Facebook reminds me that I was in Korea two years ago today. (Thank you Mark). Sadly though we are no closer to building an International Convention Centre in PE today than we were then (nor sadly closer than we were in 2005 when the city first commissioned a business plan that gave the “green light” to build it.) Perhaps its time for the private sector to become more aggressive in insisting on this game changing project. Perhaps business leaders like Nomkhita Mona, Mkhuseli ‘Khusta’ Jack , Thembinkosi Matunda and Mandla Madwara will take the reins and bring our city to its rightful place in the world economy?
There was beautiful rain on the farm on Saturday night. It’s been very dry here, so the sound of rain on the tin roof as we huddled in front of Netflix was even more pleasant, even more comforting than it would usually be. Except of course that the tiny cottage we live in is located in a little patch of third world where, for some reason, the internet goes down every time there is the smallest drop of rain.
With no connectivity, activity in the cottage quickly gravitates to reading, playing chess or trying to teach our enormous great dane “Tank” to add “lie down” to his small repertoire of tricks. My grown son Litha, was slouched behind the Weekend Post. “Dad…What can we do to get it opened?” He asked, referring to the headlines talking about the “Disgrace” that the beautiful Red Location museum remains closed to the public for six years now. “It’s not that simple” I mutter vaguely as I try for the third time to reset the WIFI router. His question interests me though and we end up debating the issue well into the rainy night. The exchange got me thinking about the issue and wondering if this whole matter has been thought through properly.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that the buildings that make of the Red Location Museum precinct are the best collection of contemporary buildings in the province. The buildings were lovingly designed by Jo Noero, an architect deserving of the highest levels of respect. I suppose, though, the question still remains “Why does the museum remain closed?”
Perhaps there’s more to it this than the lawlessness of the local neighbourhood? Perhaps there is more to this than the fumbling incompetence of the three spheres of government that have power and sway here. I’m beginning to think that the real problem is that Red Location Museum was way ahead of its time. But not in a good way.
I have visited Berlin. There is a Holocaust museum there (as there are in many other parts of the world) While these museums are all different, they have one thing in common. They were built after the holocaust was over. Just like the Vietnam War memorial was built after the Americans lost the Vietnam war. Just like the little memorial I visited in Buenos Aires was built after the Falklands war. I suppose it’s a matter of timing.
Mayor Nceba Faku was the best Mayor PE has ever had, but perhaps he got this wrong. Perhaps he declared victory in the struggle for liberation against apartheid too soon. Perhaps the people struggling in desperate poverty to this day in Red Location and hundreds of other places like it, may say that it is even now, 25 years after 1994, still too soon to celebrate or to memorialise victory.
After all, our World War 2 hero, Winston Churchill did not declare victory on “D-Day” when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy. No. They pushed on, did the dirty work and cleared Europe of every last Nazi Pantzer, released every last Jew, Gypsy, Gay and Slav from the concentration camps and then, and only then, declared victory on Armistice day.
I guess that the city’s great thinkers, like the erudite and well-spoken Rory Riordan, who worked tireless to ensure the Red Location museum received funding, got built and became more than a mayor’s pipe dream, will argue that I am misguided. He will point to the projected economic impact and how the tourists could flock there, spend their Euros and Pounds and Zim Dollars and thereby stimulate the economy and create a better future for the poor and destitute of Blawa, Ndokwenza and Katanga. Well friends, I am afraid the jury is out on this one. In the thirteen years since the museum was opened in 2006, it could not even generate enough tourist spend to keep its own little museum restaurant running, let alone stimulate the rest of the region’s tourist economy!
I am afraid colleagues this project is a failure. It is a failure despite the good work of Noero, Faku and Riordan. It is a failure by the ancient measure of that most famous of roman Architects, Vitruvius. Even before the time of Jesus, Vitruvius helped us understand that in order to for Architecture to be enduring and cared for, it must prove itself against the age-old tests of “Firmness, Commodity and Delight”. Yes, Red location Museum is “Firm” (It hasn’t fallen down). Yes, it is delightful. But no, it does not offer “Commodity”. It is not used. It has no function in this particular time, in this particular economy and under these particular social conditions. By the measure of the great Vitruvius therefor, The Red Location Museum is failed architecture.
Of course, we are concerned as tax payers that we have spent so much money on these buildings. We feel therefore that something productive must be forced upon them. This mistaken thinking, friends, is the “sunken cost fallacy” AKA “throwing good money after bad”. Even the Berlin Wall and the Sardinia Bay Life Savers Club were demolished when we reached consensus that building them was a mistake.
Perhaps then, if anyone ever resuscitates Mayor Faku’s great plan to demolish the freeways that devastated the once bustling and thriving Strand street, they may also be so wise as to add the Red Location Museum onto the list structures to be dynamited!
There is a Natural Order to things. I see it when I look around me.
Our dog “Tank”, a huge Great Dane, is friendly and sociable. He is a pack animal. Being friendly and sociable comes naturally to him. It’s also completely “natural” for him to chase the chickens, lick his genitals while we’re watching Netflix or bark at our assistant, Roy, when he comes to work in the morning. It would be completely “unnatural” for Tank to live in a fishpond or to eat a raw, low carb, vegan diet.
Of course, the idea of the existence of a “Natural Order” is not new at all. Lao Tsu spoke of it 4000 years ago already. The idea of a “Natural Order” makes perfect sense when we apply the thinking to dogs or even to people like you and me. We can see that there is a natural way to be that just seems comfortable and right. My thinking though has (over the last 20 or so years as an Architect in private practice) meandered to the question of whether we can find a “Natural Order” that will guide the design of buildings, objects and spaces.
- Is there a way that a brick wants to “behave”?
- Is there a way that a piece of timber or a roof sheet wants to “behave”??
- Is there a natural way in which a landscape or a building site would like to express itself?
- Is it possible for an architect to facilitate the expression of this “Natural Order” through a conscious and mindful design approach?
- Is there a “Natural” way in which a team can come together to design and build beautiful things?
When I begin to doubt myself I ask: “What is “Natural” anyway?” Perhaps a better word to use would be “comfortable”? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I can easily spot when something is not natural, when it feels uncomfortable. When a building is “pretentious” and “over designed”, I can feel it. When a building is overly decorated or overly complicated or when it is just unresolved and clumsy, I can feel it. I have no doubt that can feel the absence of a “Natural Order”. It is this quality, this “Natural Order” I seek in our buildings and in the spaces we design. It is this quality we set out to achieve at the Bhisho Contact Centre, The Gqebera Advice Centre, the Missionvale Library and many other of our precious projects. The quest for a Natural Order informs these buildings geometry, their relationship to the site, their use of materials and their play with light. Theses buildings seek to answer the question, what was “meant to be” on this site. These buildings seek to answer the question: “What would this space / surface / door / window / ceiling / component look like if it were to look like it were “meant to be” like that? This is what we have come to see as the “Natural Order” of design. I have come to see that this design approach is crucial if we are to play any part in creating a Natural Order Habitat.
To be clear, I am not speaking about a search for minimalist simplicity like our respected friends Mies van der Rohe or Tadoa Ando.
I respect that quest and I love the work of these and other great Architects like them.
But I have come to see that sometimes the Natural Order of things is very simple but at other times it can deliver surprising complexity. Also, to be clear, my quest to find a Natural Order in design should not be confused with attempts at “Bio mimicry”, where we learn lessons for the building of a staircase from the geometry of a sunflower or where our parquet tile floors are inspired by the patterns in the scales of an Armadillo. I love all that, but that’s not my quest right now.
My colleagues and I have been searching for this Natural Order for a long time. Yes, we are very interested in the design of buildings, but it is the design of the contemporary human “HABITAT” that dominates our thoughts. That HABITAT includes buildings. It includes the spaces between buildings and of course it includes the landscapes that we move through and live in on our way to and from buildings. The quest for a NATURAL ORDER HABITAT permeates our attitude toward design and also, perhaps even more importantly, our attempt to find a comfortable and natural “feel” in the interpersonal collaboration that makes up the design and construction process. Some say it’s a silly quest, some say it’s a waste of time. I say though, that it’s a quest that I know may not reach a clear answer, a specific result or a particular destination. I know that this may in fact be true, but I also know along the way we will learn. Perhaps like the Alchemists that searched for a way to make gold from ordinary stuff, we may not find this elusive “NATURAL ORDER HABITAT”, but we will learn many lessons along the way.
As we learn, I will share with you.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 20180927
(This piece by Tim Hewitt-Coleman first appeared in the Weekend Post on 24 March 2018)
On our way to swim in the ocean on Wednesday morning, we were chatting in the the car about Human Rights day. As we drove, I gave a little lecture explaining how on the 21st of March 1960, 69 unarmed protesters were gunned down outside a police station in Sharpville. “Why were they protesting?” asks Mandisa. “They were protesting about the “pass laws”. They burned the papers that they were required to carry as evidence that they had permission to leave the “homelands” in order to seek work in the city”. Mandisa silently nodded her head in the backseat as she continued to flip through Instagram, but Poppina said: ”You know, come to think of it, not much has really changed since 1960! If you walk down any Hillbrow street today, you run the risk of being thrown in the back of a police van if you don’t have the correct, ID papers, Refugee papers or Asylum papers”
I thought about this statement as I bobbed in the ocean that morning. Mandisa and I swam to the end of the pier. Poppina strolled on the beach. “What has changed since 1960?” I asked myself. Yes, things are much better for a whole lot of people that happen to have the right papers, but really, we have fallen into exactly the same thinking of the apartheid government. Then, the state said: “If your ancestors come from the wrong side of the Kei river, you go back there and do whatever your ancestors did there” All that has actually happened since 1960, is that the state has now just changed the rivers that they choose to use as reference points for their cruelty and brutality. “You dare not set your foot on “our” side of the Limpopo River. Go back to where you came from! Go do there whatever it is that your ancestors did there!”
We feel good about ourselves and justify our cruelty by referring to concepts such as “The Constitution” or “The Sovereign State”. My friends, I am writing to you today to remind you that these, and many such like fabrications, are merely “concepts”. They are just ideas formed in the minds of people. They are neither real nor tangible. What is real and what is tangible is the tremendous suffering of many millions of people across the globe and especially in africa that are unable to flee drought, famine, war, rape and slavery because of the notional concept of a “sovereign state”, with borders that cannot be freely crossed without risking death and imprisonment. People are dying (and worse) for the sake of these concepts. The “lucky” few that make it out of whatever desperate situation that has driven them to give up their ancestral home and their families, find themselves in a situation in a country like South Africa perhaps, where they are, at best, treated as second class citizens. They struggle to get a bank account, they struggle to own land, they struggle to get the same wages as those who have the “correct papers”, they struggle to access education. They are harassed by the police, they are exploited by the criminal underworld.
As we speak, right now, somewhere north of the Limpopo, young girls are being captured by rebels and sold into slavery. As we speak, right now, children are embarking on foot on a thousand mile journey in the hope of escaping the hell that has driven them to find the courage to flee. As we speak, in this town of ours, young girls from Somalia or Zimbabwe, or the DRC or Sudan, with no papers, no means of support and no hope, are trapped in a living hell of drug induced sex slavery. Tell me my friends, why, why, why do we think of this unspeakable injustice in different terms to the way we have come to think about the crime of apartheid?
We are deluding ourselves to think that this is in any way OK!
It must stop right now!
I am not a prophet and I do not pretend to be one, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that we will look back at this time and we will judge ourselves for tolerating this situation. We will be embarrassed that we committed our energy to attempts to rid the oceans of plastic bottles, arguing against backyard dog breeders and whether our leaders should be permitted to smash each other’s heads with water jugs. We will judge ourselves for dedicating our time to this relative pettiness while this tragedy of human suffering continues as the result of our silence in condoning the rubbish idea of “Sovereign” borders.
The reality is that our species is a wandering species. From the time when we first emerged from the Cradle of Humankind near Krugersdorp, we have wandered. We have moved our families on to new lands when the conditions we were facing became unpleasant. This movement over thousands and thousands of years was a gradual process, but a fundamental ingredient to our continued success as a species.
Impermeable national boundaries are unnatural! They cause untold suffering and must abolished without delay. We are a species gifted with profound intelligence. We split the atom. We send our representatives to the moon. We have credible plans to colonize Mars. Trust me, we can figure out how to overcome the challenges that emerge out of the removal of national boundaries. What do you think?
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