Freedom is our Heritage. It belongs to us.

Well today is Heritage Day, but is so wet here that I cant bring myself to make a braai. Its quite interesting actually that the idea of having a braai on Heritage day has caught on. Because, if I were to question people I meet in South Africa everyday and ask them about their heritage, they will most often speak about their specific national, tribal or language identity. In some cases the individual may also have some kind of clan or family heritage that they like to speak about. Heritage, for so many of us has been about trying to answer the question “How are you different from other people?” Well I am not sure that’s the only way to think of it. There are so many things that we in fact have as a common Heritage. That’s why I like the idea of “Braai” day, because no matter who you are, your ancestors at some stage cooked meat over an open fire. This is an in and inescapable truth and a comforting ritual that we are all still drawn to in some way. We are all drawn to music, we are all drawn to conversation and laughter and we are all drawn to being outside and breathing fresh air. This is our common heritage and this is what we should be celebrating. In my life these are the things that I celebrate. The minuscule and scientific differences between us are not of such a great fascination to me. Rather I see as  academic, the differences between Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whiskey, I see as academic the differences between Rooseterkoek and I’rostile. I see as academic the difference between Pot Roast Chicken and Umleqwa or Umqa and Pap.

I would also argue that it is our common heritage to interact with each other in a civilised way in order to exchange with each other goods and services, In fact, on our way out to the farm this morning Hlubi and I stopped in at the Lake Farm Centre for Intellectually Challenged Adults. They were having their annual fair. Unfortunately a little washed out, but there were still enough people to form a queue at the coffee and cake table and to buy out the boerewors rolls. We huddled indoors looking through the bric-a-brac or choosing the fresh fruit and veg on sale from local farms. It just came to me how different and pleasant this experience of trade is. It feels honest. It feels caring. Dealing with ordinary pleasant people like you and me. Not sexy, Not Flashy. Just ordinary and pleasant.So different from the malls and superstores where I am constantly on my guard, un-relaxed, conscious that this big huge business, is a very clever machine and it is trying its best to drain my wallet and suck my blood. There is no relaxing in such an environment.
But at Lake Farm this morning I wondered: “Is the act of buying and selling our daily needs in a pleasant and civilised environment which we own and control not a common Heritage that we should reclaim for ourselves?”. Really, its only in the last 50 years or so that the act of consuming has been turned in to massive industry that it is. Can you think of a shopping mall that even existed in the seventies? I cant, but maybe there was one somewhere far away. The point is that Heritage is something that has come a long way from the past and belongs to us. We need to defend against those gifts being taken away from us. The corporations taking those gifts away from us are mindless and soulless. I don’t mean this as an insult. It is an observation. Remember, while corporations were all at some stage founded by people, they are not people, they are code, like a computer virus, a piece of programming. They employ humans yes, but they are not human. Corporations are machines and they are out of control. They have no “off”switch. Any single human who tries to switch off Walmart or Macdonalds will be ejected by the machine. Discarded, disciplined, imprisoned…
Am I digressing?
Is it not our heritage to have clean water and breathable air? Is it not our heritage to have clean food, free toxic commercial chemicals? Is it not our heritage to be free from toil and drudgery? Yes, I know some will say that it is also our heritage to be riddled with lepracy and dying from bubonic plague, But have the scare mongers not been too successful in convincing us all that we have had to accept drudgery, toil and environmental collapse in order to achieve the technological advances that have brought us the anti-biotic?
No, I think we can confidently lay claim to a heritage of freedom. We are more knowledgeable now as a species than we have ever been before. If freedom is the freedom from drudgery, poverty and environmental collapse, then yes, it can be achieved if we set to it as a project, as if we had to get a man on the moon or build a Hadron Collider or rid Iraq of Saddam Hussain. It can be done.
Freedom is our Heritage. It belongs to us.

ECIA Chair slates ‘too big to fail’ developments

This piece appeared on the website on 6 September 2014. It captures some of my views on the city and the profession at the moment.

ECIA Chair slates ‘too big to fail’ developments

The past two years have seen the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects’ (ECIA) take on a higher level of advocacy and engage more actively with the public, business and government to educate and share the power and joy of the art of architecture; and on how design can be used for good.

?ECIA President, Tim Hewitt-Coleman says, “The city is its buildings; and the city is the spaces between its buildings. We must work hard to develop a dialog about the ‘Art of Architecture’. A critical dialogue that helps us all see what it is that we like, what we don’t like and what we would like to see our own cities and towns become.”
“I continue to be astounded at how architects in our region manage to achieve such excellent buildings against significant odds, something we must consider a major achievement. There are many of these and we have taken the time to build an exhibition of outstanding design currently on display at the Athenaeum.”
Hewitt-Coleman is adamant that architects have a crucial role to play in protecting excellence. “We are in a desperate fight to defend the tradition of excellence in the built environment against a recent irrational and completely ill-considered attempt to buy the services of an architect on the basis of ‘cheapest is best’,” he said.
“The public sector, spending tax payers’ money, is the number one culprit in this mindlessness. We call upon the public to assist us in this fight, by demanding excellent buildings, excellent parks and excellent spaces. Architects in our region are ready to provide these services.”
The celebration of excellence has been an on-going call to action of the current ECIA committee, which has been in place since 2012. Today a new committee was also elected to carry to mantle forward building on recent achievements.
The ECIA has made significant inroads in involving the profession and public more actively in the design process and engaging them in debate around the way urban spaces are shaped.
“The inaugural Urban Assembly was hosted in October 2013 presenting an ambitious collection of regular ECIA events and a series of new public events, including the popular Archi Race and the prestigious Milde McWilliams Memorial lecture given by the inspirational Luyanda Mpahlwa of Design Space Africa,” said Debbie Wintermeyer, ECIA committee member.
In April 2014 the ECIA also hosted an exhibition at the Athenaeum which showcased competition design entries for two major projects at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) and the design of the new NMMU Alumni building, allowing the profession and public to engage with the idea of the architectural competition as a method of procurement. The ECIA also promoted awareness of the Union of Architects World Conference inDurban in July.
Hewitt-Coleman said the new ECIA committee must remain focussed on what he sees as the “needs” of the profession and the built environment: Clarity, education, training and ethics: “It was a joy to serve with this committee over the last two years. To be an architect is to be a member of a very old profession that pre-dates Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilisations. Those of us who are asked to care for this profession in our specific corner of time and place, do so out of a deep sense of gratitude to the generations on architects who shaped our tradition.”
Recently the Eastern Cape has seen innovation temper local design, with the construction of green buildings which are less expensive to heat and cool, use less energy for lighting and are generally more comfortable to live and work in. Many of the projects in region are leading the way nationally.
However this is not the norm.  “For the large part, our cities a terrible sprawling dust raps of poverty and desperation. While much of this is understandable because of our history of apartheid city planning, what is happening right now in 2014, in architecture and city building is completely inexcusable.
“I don’t just mean the mindless rows of matchbox houses sprawling over the hills, but also the megalomaniacal big capital shopping centre monster way outside of our city to the west and in all other directions of the compass where cheap land can be found to build ‘too big to fail’ monuments to our system’s uncaring arrogance,” Hewitt-Coleman said, adding that architects everywhere are calling for a “human face” to the planning of buildings and cities.
“Architects are being called upon to step forward, out of the shadows, and claim the space needed to design and plan the cities of our future. We are slowly and tentatively developing the courage to do what it takes to wrestle this space back.”
Reflecting on 30 years of a changing architectural landscape – which is shaping and reconstituting modern South African cities – the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects’ (ECIA) latest exhibition, Excellence in Architecture: 1983-2013, celebrates how the region has morphed through architectural intervention.
The ECIA exhibition opened on Friday 5 September, and runs through to 12 September in the Athenaeum.

The Crisis in South African Cities within the context of the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between Urbanists in the Public, Private and Academic Sectors

(This Paper was first presented on 5 August 2014 at the International Union of Architects – World Congress in Durban. – It was presented at the “Parallel Academic Sessions” after a lengthy process of abstract approvals and double blind reviews.)

Close to half of South Africans now live in towns and cities. There is no evidence of the slowing of this trend. The 2011 Census shows us that rural provinces like the Eastern Cape have a declining population while urban centres like Gauteng show massive growth in population at rates very difficult to plan or develop for.
The growth pressure on South African cities in the last 20 years has of course been the engine driving change in the country, because where there is growth there is a drive for transformation. This has necessitated a profound “re-visioning “and re-imagining of what were old colonial and apartheid cities. This urbanization pressure has created the perfect opportunity for change. Nowhere else on the globe since the rebuilding of Europe after World War 2 has there been a need for urban spatial transformation as here, in post-apartheid South Africa.  There are great obstacles to change including our limited resources, our old paradigms and our vested interests. Not surprisingly the process of spatial and physical transformation has been a flawed process.  No matter how you look at the current reality in South African cities, twenty years into democracy, all can still, without exception, be described using the terms “Town” and “Township”. (Those of you from outside the country are reminded of Apartheid spatial planning’s dictate that black residents be located outside of “town” in dormitory “townships”.)

All of our cities are currently characterised by:
• Inner City areas facing decline, degradation, increased vacancies and deflated rentals.
• Middle class suburbs remain crime affected and under siege from roaming criminal gangs.
• Government subsidised housing is very poorly located, very poorly serviced and of very poor quality.
• A lack of spatial integration (denying, particularly the poor and new urban immigrant’s access to critical urban resources and the urban economy).
In spite good policy documents, South African cities have continued to become massive sprawling, polluting, fossil fuel dependent, urban regions that experience high levels of crime because of shortcomings in the urban economy and the weak social infra-structure. These cities are in many ways monuments to inefficiency, social dislocation and environmental degradation.
To this day, our cities remain memorials to apartheid’s most visible and viscous social engineering projects; divided between rich and poor, black and white and well serviced and poorly serviced. But what is perhaps worse, is that far from turning around this inherited pattern, the forces acting on our model of development since 1994 have rather perpetuated and reinforced the failed pattern.
As we speak, this pattern is playing itself out in the city that has been home to my family and to my architectural career. The Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area will, in the coming months see massive new sprawling developments beyond Motherwell to the east and outside Sherwood to the west of the metro. The process is now well underway to obtain approval for a new R6 Billion “mixed residential” development beyond Motherwell, along the road to Addo and construction has already commenced on massive new regional shopping centre to the west along the N2.
Curiously this crisis in South African Cities continues at a time when there are skills and resources available in the public, private and academic sectors to address these challenges and in fact to transform our cities into vibrant models of  balance, harmony and sustainability.
It is therefore the position of this paper that the most significant obstacle to meaningful urban transformation in South Africa lies not in a shortage of academic “know how”, not in a shortage on public sector investment, not in a shortage of private sector mobilisation but rather in the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between these three sectors.
Each of these sectors operates increasingly as a “silo”, separate from each other with no mechanisms available for true collaboration. The public sector has become driven by a number of imperatives that require it to “procure” the “services” offered by the private sector in a standardised mechanism designed to “procure” other “goods and services”. The obvious fact that public and private sectors can best serve the urban crisis by contributing the best from their ranks to collaborate in providing, vision, leadership and direction is of no concern to the faceless authors of our public sector’s “supply chain management” procedure. The unavoidable nett result of this strategy is a contested, completely unproductive standoff between the public sector “urban silo” and the private sector “urban silo”.  No vision emerges from this standoff; no leadership emerges from this standoff.  Only “safe”, “compliant”, “cost effective” implementation.
In a similar way urbanists in the “academic silo” come under increasing pressure to focus not on the South African urban crisis, but rather on “purer” academic pursuits. A youngster with a Phd that deals with some arcane branch of architectural theory is much more likely to assume a professorship in Architecture than a practitioner with 20 years’ experience in city building. This trend seems unstoppable with a momentum developed from very high up in the South Africa’s higher education community.  Architects who teach are now actively discouraged from participating in private practice. Those from private practice, who give of their time to the university and share their experience generally, do so as volunteers. Academics offering to serve the public sector are treated the same as their private sector counterparts, as a commodity to be bought through a “procurement system” with the same resultant frustration.
While in architectural practices everywhere we find that the energies of the brightest minds are committed to pure commercial pursuits. Top Architects, in top firms dedicate a disproportionate amount of their time on bids, tenders and RFP’s. When the projects are moving, architects at the top of their game commit most of their valuable time and energy in “managing risk”, resolving conflict and ensuring cash flow. Very little time here for reading, studying, engaging or developing the perspective that we know is required to see the bigger urban picture.
In this way the silos grow more and more isolated and positions within them become more and more entrenched. Urbanists of otherwise impeccable credentials begin to withdraw into cynicism and isolation. Great ideas are shelved. Big visions parked. Energy diverted.
Is there any solution? Is there any alternative to these dysfunctional relationships? Is there any way out of this urban crisis? Of course there is. These challenges were made by people like you and I and they can be overcome by people like you and I.

In light of the above, we put it to this conference that the following are now accepted as “common cause” by the three “sectors”; academic, public sector and private.
• Firstly, progress in addressing the crisis in South African cities is significantly dependent on the effective collaboration between “Urbanists” located in the public, private and academic sectors.
• Secondly, effective collaboration is substantially obstructed by current public “Supply Chain Management” procedures.
• Thirdly, effective collaboration is significantly obstructed by current Higher Education human resource management practices.
• Fourthly, the burden of Research and Development required to address the Urban Crisis is not shared in any helpful way by the Architects located in the private sector.
If the above can be taken as consensus, then this paper then makes the following propositions which it calls on the conference to debate:
Proposition Number 1
This paper argues that Architects in private practice have a meaningful role to play in developing vision and solutions to many of the challenges that face our rapidly growing cities. It is further argued that practicing architects are, as a by-product of their professional practice, daily exposed to up to date, complex data that informs and frames the questions and challenges that make up the urban crisis.
The limiting challenge however is that a formalised structure to support and facilitate the assimilation, processing and sharing of this data does not exist to the same extent as this exists in South Africa’s Universities. Universities all have a long established, structured set of incentives that promote research and debate.
Architects in South Africa are organised, primarily though the South African Institute of Architects. A number of programmes are run by this voluntary association to ensure the “Continuing Professional Development” of its members. In its turn, the regulating authority, South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) determines what is deemed to be an adequate amount of “Continuing Professional Development” in any given 5 year cycle. Within this environment, very little emphasis is placed on ensuring that research outputs of the profession are captured in any meaningful way.
The proposition put forward in this paper is therefore that:
The South African Institute of Architects is best placed of all institutions to formulate a systematic research process that captures the collective wisdom emanating from the work of practicing architects in the rebuilding of South Africa’s cities and that it will be failing in its mandate toward “Architects and Architecture” if it does not develop programmes to address this challenge.
Proposition Number 2
This paper points to the uncontested fact that University Architecture departments through the country have displayed a “drift” away from professional emphasis toward a greater academic emphasis. This is evidenced by the growing proportion of junior and senior teaching staff at Architecture departments with little or no professional exposure or credibility. This weakness arises from the fact that Architecture departments are located within universities where they experience significant pressure to conform to “uniform standards” which align the seniority of teaching posts with equivalent academic achievement. There exists no framework at any South African University to equate professional achievement with appropriate post-graduate qualifications meaningful to selection panels considering applications for teaching posts in Architecture departments around the country. While the South African Council for the Architectural Profession is mandated to accredit schools of architecture, no part of its directives to schools of architecture include the need for teaching staff to have has any contact or exposure to the profession of architecture.
The proposition therefore put forward in the paper is that:
The South African Institute of Architects is best placed to ensure that The South African Council for the Architectural Profession, develops expands its guidelines for the accreditation schools of Architecture to include minimum levels of professional experience for various categories of teaching positions.
Proposition no 3
While some architectural services procured by the public sector are of a routine and basic nature, others call for the Architect to provide significant leadership and vision. No evidence or research has been presented by the public sector at any conference or in any publication to suggest that leadership and vision can best be obtained from private sector architects using the current supply chain mechanisms uniformly adopted by Local, Provincial and National government departments. In fact, the documented evidence of Architects failing to provide adequate leadership in public sector projects grows as procurement process dictated by National Treasury become more uniformly employed.
This “supply chain” practice continues in spite of a number of workable examples where leadership and vision is procured by the public sector using free, fair and transparent processes. These examples include the long list of Director’s General, Municipal Managers, Chief Financial Officers and CEO’s of development agencies who are all procured in interview and shortlisting procedures without the need to submit a competitive financial offer.
The proposition therefore put forward in the paper is that:
There is no institution better placed than the South African Institute of Architects to commit to a comprehensive research project to test the hypothesis put forward in this paper that:
“Current South African public sector supply chain management processes, do not match the best Architectural skill and talent with the tasks that most require these skill and talents.”

This paper calls on this conference to debate the above three propositions with a view to accepting, rejecting or refining the position. The intention is then that this paper, in its refined form, becomes a call to action for South African Institute of Architects, to step into a leadership position in the task of ensuring that the energies of South Africa’s architects are best directed to the growing Urban Challenge facing this country and this continent

The End of Excellence?

(This Piece first appeared in The Herald on 25 July 2014 and is based on a talk I gave at the Athenaeum that week)

I have never visited Paris, but I have, just last night, visited a fantastic exhibition of excellent buildings and spaces at the grand old Athenaeum, in Central Port Elizabeth, entitled; “100% Paris”. You can still catch it. It runs until 25 July 2014. The exhibition is part of a collaborative between the Alliance Francaise, The ECIA, the NMMU School of Architecture and the MBDA. The ECIA’s Regional Awards programme is on Exhibition and so is some very interesting work by the MBDA and NMMU on the Baakens River Valley.

Visiting exhibitions and events of this sort always gets me thinking and this time was no exception. I gave a small talk on behalf of the ECIA and there was some very stimulating discussion that followed. The event got me thinking about “Excellence” and especially excellence in the built environment. What is it? What is its purpose? Has its time passed? Is excellence and means to an end? Or is excellence an end in itself? It got me thinking about “The End of Excellence”.

Because, as I said at the talk last night, I am quite sure, if you were to ask anyone who ever visited, Paris, or London or any other beautiful city, to speak of what was most memorable of their visit, they would speak of the built environment. They would speak of the bridges, the steeples and the spires. They would speak of the parks, the walkways and the avenues.

I am pretty confident, that after having returned from London or Paris,  you would not speak of how neatly the accountants prepare their balance sheets, or with what precision the doctors sew up their stitches after an appendectomy.  Yes, of course these disciplines are indispensable to our civilisation, but we must confront the truth that there is something very significant and lasting about the impression that the built environment makes on us.
So, what about Port Elizabeth? Yes, we have some beautiful places. We have the Donkin Memorial, City Hall and Feather Market Centre. We have an extraordinary collection of buildings, parks and spaces in Central. There are some parts of our city that are truly excellent, but  many of these are all very old buildings and places.  So, I ask: are we still able to create excellent spaces? Or, have we moved into and era beyond “ The End of Excellence”?

I ask this because, excellence is under threat. Around the world it is being beaten up and kicked in the teeth. Excellence is being bludgeoned simultaneously by a gang of three thugs. I am not afraid to name them.

Thug number 1 – “Mediocrity”

“Mediocrity” is a politically correct thug. “Mediocrity” says that perusing excellence is unfair because then not everyone gets a chance. “Why should people that are un-talented, unmotivated and generally useless not also get a chance?”

Thug Number 2 – “Competition”

“Competition” is dressed like a respectable accountant, but still very much a thug. “Competition” says that “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed”.  “What makes Central better than Charlo? What makes the North End Stadium better than the Boet Erasmus? What makes Architect A, better than Architect B? Show me the calculation! Is it longer? Is it heavier? Does it have more light bulbs?”

Thug Number 3 – “Compliance”

“Compliance” is a mouse-like, lawyer-like, thug? Compliance says “excellence” what is this? Where in the rules does it say we have to create an excellent city? “Compliance” says, we have made rules designed for stopping corruption and thievery, “What more do you want?”.
The sad news is that these three thugs have taken over public and private sector property developers. The people that build our cities are now controlled by these thugs or have become their agents.  Where excellence still happens, it happens because of the super human efforts of isolated individuals in the public and private sectors, who, in spite of the odds being stacked against them, see to the delivery of excellent buildings and spaces. Even today. Even in our city.

 The private sector routinely deliver s mediocre buildings and spaces because it appeals only to the mediocre tastes and expectations of you and I, the people who frequent their mindless malls, rent spaces in their sterile office parks. The public sector routinely delivers a mediocre built environment, for the same reason as the public sector, but they but they are also absolutely determined to see the each and every individual participant in the long sequence of events that leads up to anything getting built, is equally as mediocre, “So that everyone can get a chance.”
The private sector explains that it has no choice, it must remain competitive. It explains that the stock market will punish it if it were to waste money on creating an excellent built environment. “So as long as our competitors can get away with building poor environments, then so will we.” The Public sector, explains that “We are dealing with tax payer’s money here. There must be competition, to show that we paid bottom dollar.”
The private sector says to the public. “I have done everything you have asked of me. I have got the EIA, the TIA and the HIA. I am exhausted. I have complied. Where does it say I have to develop excellent buildings?”  The public sector says pretty much the same, but is even more exhausted by the complex internal compliance procedures required to so much as move a pencil from one desk to another. There really is no time and energy left to champion such niceties as “excellence”.
Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is demoralising. But it is the brutal truth. Excellence everywhere is under attack and none so more as in the built environment. But, I ask:  Is it the End of Excellence?
My attempt is to convince you that it is not the end. Yes, we are under attack from these three mindless thugs. Yes we are bleeding. But there are things we can do. 

And while there are still things that can be done, it cannot be the end.