Identity in Architecture - Chapter 2


by Arthur Barker

When I was a student, the identity of many architecture schools in South Africa was forged by nationally, and sometimes even internationally, revered designers such as Ivor Prinsloo and Roelof Uytenbogaardt at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Danie Theron at the then University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University - NMMU), Pancho Guedes at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Dieter Holm at the University of Pretoria (UP) and Bannie Britz at the University of the Free State (UFS). The limitations of electronic communication in those days meant that we hardly saw the work of other universities' students, save for limited publications in the architectural journals of the day and intermittent student congresses. I believe these influences helped to foster unique differences in the architectural identity of the various schools. I am not convinced that there exists a uniqueness to the outputs from the different architectural schools today. And, admittedly, I am conflicted as to whether there should be.

Back to basics

On the 1 April 2015 the Gauteng Institute for Architecture (GifA ), under the stellar organisation of Steffen Fischer, launched the third exhibition of graduating student work (2014_15) titled 'Back to Basics'. The exhibition showcases the four Gauteng architecture schools' four best achieving final year projects and is on until the end of April in GifA's offices at 77 Juta Street, Braamfontein.

The exhibition was opened by Prof. Gerald Steyn from the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and Marguerite Pienaar, an architect at Holm Jordaan architects and ex lecturer from Wits and UP. Prof. Steyn's focus on 'back to basics' was framed around limiting the excessive in architecture and focussing on the essentials to deal with the constantly changing and conflicted world that we live in. He also emphasized that many current architects are still fostering the "modern project" (as suggested by Jurgen Habermas) to respond to the poor linguistic architectural legacy that resulted from the influence of structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers. Marguerite Pienaar's 'back to basics' focus dealt with process, representation and product in architecture. She highlighted the diversity of skills represented in the exhibition but encouraged the exploration and management of skills at university level as there was limited time in practice to do this. She questioned whether the presentation tools of today are leading ideas or vice versa, citing examples such as Zaha Hadid's paintings and Frank Gehry's models (both of which necessitated advances in documentation technology) and, more lately, parametric design which makes possible new ways of constructing space. But Marguerite also issued a warning that these techniques can become formalistic as they are, ever increasingly, disseminated. Is architecture better off for all these new tools, she asks?

A lack of identity

In her concluding remarks, Marguerite Pienaar comments on the subtle difference in nuance of the products of the various schools. I have to agree with her. Through the range of presentation techniques and topics, I struggled to clearly locate an identity within each architectural school's output. There are, possibly, a number of reasons for this - the design-focussed educators, established practitioners and heads of department from my day seem largely absent. Furthermore, access to architecture from around the world is instant and students are shopping around for educational opportunities, moving much more freely between institutions than before. Perhaps the geographical closeness of the schools and project contexts in Gauteng has also played a role. A general analysis of the year co-ordinator course descriptions provides another clue. The focus of design exploration is positioned as personal, and although I wholly support this approach, would an undergraduate education (if at the same institution) not imbue the work with a larger school identity?


Course descriptions at the four local architectural schools (Image © Oliver Barstow)

Gauteng students' unique approach

A closer look at the content of the student schemes does point to some other, more recognisable, identities particularly in project choice. I am heartened to see that most deal with architectural issues rather than just resolving programs while also responding to a future urban condition, rather than an existing urban one. The projects are creative interpretations and postulations resulting in programs that resist mono-functionality, extending their possibilities in time. At least three of the sixteen projects were located beyond the borders of our country and here students successfully explored identities outside of their frame of reference. 


Mia Verster (UP). Model of Women's' Centre, Zanzibar. © Arthur Barker

Most encouraging was the inclusion of student sketches, working models and process work which demonstrated the development of personal design identity and ways of working. These explorations ranged from freehand pencil drawings to watercolours, sophisticated computer renderings and generic, burnt edge, laser cut physical models, the latter resulting in an unfortunate 'cohesion' of identity! 


Sarah de Villiers (Wits) and Graeme Noeth (TUT) models © Arthur Barker

The 22nd of April saw the announcement of the national Corobrik awards winners, whose work I eagerly anticipate viewing. The Corobrik architectural student awards is an annual event which showcases the work of students from all eligible South African architectural schools. The competition is one of the longest running in the country, advancing design excellence by awarding creative and technical talent. Amongst the featured work, I look forward to seeing clear evidence of discernable differences in identity between our architectural schools. But perhaps there shouldn't be? What do you think? 


Model of Bionic Evolutions in Cullinan, Nikita Edwards (UP). © Arthur Barker