three resource centres scattered across Namibia. Maritz’s long-held, and deeply personal, view on architecture is that it is generated from a critical understanding of place, the extended needs of users and responses to global resource depletion and its effects on climate.

The three new resource centres, funded by the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Namibia, were designed for remote Namibian communities located in Gobabis, Oshakati and Helao Nafidi, to the east and north of Windhoek respectively. The buildings house library and community functions as well as Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) stalls.

Resource centres in Gobabis, Helao Nafidi and Oshakati. © Arthur Barker 2015.

In line with Maritz’s personal design philosophy, the buildings are rooted in context through their association with local ways of making place in the unforgiving climate. Settlements, particularly in the North of Namibia, are characterised by a close arrangement of individual buildings tied together with a bounding wall or fence. Nina has, perhaps unconsciously and reinforced by the varying programmatic requirements, adopted these principles in the organization of the resource centres providing them with local spatial identity. The main, and controlling form, is a central exhibition foyer with modular additions such as adult and children’s libraries, study halls, IT centre and SME stalls.

Design modules and site arrangements (Maritz, 2013:42)

The location of the modules creates external 'rooms' with varying functions such as outdoor amphitheatres and entrance courts. The modular ensemble also provides an identifiable scale for the buildings in their varying non-descript landscapes while expressing a coherent identity for the MCA. All of the resource centres are climatically orientated on an east-west axis, while roofs are pitched down to the north to provide adequate overhangs and to receive photovoltaic and solar panels that provide a modicum of off-the-grid power supply and hot water. Subtle changes in the use of locally available materials and colours tie the buildings to their landscape and give each building its own identity. Maritz has used blue in Oshakati, green in Helao Nafidi and warm yellow and cattle brown for Gobabis. The design of the welcoming front courtyards provides local, spatial and functional identity through the SME stalls, seating and overhead shading pergolas, scaled and located to suit the particular context.

Resource centres left: Oshakati, centre: Helao Nafidi and right: Gobabis. © Arthur Barker 2015.

Maritz has extended and reinforced her personal design identity in the three Namibian resource centres but has also managed to provide a unique, unpretentious and contextually appropriate local and institutional architectural identity. This is certainly an approach to be appreciated and studied in the search for authenticity and appropriate identity in architecture.

We should be aware of, respectful toward and take design inspiration from local traditions by understanding approaches to the making of place, responses to climate and the appropriate and honest use of materials. We need to understand our relationship to the world of architecture but also learn how we can adapt appropriate global approaches to our local circumstances. What will future designers say about our current architecture? Will they be able to identify with it at all?

Oshakati. © Arthur Barker 2015.


Helao Nafidi. © Arthur Barker 2015.


Gobabis. © Arthur Barker 2015.


  1. Maritz, N. 2013. Regional Study and Resource Centres at Gobabis, Oshakati and Helao Nafidi. Digest of Namibian Architecture 2013. Pgs 42-45.