Can Domino and Dumisa teach us Chinese?

This piece first appeared in The Herald on 29 October 2010

During a recent trip to Hong Kong, I met with the management of Ocean Park, where Port Elizabeth’s, Bayworld dolphins: Domino and Dumisa are being cared for. My objective with the visit was to gain some practical planning tips that we could use in finalising the design in preparation for when Bayworld goes into its much awaited and anticipated construction stage. I came away from my time in Hong Kong very impressed with the facilities and infrastructure at Ocean Park.
Domino is participating in live shows in a 500 seat, roofed grandstand and Dumisa has the onerous task of making dolphin babies. I was privileged to be taken “behind the scenes” into a climate controlled facility with a series of 9 or 10 inter-leading pools which make up their renowned captive breeding programme. I was impressed with the care taken to every detail. The special poolside finishes, with water jets ensuring smoothness on the dolphin’s skin, the hydraulic, adjustable level floor in the examination pool, the strategically located chemical footbaths to avoid contamination being tramped in on handlers and scientists shoes. All very impressive.

But, as I sat at the cavernous Hong Kong International, waiting for my flight home, I began to reflect on my few days in Hong Kong and my week in mainland China before that. I began to wonder what it is that the Chinese have, that we don’t have, that has enabled them to provide such great care for South Africa’s dolphins. What has enabled them to build such a miraculous economy with all the infrastructure, bells and whistles that go with it? As I boarded the plane for the 13 hour flight back to Johannesburg, I cast my mind back to the week I had spent in Chengdu before arriving in Hong Kong. Chengdu is a 2500 year old city of 11 million people. Bigger and older than London, but not even on the list of China’s top 10 biggest cities! Development is happening everywhere. It seems cities are being systematically re-built, to an ever elevated specification and higher standard.
As I ate my airline portion of “chicken or beef”, I felt saddened that we were not able, in Port Elizabeth, to provide the care and facilities that, our dolphins, Domino and Dumisa are accessing in Hong Kong. Over the years, Port Elizabeth’s Bayworld did an almost miraculous job with very little. But in the end, the system we have built, the society we have created, could not the provide the support required to sustain a healthy captive Dolphin population in Port Elizabeth. We had failed.

But why had we failed? I was not certain.
I had travelled to Hong Kong in an attempt to acquire “know how” from the designers and managers of Ocean Park. I came back with a supply of very useful information and valuable tips, but I also came back with the knowledge that our problem at Bayworld, our problem in Nelson Mandela Bay, our problem in South Africa, is in fact not a shortage of “know how”, but rather a lack of vision of a shortage of will .
It is a selective lack and shortage. It is evident that we, as a country, are not incapable of developing a clear vision and a strong will. The 2010 Fifa World Cup, managed to collect South Africans around a specific “vision”. We all witnessed a sufficient supply of “will” to see us building the world’s best stadia and top class infrastructure. Given sufficient urgency, we are capable. It just seems that China has sufficient urgency over a far broader range of social objectives and can sustain it over a far greater length of time. China had the will to emerge from poverty and famine in the 1960’s. China (more mainland China than Hong Kong) had the vision of a better life for its people. In order to achieve this vision, they have developed some characteristics from which South Africa could perhaps take lessons:
o China has a strong and decisive state at all levels
o China has set out to ensure that all it citizens are able to be productive in some way.
o China set out to control its population at levels where it can ensure prosperity.
Importantly, much of what had to be done to pull China out of poverty would have been very unpopular to implement. Nobody wants to have a bossy government, nobody wants to work hard and nobody wants to stop making babies. But everybody benefits from a prosperous country free of famine.
So, perhaps after all that, I say to Bayworld, the Nelson Mandela Metro, Provincial Government and National Government: We, as a city, do have enough “know how” to turn Bayworld (and the entire city) into a world class destination. With enough urgency the budget will be found. What we are lacking at the correct level, is a clear vision and sufficient will to see it happen. Our country deserves this. Our citizens should demand it.

Who built a Crooked House?


Architects are living through fantastic times in this city and South Africa generally. Not only is there an abundance of work, but a heightened awareness of the value that Architects are able to add to the built environment. There is such a lot of “cool” stuff to do, that I am worried that we try to do too much and loose out on the enjoyment of doing one thing well. I believe though that it is better to take action than to worry!

…So I have taken action.

I love beautiful buildings. Big buildings, small buildings. I love being inside them. The light, the sound, the way people use them. The way they sit in the city or landscape. I love the way these buildings are put together.

There is magic in that; and I am starting to reconnect with this magic.. What surprises me is that I have felt that reconnection not in the billion rand, high visibility, world beating projects running through our office, but rather in something a little more modest….

You see,.. my semi- retired father and I are building a wooden cottage in the Outeniqua indigenous forest. It is a very modest cottage built for family needs; rectangular in plan, with a double pitch corrugated iron roof. When I say we are building the house I don’t mean it as a metaphor for designing and drawing plans for, or a metaphor for sitting around watching the contractor’s progress. No; I mean we are physically, digging, measuring, cutting and fitting (and sometimes knocking down)

It has been great on two significant levels. Let me list them:

Firstly:

When physically building you are compelled to focus on one task. You are compelled to be present. Not to think about the next meeting or the previous phone call. How often do we get a chance to be focussed on the present? Especially those of us in management positions can lead a very fragmented and frantic existence. Many of us have powerful and creative minds but have created a reality for ourselves where we spread our input (and out impact) so thin as not to add the value that we could.

Secondly:

Building in the forest has helped me see the potential of my own hands and energy. I can actually build a house. WOW!
The real truth is that Murray and Roberts could probably build it a little neater. (OK,… a lot neater.) But it is not a competition. We are building the house because that is what we need to do to meet our needs and aspirations right now. We are not building the house to try to compete with Murray and Roberts! But what I am talking about here is something more widespread! A phenomenon that spreads across our lives and effectively limits what we believe we are able to do. We are intimidated by the corporate and media dominated world through which we move every day. We slowly begin to believe that we are not good enough to take action.

We cannot sing as well as Mariah Carey, so we will never dare to sing at a family dinner or in the pub.

We cannot tell stories as well as Stephen King, so why even bother trying.

Mom cannot make clothes as neatly as Edgars, so we’ll rather stay at home than be seen dressed in her homemade tracksuits.

We cannot build as well as Murray and Roberts, so lets not let people laugh at our crooked house!

The net result is that we become intimidated into inaction allowing big corporate and media giants to do for us what we used to do for ourselves, and it only takes a little time before we have lost our skills and our dignity forever.

I have in the forest found the joy and freedom of taking back that which I thought I had been robbed of. Cutting planks, laying boards, nailing trusses.

There is magic in that!