Newlands Forest in the folds of the mountain (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
I've always been one to take the high road. Sometimes the steps are perilous and the incline steep, yet I've been driven towards the heights by a promise of hope. I've been afraid that on the simple path I might forsake something big and beautiful that I would never have known existed if I hadn't fought to find it.
This morning I found myself on a lone walk in Newlands forest. At every turn the steepest path would draw me towards it. The mountain's cavernous eye somehow beckoned me closer. So close and yet so far.
Nature's Cathedral (Photograph by Jeffrey Barbee www.jeffreybarbee.blogspot.com)
At the point where I had thought I might stop for a moment, I met a person sitting next to the path, earphones plugged in, fiddling with something on his iphone. Perhaps he was changing the tune of his morning. How unfortunate to be missing out on the silence, I thought. I had been so bombarded by my own thoughts when I arrived that I was relieved to at last be hearing the melodies of nature - the stream, the crickets, the birds, the wind rushing.
A sharp turn drew me towards a steeper incline. I took it hopefully but soon found it to be bringing me downwards into a sea of purple and yellow flowers. Orange and white speckled butterflies flickered above the ferns. And I was lost in it for a moment - in nature's cathedral.
Architectural philosopher, Marc-Antoine Laugier described nature's "primitive hut" as the ideal principle for architecture and structure.
Why must we always enclose ourselves with man made things when God made a canopy over our heads and strong tree columns to hold it up? Architecture is not just about buildings; about things. It is all around us. There is much to learn from what already exists; from what somehow seems hidden until we start to look for it. There is much to be discovered along the high road.
It seems appropriate to be writing this post now in the wake of South Africa’s foremost political cartoonist, Zapiro’s trial with Jacob Zuma over one of his particularly controversial cartoons (published in 2008). It’s a cartoon I have mixed feelings about myself but I liked Zapiro’s own self defiant retort...
I had the privilege of attending an evening lecture by Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro) a few weeks back. I was intrigued by the fact that he started an architecture degree at the University of Cape Town. Although he never finished it (and later went on to study graphic design and then cartoons), it was a place of creative exploration for him. As an anti-apartheid activist during these years, he discovered that cartoons and caricature had a powerful ability to communicate a strong message, often subversive and controversial. Thus it was (and still is) a potent political tool.
Something he loves about creating a cartoon is that anything can happen on the page. The space on the page appears in two dimensions yet comes to life as soon as the pen hits the paper. There is an emerging process from the beginning of the conceptual idea to the final outcome. And the final cartoon image we see is many pages later. The cartoon-maker (as I use this term specifically) uses techniques such as metaphor, parody, exaggeration and comedy to communicate a message through visual means. This visual means is often more powerful than words because not only are our visual senses stimulated but the process of abstracting the idea using the various techniques connects the image to a powerful and cutting message. Somehow you can say more in this suspended imaginary world, because it is abstracted from reality and remains undisturbed. You are offended by an image, yet you smile and laugh at the absurdity. You laugh without realising that the joke is actually on you.
One of the most potent pieces of work he showed us used empty space to communicate the message. He said that such a surprisingly simple piece still required many draft iterations till the final outcome was achieved. What I like about this particular one is that it demonstrates the power of space, whether it be occupied or empty (the space that fills or the space in between) and here lies the architecture in it. Here is another creative discipline that by an action that changes a space is able to communicate something that might have otherwise remained silent.
Most Capetonians will remember with pride and nostalgia the semi-final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup that was hosted at the Cape Town stadium. In 2011, the Green Point Park was opened as a permanent and tangible contribution to public space in the city and a reminder that the world cup was a catalyst to constructing this positive place.
Today the Green Point Park has become an icon next to the Stadium, abuzz with school children during the day, mum’s and small children, and enjoyed by all citizens in the early evening who go there to walk, enjoy the fresh sea air and take a respite from the bustle of the city. One of the strengths is the main axis through the park – an avenue that runs diagonally from Helen Suzman Boulevard to the east, towards the Mouille Point lighthouse on the west, a strong linkage with the Seapoint beach and promenade (see aerial photograph). The park is not isolated on the common. It is naturally integrated within its local context and thus becomes a wonderful pearl within the Green Point Common enclave.
The City of Cape Town recently made a decision to install two sculptures that were carefully selected amongst proposals from other artists (one can imagine that a position of one’s artwork in the Green Point Park is hotly contested), as not only a contribution to placemaking but as a memorial of the events that have taken place and influenced the formation of the area – consequently reinforcing public identity. Thus each one has a dual layer of meaning.
Keith Calder’s creation “Slide Tackle” is a 500 kilogram bronze statue that reminisces about some of the memorable and acrobatic moves that took place during the nail biting games of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It was decided to place this statue at the Eastern gateway that lies at the junction of Helen Suzman Boulevard and Vlei road. This gateway is essentially the front entrance to the park as it draws the public in from the city side. Vlei road links perpendicular to the Cape Town stadium to the north, thus this statue is the “FIFA memorial”.
The Western gateway lies on the edge of Bay road, at the edge of the axis with the Mouille point lighthouse, the beachfront and the Sea Point promenade. Therefore it was decided to place a 7.500kg sea anchor in memory of the maritime history and life that has passed Cape Town’s shores. The anchor, which is 2.4 metres wide and 3.2 metres high, belonged to the cargo ship the MV Silverfjord which regularly docked at Cape Town on its travels from Europe to the USA.
An interesting tension is created between the two sculptures as one is a relatively new piece (Slide Tackle) and the other is old and the visible signs of aging are present. Thus as one walks from the Eastern gateway to the Western gateway it is as if one is transported through a passage of time that links present with past.
The sculptures are currently being installed in the park.
By Mary Anne Constable
This article originally appeared on Future Cape Town, inspiring a more liveable city.
We are not robots (123RF stock photos)
Every now and then I leave my car in the garage and take a fifteen minute walk to the shops (I am yet to persuade my sister to "lend" me her bicycle). The streets are not particularly made for walking as the sidewalks are narrow and I enter the Claremont Pick n Pay centre through its "backside" where the no- pedestrian signs next to the vehicular booms are dutifully ignored. There are always a few pedestrians passing by on my journey, although this is a quiet sunday, as opposed to the previous saturday where the streets in front of the Newlands Rugby Stadium were buzzing with excited crowds - "WP jou lekker ding!". There are people of various races - a white guy is having his sunday run, a young black student walks past with headphones on, the security guard dozes in his box next to the Sports Science Institute.
I decided to embark on an experiment a few months ago whereby I would attempt to catch eye contact with people as I walked past them and attempt to greet them. This would be mainly in the street but also at the shops. "Attempt" would be the operative word here as I found so simple and basic an action to be a difficult one and positive results were rare. And on the occasion where I could break the "silence" there would be a beautiful and completely satisfying moment of connection (even if only a few seconds long). I further elaborated on this experiment at the Architecture ZA Masterclass that took place in September (Look out for a more detailed post on this soon). It started when I happened to accidentally leave my name label attached to my t-shirt as I was wandering around Buitenkant street and surrounds. The first time somebody walked past me and greeted me by name I was initially embarrassed but it suddenly occurred to me that this most simple "faux pas" had actually brought about an interaction that never would have taken place otherwise. Perhaps this was a way of making the invisible visible and making a bridge across cultures - bringing the inside out. Perhaps.
The most interesting part of developing a mindfulness of how people interact with each other is that you start to notice which types of people are the most open and which are the most closed. You are often surprised. You also develop awareness of yourself and if you are prepared to face it, you will discover that you too are afraid. Why are we afraid of the "other"? Where has our humanity gone? We are not robots.
In case you were wondering, the types of people that are the easiest to spontaneously interact with are mostly the security guards and the car guards (dressed in their not-so-official orange aprons). Perhaps this is because they are the ones who truly understand what it is like to feel invisible...
Building within a building - The Francis Gregory Library, Washington, USA
Taking in so much creative information can be overwhelming! Not that my creative box is full, just that I need a little time to "chew on the cud" before the next bite! But no rest for the overambitious! I've been attending the Masterclass "A piece of the city" with Atelier Bow-Wow, Andrew Makin, Elena Rocchi and Ora Joubert, today and tomorrow. More about that soon!
The final day of the conference had two main speakers. I unfortunately missed the full presentation from the first speakers Atelier Bow-Wow, a Tokyo firm consisting of Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kajima. Though working with them at the Master class will provide some opportunity to gain insight into their way of thinking, I'm hoping.
Architecture as commodity...
Ghanian born, David Adjaye was possibly one of the most publicised speakers due to present at the conference, and his work definitely reflected the appropriate hype, though I think it lacks the humility and sensitivity of the work of Rahul Mehrotra and Joe Osae-Addo. He has developed a high profile and reputation as an architect and has thus acquired some weighty commissions, which have provided him with a lot of creative and intellectual freedom. The question that begs is, what opportunity is there for architects who are still making their way in the world to express themselves on similar canvasses? Indeed I found his approach to come from a decidedly western, first world stance, where the subtleties of the developing world are simply not adequately understood. He is in a priviledged position and I appreciate the intellectual integrity, theoretical rigour and artistic expression that comes out in his architectural language, but I wonder whether his architecture hasn't become a commodity - a formula.
He says that he doesn't have a signature style (in the Frank Gehry sense) but he has found that there are about twelve "tropes" that he has been exploring and developing over his career so far - the "building within a building" for example, seen in the Francis Gregory library, Washington, USA. There is no doubt (in my mind) that his buildings are beautifully crafted objects that are works of art as well as architecture. Though they seem to be missing the essential "spirit of place" that is the essence of Mehrotra's work. The buildings are self referential as opposed to "softening thresholds" (Mehrotra's term).
Who are the starchitects?
I managed to ruffle his tail feathers during our interview when I asked him what he thought about being labelled a "Starchitect". I heard this term for the first time several years ago in Architectural Review and since then the term has surely made its way into the dictionary. Adjaye says that the term is essentially derogatory and though, after the fact I had a lively conversation with some colleagues on the topic who disagreed, I have often used the word myself in a somewhat derogatory manner. To me it speaks of celebrity architects that develop their style into a brand so that a client will ask for a building by...so-and-so because they know that it will look a certain way. And then the architectural "style" of the architect is applied as a dressing that doesn't necessarily respond to the sensitivities of site, location, etc. It's a complex topic, and though I think that each of Adjaye's buildings stand with their own unique architectural integrity, the more I thought about, the more I was convinced that he is actually a starchitect whether he likes it or not. Not in the sense that he makes precocious applique architecture, but in the sense that it is self proclaimed architecture, slightly arrogant and not entirely underivative. And he is a true celebrity - charming, handsome, well-spoken - its not surprising why. Even the way the interviews were being conducted in such an "official" manner I felt as if I was interviewing the president!
Traversing an old water furrow
My day at the conference didn't end there as I went on a walking tour called "Reclaiming Camissa" with architect and historian Caron van Zyl. A completely fascinating look at original water sources and systems in ye olde Cape Town which had me at one point wading in my jeans though thigh-deep water (300 ecoli count which is apparently undrinkable but perfectly safe) in one of the old spring chambers in Vredehoek. I also enjoyed taking some interesting pictures of the city from a different perspective. They'll be up in a photo journal shortly.
On the whole, I have been overwhelmed by this conference. It has come at a time when I really needed an inspirational injection and I'm coming alive again and getting excited about all sorts of crazy project ideas. One more day at the Masterclass tomorrow - its not over yet!
As I interview Rahul Mehrotra, Indian architect, urban designer and conservationist (and final speaker of the day) the pieces of the puzzle of the day's words and ideas start to fall into place in my head, as if the presentations of the speakers have been specifically coordinated as to to tell a story about the way that architecture could be taking shape in our country.
The morning session with Kibwe Tavares caused a sensation, specifically amongst the students I noticed, as he showed some short film clips of the work he has done with his animation studio, Factory Fifteen, over the last year. He also showed the visually astonishing "Robots of Brixton" which is the animation piece that he created for his final year Architectural thesis project at the Bartlett Institute in London. In it he creates the vision of a post apocalyptic future dystopia (one of the recurring themes in his private not commercial work), where robots are a slave workforce to the human race. A riot takes place, during which flashbacks to the 1981 riots in Brixton, are shown. The result is a dessimated machine littered street scene upon which note the film ends. Although the film piece expresses elements of a story, the narrative is disjunctional. It's like a graphic novel that alludes to a story (rather than telling it), most of which must be pieced together in the mind of the viewer; leaving a set of unsatisfactorarily answered questions at its finish. It's somewhat existentialist and disturbing. In this sense the film portrays its message purposefully.
What does this have to do with architecture? As South African trained architects the concept of this film as a final year thesis project is unfamiliar. We are so used to the practical and physical applications of our building ideas. Some perhaps looked upon this kind of architectural education with disdain (as a reflection of the disconnected, immaterial and globalised spirit of our time), others with a hint of jealousy (myself included) at the freedom of unique expression allowed. This is why I say it caused a sensation amongst the students. Tavares is the first to admit that "it's not real, is it?", but he loves the freedom it allows him to explore and express the essence of his creative self. There is architecture in it, as the images of dystopia involve images of reality (Brixton in "Robots") layered with almost paristic futuristic architectural structures. These however are two dimensional as the animator focuses on the visual of the camera shot only - detail is added where it must be, but omitted where not. I think what grounds his work is that it invokes relevant social messages, as opposed to being indulgently introspective.
Rescripting architectural education...
So much more to be said. I attended the next session called "Rescrpting education" and found there to be such contrast between the education at the Bartlett Institute for example and the way we are thinking about architectural education in South Africa. One of the main differences is that we face such stark external realities here - our society has desperate needs that need to be addressed. Britian seems to have a kind of collective amnesia about their own social problems. Not to say South Africa doesn't! Thorsten Deckler and Alex Opper presented a particularly interesting project in Ruimsig which the students of the University of Johannesburg worked on with some of the local planners. They assisted in "reblocking" the urban structure of the community. This concept (which I was intitally sceptical of) involves giving identity to the existing urban layout of the houses. Since informal settlements are commonly seen as negative, this is a way of giving significance to the inhabitants - a way of recognising their claim to exist within this space.
Rahul Mehrotra's work also looks at giving significance and recognition to community through the creation of spaces that cross social boundaries. These crossings he calls "collective thresholds". Heinrich Wolff mentioned earlier that the problem with Johannesburg is that people deny where they are and this is an issue that needs to be addressed in South African cities. We can no longer be embarassed by our social issues, and avoid them by creating imaginary worlds (like Century City and Tuscan golf course estates). Mehrotra demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging communites to interact by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the inhabitants on weekends and the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parties, although they are of such opposite classes. Other examples include public toilets which were reconceptualised as a "community centre" where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the "penthouse" on top. The audience was inspired by a project in Rajasthan where low cost housing and shelters for local elephants was built (a competition won by Mehrotra's firm). Water is very important to the elephants and what was created is a series of water bodies in existing sand pits on the site (from quarrying in previous days). Water has now collected in these pits and the site is lush and green. What is also significant is that the relationship between keeper and elephant is key and there is a ceremonial process of care - for example bathing with the elephants at the end of each day. The spaces allow for these intangible experiences to take place without stifling and limiting them. Mehrotra mentions that the other entries to the competition mostly involved "fetishised" interpretations of traditional architecture which were entirely innappropriate for the social context.
I am inspired to ask Mehrotra, whether the process of forming ideas also begins with a collective approach. He believes strongly in collaboration and empowering the members of his design team. Architecture today consists a lot of privileged authorship and he prefers an approach where the stamp of the architect is not obvious. I remark that his buildings seem to be more like places than objects - containers for people in which they can express themselves as opposed to buildings that express purely themselves and are secondary for people.
Again there is much more to be said yet I'm looking forward to the image of architecture that the full picture of this conference will inspire.
Puppets unmask us
So I'm hoping that word does not get out about me not being a very experienced twitterer (ahem I mean tweeter). It took me ten minutes to send a tweet on my unintelligent phone this afternoon (I can't even get whatsapp)! That aside, it's practicallly impossible to smoosh an overload of ideas on architecture into 140 character bite sized chunks. Twitter is a bit like fast food in that way.
Fighting to exist...
Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company started off the day talking about their own perceived connections between their work - puppetry, and architecture. Puppeteering is an influential medium because people are fascinated by puppets - puppets expose the fragility of our humanness. For a puppet, the basic everyday interactions we take for granted are a struggle. Puppets must fight for every breath of life. And architecture too, is inanimate until it is layered with the lives of its inhabitants. Jones and Kohler spoke of a human being's untapped ability to develop extreme perception to sensory experiences (like that experienced by autistic people). When facing a sensory experience our brains search for the big picture. We exclude what we can't make sense of. We must do this in order to survive in a chaotic world.
I feel a bit like that after today - as if my mind has been filled by a cacophony of ideas and complex thoughts that I'm trying to make sense of and not quite getting there...yet. Its similar to the design process. As a student I would spend hours in the library filling my mind with ideas (mainly visual) for my next design project until I would go home and let them blend in my dreams over night. There was always chaos and confusion, and then there was the fight - the fight for this idea to claim life. And each day, each thought, each small nuance, would shape this idea into something worth talking about. And the design project would begin to take shape.
Robert Silke gave his perspective on current architectural scripts (trends). In architecture, a design project cannot take on a life all of its own as it is defined mostly by constraints. "We are not fine artists", says Silke, and we unfortunately can't move within the same freedom. I have always loved the challenges (but not the headaches) that constraints bring. Coming up with an idea is easy, but responding with a creative solution to a complex problem is hard - and that's what we architects (try to) do. A problem is that we are rendering ourselves powerless by responding to the constraints enforced by developers. We can write our own new scripts.
Enrico Daffonchio spoke about his fine art which looks at the sensory perceptions and consciousness of space. He uses imagery of the human body, dreams and memory. The post lunch session, "Engaging the city" involved an architect, an urban activist, an archaeologist and a choreographer and will take some time to unpack from my ideas tank. Four provocative views and individual compelling takes on space and social consciousness. What is evident is that our cities are ruptured and we need to find new ways of bringing change, meaning and healing.
What I enjoy about Joe Osae-Addo, the final speaker's work is that he is bringing about (albeit small) change and meaning by looking at the everyday and the specific. There is a striking contrast between some of the ethereal concepts of the earlier presentations, and the robustness of the building materials that Osae-Addo works with. Its almost as if, unlike the puppets where the human puppeteer injects life into the puppet, the materials Osae-Addo explores are the perpetuators of a sensory experience - the inherent life and possibilities within them are drawn out and given cognisance.
If you've read to the end, you've only read a small taste! And its time for me to go and put these ideas into my dream box tonight. I wonder where they will take me tomorrow...
If you are visiting this blog for the first time - welcome! In the next few days I'll be writing about the Architecture ZA 2012 Biennial Conference happening in Cape Town (http://architectureza.org) - "Rescripting Architecture". There are some interesting international speakers and I'm going to be interviewing them!
What I'm going to write about: Architecture on the edges, what are these architects doing that inspires a unique discourse in architecture, art and culture? I don't want to simply recount the conference, I want to try and find its essence and lets see what comes out!
See you in a bit, Mary Anne
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My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.