Ethics in Architecture: Chapter one


Until the end of this year, I will focus on ethics in architecture. Built environment designers are principally bound by their education and legally required by professional bodies to act ethically. The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos meaning the way that society manifests its attitudes and aspirations.

The responsibility of the built environment designer

Built environment designers should act ethically in a number of ways. As members of professional bodies they should act according to the prescribed rules and regulations. They should also act ethically in their relationships with clients, other built environment specialists, contractors and government bodies. But there are also other less legalistic concerns. In the age of dwindling resources the effects of building on the environment have become all consuming while the economic downturn has perhaps, fortunately, forced us to think more deeply about less expensive solutions. Most importantly, built environment designers should be concerned with how space and place is designed to ensure the well-being, and improvement of the lives, of the general public.

The Institutes of Architecture

The registration of architects is controlled by the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP). Architects can also be voluntary members of their local and national institute. Both institutes hold bi annual awards functions where work produced by their members is lauded. These works can be said to uphold the ethical principles outlined by the voluntary bodies. I was fortunate enough to have been part of the Pretoria Institute of Architects' awards panel in July this year. I will focus on some of the works of the award winners in later chapters but I would like to concentrate on a highly awarded Cape Town architect who won his first Institute award in 1967.

 Exhibition Invitations

The exhibition invitations (

On the 4th of November I opened Gawie Fagan's 90th birthday exhibition. Gawie has certainly acted ethically during his 60 year career. His involvement in the conservation of our built environment, his way of making history contemporary and the sensitive making of place has set him apart from his peers and have resulted in him, according to my estimations, becoming the most awarded architect in South Africa. The opening speech below describes, amoungst other attributes, his ethical contribution to architecture.

Fagans And IGawie and Gwen Fagan with the author at the opening of the exhibition at the Cape Institute for Architect's offices in Hout Street, Cape Town on 4 November 2015 (photo courtesy of Jolanda De Villiers Morkel architect)

Good evening everyone. Welcome to you all on this opening night of Gawie Fagan's exhibition.

I am very honoured to have been asked by the Fagans to open this long-awaited and, I think, very necessary exhibition of Gawie Fagan's architectural production that span almost 60 years, a range of building typologies, contexts and scales.

What we are doing today is celebrating, not only, over 50 years of architectural production but also nearly 90 years of life of a seminal South African architect. He is, according to my calculations, the most awarded South African architect with, not only, a Gold medal from the South African Institute of Architects but also 16 Institute of Architects awards and an honorary membership of the American Institute of Architects. Added to these accolades he has also received two honorary doctorates while his conservation work has been equally lauded through Gold medals from the National Monuments Council and the South African Academy of Literature and Science.

 20151102 123036Fagan's tongue-in-cheek business card (Fagan exhibition, November 2015 © Arthur Barker)

But these awards extend beyond architecture and demonstrate the attributes of the polymath that Gawie is. In 1982, he was the winner of the Cape to Rio yacht race receiving a President's Award for this same achievement. It is this innate ability to understand context, in all its forms, that has its roots in Fagan's birthplace in Newlands, Cape Town in 1925. Here his contextual appreciations were initiated through sailing. A four year stint at the University of Cape Town studying engineering honed these skills, assisted by part-time pursuits such as the rebuilding of motorcycles (and selling them on to eventually buy his Adler motor car), maidens (here he met Gwen), music and flying. In 1946, he started his architectural education at the university of Pretoria where hobbies made way for a more serious pursuit - the study of architecture.

IMG 9026 Fagan exiting his yacht Suid Oos in which he won the Cape to Rio Yacht Race © Arthur Barker 2009

Fagan was educated at an important juncture in South Africa’s architectural history. The Martienssen Modern Movement influence of the Witwatersrand School of Architecture  was waning after the architectural fraternity realized that aspects of the orthodox Modern Movement were not appropriate for the South African climate. Gawie followed a "regional-modern" architectural education and through the influences of part and full-time lecturers, such as Helmut Stauch, Norman Eaton and Basil South at the University of Pretoria, an appreciation of place and a search for an South African architecture was initiated. 

Enlarged Plan Fagan's thesis drawings of a hospital, University of Pretoria, 1951 (Fagan archive)

20151102 123013 Fagan exercising one of his passions - photography (Fagan exhibition, 4 November 2015 © Arthur Barker).

This exhibition, and the larger body of built work, represent a number of important aspects in Fagan's search for architecture of place, where, I believe, history is made contemporary.

This has happened on a scale of architectural approaches that range from conservative ideas of preservation to more radical ideas in the guise of conservation. Gawie has made enormous contributions at an urban scale such as the preservation of towns like Tulbagh and the development of the Cape Town waterfront precinct in the late 1970s together with Dave Jack and others.

Gawie's appreciates the traditive nature of architecture by understanding historical legacy, reinterpreting it and then synthesising it with modern ways of living. His domestic architecture is a unique synthesis of the principles of Cape vernacular architecture and Modern Movement attitudes to function and space making which, in their new form, create a unique architectural language. The result of this I call a relationship between Familiarity and Strangeness which is exhibited, in his houses, through architectural elements such as chimneys, walls and roofs.

CombinedFagan's House Raynham of 1967 where Fagan synthesised the forms of the Cape Vernacular and the Modern Movement. © Arthur Barker, 2008

But there is a fine balance between approaches of the cerebral and the physical. Gawie remarked in 1982 that "a child can only fully develop if hand and mind are taught to work in synergy". Die Es was entirely constructed by the Fagan family with Gawie having learnt much from the construction of Cape vernacular buildings but the foundations for a hands-on approach were established in childhood and at university.

These practical approaches are finely balanced with the haptic aspects of design that allow the visitor or inhabitant to experience space with all of their senses. Through aural, visual tactile and physical means the architect imbues each space with a different quality and forces the inhabitant to make a decision about further movement.

The most developed of these can be found in Die Es which, Peter Buchanan, a previous editor of the Architectural Review and one-time employee of Gawie, remarked as "being one of the best buildings of the 20th century". It certainly exemplifies all of the ideas that I have alluded to, none of which, unfortunately, come close to explaining that which should be at the core of our business, namely the experience of space and place!

 IMG 0162

IMG 0147Fagan's own house Die Es (1965). Louvres to main bedroom and living room © Arthur Barker 2009

My understanding of Gawie's ouevre is, of course, contestable and, unfortunately for me, reinforced by his responses to my many questions over the years "ja , maar Arthur, ek het nie noodwendig so daaraan gedink nie". More importantly, is what the man himself said, in 1983, at a Cape Town conference on Regionalism - "architects should be striving for an architectural language that 'belongs and is appropriate to the Cape". This lesson and other wonderful poetic, theoretical and pragmatic lessons he has given us we should all take to heart.

But, enough from me. We are here to celebrate the man and his architecture. Thank you to all who made this event possible namely the Fagan office, CifA for hosting the event, Andre Vorster from the Pop-Up gallery and to all of you for joining us in celebrating Gawie's work. Thanks too to Gwen, for whom without, I am sure, Gawie's oeuvre would not be what it is. And last, but not least, thank you, Gawie, for producing an architectural oeuvre that has internationally and locally lauded, that is architecturally unique and, at the same time, locally most appropriate. Thank you for inspiring me and, I am sure, many others to be better, and more, critical architects.

So, with that, I have great pleasure in declaring this, what I hope will not be the last, Gawie Fagan exhibition officially open!

20151104 165005 Rotated Alterations and additions to 31-33 Loop Street © Arthur Barker 2015

 20151104 164956Proposed tower block next to his existing offices in Bree Street © Arthur Barker 2015

 20151104 165018Proposed and controversial additions to the old Grain Stores near the Lutheran Street in Cape Town © Arthur Barker 2015

20151104 16514720151104 16523520151104 16524320151104 16524720151104 165307Photographs of the exhibition (at the Cape Institute for Architects in 71 Hout Street, Cape Town) which is on until the 7th of December. © Arthur Barker, November 2015