SA architects appeal for indigenous building concepts

Posted On Monday, 25 April 2005 02:00 Published by eProp Commercial Property News
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South Africa is under foreign invasion.

Construction IndustryAnd the enemy is not armed with guns, tanks or ammunition, but with plaster, cement and all shades of terracotta.

In the midst of the biggest building boom in the country's history, the Tuscan building style has found enormous favour with property developers and owners alike.

However, Tuscan and the other "fake foreign fads" - as architecture activist Prof Alan Lipman refers to building styles from abroad, which are copied in South African residential and commercial developments - have fallen foul of academia and some local architects.

The detractors of the foreign invasion argue in support of local architecture that responds to the social, political, climatological, technological and material contexts in the different regions of South Africa.

Historically, there have been three vernacular South African styles - Cape Dutch, the Georgian regionalism of settlers and Transvaal regionalism.

Yolanda van der Vyver, of Yolanda van der Vyver Architects, says that the styles developed from imported styles that were adapted to the local climate, availability of material and craftsmanship.

"The development of architecture is a constant process, always adapting to new circumstances.

"If authentic architecture means expressing culture through available technology, materials and manpower, then authentic architecture has been present in South Africa since preindustrial times and is constantly being developed," Van der Vyver adds.

She believes that the popularity of the Tuscan building style can be attributed to the fact that it is a relatively inexpensive way to create the illusion of opulence, age and a European heritage.

"Some have deviated from Tuscan by embracing an Italian, Georgian, American colonial, Bali or English farmhouse style, to name but a few building styles.

"However, in principle, the intention remained the same," Van der Vyver says.

She adds that recent stylistic borrowings have been widely criticised as theme-park architecture.

Concerning the Tuscan building style, besides not always being in good taste, the local climate is not always considered, which forces modifications to the original style.

Porte-cochères and semicirculartop-lights are added to the entrances with a disregard of scale and proportion.

The resulting style has been dubbed Boere Toskaans.

Lipman maintains that South Africans should be challenged to develop new identities and express them in the built environment.

He says most of the buildings in South African cities are scrounged from elsewhere and reflect a past that has no relevance to the present.

"Whose memories do such buildings stir, whose nostalgia do they gratify, whose cultural roots are being acknowledged?" he asks.

Lipman believes that the answer lies in design with people in mind, including people's history and culture, as well as design for the poor.

Van der Vyver supports this point of view and says that context- and site-sensitive design principles should be encouraged.

"Theme-park architecture should be criticised not for its style, but for its failure to adhere to good design principles.

"Freedom of expression should not be hindered, but the public should be informed, educated and never be underestimated," she says.

Hence, obtaining public input into the design and construction of large buildings, especially those destined for public use, is considered a must.

International architectural firm HOK SVE associate principal Richard Breslin says that modern-day stadiums are designed to leave behind a living legacy.

He explains that, these days, stadiums have to be practical and financially self-sustaining throughout their life-cycle.

HOK SVE is part of the HOK Inter-national group, the largest architectural firm worldwide, and has designed many well-known sports venues, such as the Telstra Stadium, in Sydney, Australia, where the 2000 Summer Olympic Games were held, and the new Wembley National Stadium, in London.

The firm is partnering with several local companies in a consortium that has lodged papers to design the stadium infrastructure and overlay of the 2010 soccer World Cup, which will be hosted by South Africa.

"If we are awarded the contract, we will work with local partners to design venues according to the client's specifications.

"The end-product will be a reflection of what the client wants.

"Hence it could be retrospective, aspirational or mirror what the country has achieved to date," Breslin says.

He adds that the firm would like to draw inspiration from the natural beauty of the different South African cities in which the event will be hosted, as well as from the local way of life.

As with the other projects that HOK SVE is involved in, such as London's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the public will be widely consulted. "The 2010 soccer World Cup is a window for the rest of the world to experience South Africa.

"However, once the event is over, the stadiums must have a sustainable legacy and be of service to the community by offering facilities such as training grounds or conference venues," Breslin says.

It is envisaged that work on stadiums for the 2010 World Cup will start in the next 18 months.

According to Breslin, who is a native of Australia, the challenges confronting South African architecture are not unique to developing countries or those in the New World.

Breslin says that South African architecture is at the same crossroads where Australian architecture was about ten years ago.

"In the past, Australians also tended to draw their architectural references back to Europe.

"However, in the last five to ten years, we have started seeing an architectural style that is far more suited to the climate - light, simple, clean and with open spaces.

"There is also a renewed focus on building materials that fit in with climatic conditions, such as finestainless steel, glass and sandstone," Breslin adds.

Lipman maintains that, in general, architecture in South Africa still leaves much to be desired, as local regional architecture is much neglected.

However, he remains hopeful that this will change as South African cultures become more integrated and greater emphasis is placed on natural building materials and climatic con-ditions.

Lipman is concerned at the fact that the upcoming black middle class, many memebres of which are acquiring property for the first time, blindly follow and support European building styles, such as Tuscan or Cornish, thereby sacrificing part of their cultural identity.

"Culturally and historically, Tuscan or Cornish has nothing to do with them.

"So, as a nation, we are on the way to discarding the real building styles that should inform our thinking and not those that are merely there for us to copy," he laments.

Van der Vyver is confident that South Africa has everything it needs to practise its own architecture.

"We are lucky in the sense that we have a diverse cultural composition and that we become heirs to cultures that are not quite our own.

"Architects and clients must value this quality, see it as a privilege and avoid the temptation to follow popular styles," she says.

Van der Vyver points out that endemic styles, such as Cape Dutch and Pretoria regionalism, are today considered to be good architecture, even though they were developed from stylistic borrowings.

This is because, despite their origins, they were adapted to the available materials and workmanship, thereby becoming part of the environment by being sensitive to context.

Further, these styles considered architectural principles, such as proportion, scale, volume and function, to produce a high-quality built environment inherent to the area.

Van der Vyver says that many local architects are doing the same by refusing to blindly follow international architectural trends.

Instead, they use international styles as a starting point to develop architecture that reacts to the social, political, climatological, technological andmaterial contexts in South Africa.

South African Institute of Architects president Trish Emmett agrees that various local architects are pursuing the development of authentic South African architecture.

Emmett emphasises that this can only take place when clients are not prescriptive and give their architects the opportunity to respond appropriately to the brief.

In larger property developments, such as lifestyle estates, developers play an important part in determining the building style.

Lipman is especially critical of de-velopers and the financial stranglehold they have on local architects.

He says that it is a shame that architects who have studied at respected South African universities should ignore the principles of good architecture to satisfy developers' demand for popular building styles.

According to Emmett, architects should aim to inform their clients and educate the public continuously about all matters concerning architecture, as they have the required knowledge.

She also maintains that architects should be accessible to everyone, and not only to the wealthy.

"We must be learning from the Cuban and Indian architects, who have very respected social housing programmes for the poor," she notes.

Van der Vyver says that as the principles of good architecture are universal, the same principles as for any other building should count for houses that are built under government's Re-construction and Development Programme.

She adds that one of the biggest challenges facing the local architectural profession is to maintain a high standard of contextually-sensitive designs with limited funds, materials and workmanship.

Besides these issues, Van der Vyver identifies flagging standards in the building industry as another big impediment.

"It is my opinion and experience that the recent boom in the building industry has resulted in deteriorating building standards.

"Many construction companies should not be building, as they do not have proper experience or cash flow, and are only trying to make a quick buck together with investors and developers."

She also points out that many builders cannot cope with a simple detail just because it deviates from what they are used to.

"There are, of course, good contractors that ask a reasonable price, but most clients would rather save money and skimp on quality in favour of quantity."

Emmett says that another problem plaguing the profession is a lack of trained personnel.

"So many young architects have emigrated that we have a capacity problem, as there are not enough architects in South Africa," she says.

The South African architectural profession, although small by global standards, makes a substantial contribution to the local economy and directly employs more then 5 610 people, generating a turnover of R1,125-billion a year.

South Africa has 2 670 registered architects, the third-largest number of architects in an African country.

The continent has a total of 34 909 architects.

The capacity problem is set to worsen with the growth forecast for the construction industry.

Last year, R24,9-billion or, 5,1% of the country's gross domestic product, was spent on construction and construction-related activities.

It is expected that expenditure will reach between R32-billion and R35-billion a year by 2010.

Despite the challenges faced by the profession, South African architects have produced some notable Afropean buildings that, in the words of University of Pretoria department of architecture head Prof Ora Joubert "celebrate our socioeconomic and environmental peculiarities, while respecting the integrity of Eurocentric design premises".

Joubert says it is encouraging to note that this particular design approach does not only prevail on the domestic front, but is, of late, finding application in the civic arena, such as the Mpumalanga government buildings, in Nelspruit, and the Constitutional Court building, in Johannesburg.

For Van der Vyver, the N4 east main-line toll plaza, designed by Tolplan Consulting, MAAA and Karlien Thomashoff Architects, is a highlight of functional local architecture.

"The new tolling facility projects the corporate image of a progressive, transparent and socially-responsible organisation, but leaves the Highveld landscape undisturbed.

"Reference is made to portal-frame agricultural sheds in the surrounding landscape, therefore relating and contributing to the physical and local contexts.

"The honesty derived from the functionality permeated to the choice of building materials.

"This varies from using site-sourced building stone, locally-available face brick and structural steelwork with clearly articulated structural junctions and components, referring further to the morphology of the agricultural architecture and the mines in the vicinity," she explains.


Last modified on Saturday, 19 October 2013 12:15

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