Identity in Architecture - Chapter 3


by Arthur Barker

Following the recent announcement of the 28th National Corobrik Student Architectural Awards, my conflicted standpoint about the identity of architectural schools in South Africa has been partially resolved. The addition of three university projects to the GifA exhibition a few weeks back has answered some questions, but also left me with the sense that the formal architectural identity of the schools from years-gone-by has dissipated. And perhaps rightly so.

Make your mark

Each year Corobrik awards a R10 000 cash prize to the best final year architectural students from all seven eligible universities. These students then take part in a national competition where they present their work visually and verbally, undergoing direct scrutiny from a panel of judges. The annual award aims to "promote design excellence, to acknowledge and reward talent among graduating architectural students".

The slogan for this year’s competition was 'make your mark' expressing the importance of personal design identity and uniqueness of solution. Apart from the commendations and winning scheme that admirably achieved these objectives only one other scheme stood out. Sarah de Villiers from Wits successfully critiqued the spatial consequences of capitalism in her Johannesburg Idea Bank. She certainly made her mark through a fresh and critical approach to generating architectural form and space where the everyday rituals of the city meet formalised, and often, internalised activities.

Simon Henstra (UCT). Harold Johnson (UJ). Marius du Plessis (UFS). Sarah de Villiers (Wits). Alexandra Wilmot (NMMU). Walter Raubenheimer (UP). Brigitte Stevens (UKZN) © Arthur Barker

The awards

The judges this year were Chris Wilkinson of Chris Wilkinson Architects in Pretoria (a past Corobrik winner), Malcolm Campbell of ACG Architects in Cape Town and Karuni Naidoo of CNN Architects in Durban. The spokesperson for the group, Malcolm Campbell, admitted that they had to complete a lot of reading in a short time and that they had tried to understand the students' work on their own terms. They had also learnt a lot of new terminology! They were appreciative of the students’ contribution to social awareness and research as an architectural endeavour. The Corobrik Managing Director, Dirk Meyer, echoed the latter sentiments but also commended the students on their contribution to eco-consciousness.

Awards of commendation went to Harold Johnson at UJ and Walter Raubenheimer at UP as the judges felt that these exceptional projects could hold their own on a world stage. The overall winner of the R50 000 prize was Harold Johnson for his highly personal design process and remaking degraded city buildings. Raubenheimer was awarded a R10 000 prize for the 'best use of brick' through his innovative manipulation of Kimberlite tailings.

A clear identity

For me the strongest and most gratifying architectural identity, present in the students’ submissions, was the unmistakable critique of our current urban context. The proposals often reconfigured existing buildings, precincts and even towns to establish new and sustainable identities for the future. Johnson's Dark City project focussed the 'rehabilitation' of degraded buildings in Johannesburg through a process of understanding the spatial consequences of marginalised city living. Although not a unique approach to architecture, Johnson reinforced the age-old dictum that architects should directly provide for human needs. Raubenheimer's redefinition of industry in Cullinan recognised the value of near-abandoned mining towns, and the possibilities of productive functions that can absorb change over time. This regeneration of Cullinan with new productive industries and experiential routes recognise the physical and haptic needs of inhabitants and visitors. The social and cultural practices of the Shembe religious group, which is rooted in Zulu traditions, provided a strong ethical foundation for the Durban cemetery project by recognising that rituals of the past still have value today.

What I glean from these works is that students have started to establish their own architectural identity. At most universities, the final year of an architectural degree program is promoted as a year of personal exploration. It is reassuring to witness the outputs of a group of mature students keen to establish their own identity, and by doing so, resisting formal gymnastics in an age of confusing architectural solutions.

Not all of the students’ work illustrated the value of re-scripting functional identities. We can no longer design buildings that only provide one function as funding and space is limited and needs are becoming ever more complex.

Despite the increased presence of female participants, the group was dominantly white and male.  I wonder why it still is that the top architectural students are not more representative of our country’s ethnic majorities? And I also wonder what impact this will have on the future of architectural identity in South Africa?

The future

Most notably the aesthetic and formal identity that architectural schools in South Africa used to present has given way to architecture that is 'externally' generated (rather than a school aesthetic) and informed by a direct response to real issues plaguing our cities, our communities and the profession. There is an air of maturity and seriousness in the work of our current graduates and, I believe, their contributions should be more vociferously exposed and lauded. The students have definitely made their mark! My conflictions about identity of South African architectural schools have largely been put to rest and I am confident that the role of architecture as a profession, which can contribute to improving the built environment, will be strengthened by the graduates of 2014.

In the next, and last, chapter in this series of articles on Identity, I will showcase an internationally renowned architectural practice and their approach to creating urban, architectural and professional identity. Perhaps we can learn some lessons there.