What is the role of the practice of architecture and architectural professional in this day and age? How does the built environment reflect and help shape the society we live in? Can spatial design be the answer to unlocking opportunities in the urban environment? What is the limit of architectural action? How do we produce knowledge about the city? Does spatial justice equate to social justice? How do architects resist the “architecture of impatient capital” in order to create responsive buildings?
These were just some of the questions posed by speakers and panellists on the first day of the AZA 2012 conference, held at Cape Town City Hall from 13 to 16 September 2012. All of these questions pointed to the changing role, expectations and practice of architecture. Many of the speakers alluded to the rapid urbanisation of humanity and the pressure on resources as key drivers of this change and the pressing need to evaluate the role of architects.
Who spoke and how did they question the role of architecture?
• Architect Caron von Zeil is not so much concerned with buildings as she is with connecting urban and natural systems. Caron heads up Reclaim Camissa – meaning “place of sweet waters” – a project established to create awareness of the potential of water to spatially reconnect Cape Town while at the same time tap in to a sustainable and ecological water supply.
• Andrew Makin highlighted the fact that evolution happens as a result of environmental factors and for the first time in mankind’s history, the majority of people live in manmade environment. This means that we are collectively shaping the urban ecology within which we as humans will evolve.
• Many speakers debated the idea of architecture as a “social art”. University of Cape Town academic Fadley Isaacs likened the city to a theatre and questioned whether the architect’s role is that of stage designer, script writer, actor or director. He also spoke about architecture’s narrative role and its function in place making, identity and justice.
• Nick Shepherd, associate professor of African studies and archaeology at UCT, highlighted that in the afterlife of apartheid, we have two standard responses – amnesia and the intentional disavowal of history, or a recapitulation of the trauma. He argued that it is only through radical imagination that we stop perpetuating the past in our present day.
• Although architect Jo Noero believes that “design is an act of optimism” he is also adamant that there is a limit to architectural action (the production of the built environment). He stresses that architectural action should not be confused with social-political action. Public engagement on design issues is not the answer to a politically disengaged citizenry.
• Finally architect Joe Osae-Addo of Ghana shared his experience of developing new products and technologies through the building design process. He showed how a responsive design process can uncover and lead to material innovation and commercial opportunity. Pozzolana, a cement that uses local palm kernels and clay as an additives, was developed on one of his projects. The spin-off of this product development is a new factory that not only creates jobs but also cheaper, locally made construction material that makes it more affordable to build. Currently he is also exploring the commercialisation of bamboo building components as an alternative to hardwood.
Architecture ZA was a three-day conference held at Cape Town City Hall during September 2012, and explored the idea of re-scripting architecture during a series of lectures, exhibitions and workshops.
Text by Alma Viviers. Video by One.Dog.Chicken