Brave new world

Brave new world – South African architecture

Catherine Slessor

South Africa’s long awaited transformation will have a profound impact on architecture and urbanism, yet new approaches are urgently required to help meet and address the considerable challenges of the future.

It is over 50 years since the AR devoted an entire issue to architecture in South Africa. In October 1944, a characteristically thorough survey of the country revealed an energetic, brave(ish) new world eagerly grafting Corb and Brazil Builds on to the highveld. The AR noted that ‘the buildings illustrated generally indicate a high order of planning ability’, but even then there was a spectre at the feast. ‘Future progress not only in architecture, but in the economic life of the country as well, is bound up with the successful resolution of the vast social and economic problems that darken the horizon at present. And yet these problems must be solved if South Africa is to advance in company with the rest of the world.’ Since these eerily prophetic words were written, the horizon has indeed been tainted by an unimaginably vile, inky darkness. The darkness has now lifted and South African architecture emerges, blinking, into the light. This issue marks that extraordinary moment.

South Africa is currently involved in an apocalyptic transformation – perhaps the most anticipated, prolonged documented, debated and media-accessible reconfiguration in modern history. When it is accomplished, the effects of radical change will be felt at every level – racial, economic, social and cultural. This epic restructuring could have profound consequences, far beyond South Africa. As David Beresford has observed – ‘There is no reason why this country’s “fairy-tale come true” should not extend to Africa as a whole, if the momentum can be sustained. It is possible to envisage South Africa’s social reform, democratic pluralism, and (hoped-for) stability providing a compelling model for Africa. Its rejuvenated economy – larger than all the other sub-Saharan countries put together – could act as a dynamo in rehabilitating the continent’.(1)

From pariah to paragon in one bound, yet no-one should be under the illusion that it will be an easy ride. Despite their privileged status (as an almost exclusively white, professional constituency) South Africa’s architects are bruised and beleaguered. Many simply left the country, their talent and energy dissipated and dispersed around the globe. Those who stayed either swallowed the bitter pill and anaesthetised themselves against state sponsored horror or tried to alleviate conditions by modest technical and political intervention. Now that the world is no longer turned upside down, the profession has a chance to realise an inclusive vision of the future – a future that finally has a moral imperative and legitimacy.

What then, of architecture? It is perhaps most truthful to say that there is no such thing as South African architecture – any more than there is South African culture. What does exist is an alternately fascinating and repugnant interaction of influences, both foreign and indigenous that have been absorbed, reformed and regurgitated in a South African context. This is clearly evident from the briefest trawl through South African architectural history. Ten years ago, Hans Hallen noted – ‘Young graduates brought back influences: the Scandinavian work of the ’50s, the modernism of the LCC [London County Council] in its heroic period, British new towns, and in the ’60s the neo-Beaux Arts design and theories of Louis Khan. Other influences were added, and foreign designers were imported by big business to affirm their involvement with a bigger world. During this period, the form of cities was also shaped by social and political theories that owed little to architectural ideas’.(2) More recently, the enforced isolation of the apartheid era has had a deleterious effect on architectural development, as fads from abroad are plucked from the pages of glossy magazines and reductively replicated. Clive Chipkin observed that in Johannesburg, shop windows used to be plastered with announcements ‘Latest from overseas. Just arrived’ – so it has been with architecture.(3) Undigested PoMo is the most recent overseas arrival to run rampant through the country as a grimly jolly panacea for all ills.

For decades, South Africa has harboured a reassuring illusion of itself as a southern hemisphere version of California – in reality it is more like Mexico. The public realm has all but disintegrated, cities operate on the American model of tight business cores surrounded by concentric rings of (white) suburbia. Car and mall culture dominates. The fraying extremities of urban areas contain the formal hells of the townships and beyond them, the informal hells of squatter camps. Now that the Group Areas Act has been abolished, all citizens are theoretically free to live where they like, intensifying pressure on all major cities. The idealised housing model (both in white suburbia and black townships) is a detached house on a plot. Yet there is now a growing and urgent consensus that this wasteful sprawl must somehow be contained. Densification strategies for cities are tentatively being evolved, but planning and architectural issues are complicated by social and cultural factors. Living in a flat, for example, is perceived as a decidedly second-class housing option.

Undoubtedly, the momentum generated by massive social change will precipitate a more subtle, regionalist approach to architecture, stemming from an appreciation of climatic and cultural determinants and wider constraints such as local materials, construction techniques, modes of production and supply. To some extent, this is already evident. The complex negotiation and manipulation of local conditions requires a clear-headed analysis of varied parameters, rather than the application of meaningless stylistic prescriptions. Diversity is also an important key. At present, South African architectural expression and endeavour are as diverse as the African landscape itself. From this pluralist chaos, new syntheses will emerge. Hans Hallen again – ‘Unlike the single rooted origins of western culture, here there are a multiplicity of roots. The great Banyan tree of Milton’s Paradise Lost – which sheltered many and had a hundred stems – is an appropriate metaphor for African architecture, which must also tell of our time and place’.(4) South Africa’s future depends on it.

1 The Guardian, 25 November 1994.

2 UIA Issue 8, Southern Africa, 1985, p4.

3 Clive Chipkin Johannesburg Style: Architecture & Society 1880s-1960s. Cape Town. David Philip. 1993. p320.

4 UIA Issue 8, Southern Africa, 1985, p4.


This issue was made with the help and inspiration of the following people: Jo Noero, Gill Noero, Marcus Holmes, Peter Rich, Hans Hallen, Glen Gallagher, Muhammad Mayet, Herbert Prins, Wilhelm Meyer, Roger Fisher, Ora Joubert, Anton du Toit, Rodney Harber, Roz Harber, Jean Stewart, Paul Mikula, Ilse Mikula, Terry-anne Stevenson, Brian Johnson, Andrew Murray, Janina Masojada, Michael Liebenberg, Walter Peters, John Rushmere, Graham Linsley, Danie Theron, D. F. Theron, Ivor Prinsloo, Roelof Uytenbogaardt, Julian Elliot, Gabriel Fagan, Gwen Fagan, Vivienne Japha, Derek Japha, Bannie Britz, Jean Nuttall, Jennifer Sorrell, Pedro Roos, Sylvia Grobler, Barbara Durlacher, Judy Stoch, Ronnie Levitan, Maritz Vandenberg.

Particular thanks go to Mira Fassler Kamstra for orchestrating such a memorable visit to South Africa.

COPYRIGHT 1995 EMAP Architecture

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group