Architectural Practice and the failure of leadership in the South African Urban Crisis

(This paper was first presented at the Biennial Conference of the South African Institute of Architects in Cape Town on 14 September 2012)

Good morning ladies and gentleman.

I am speaking to you today in a humble attempt to convince you of three things:
1.South African cities are in a state of crisis.
2.Architectural practice in South Africa is facing an impending crisis.
3.There is a pressing and urgent new role for the Architect to play in this Country.

We are living in a beautiful time, a time of elevated consciousness, a time of a new awareness of our intimate relationship with the planet as a living breathing, interconnected, but finite, sustaining system.

We are living in a time where we are coming to reject the ugly and embrace beauty:
•We have collectively rejected bad coffee
•We have embraced artisan breads and handmade cheeses
•The Arab Spring has rejected ugly leadership in a wave of contagious disgust.
•There is desire for all things authentic, fresh from the farm, BBC Food, pavement café’s.

•We have abandoned Macho, black hats for politicians and the stiff upper lip.
•We have slowly overcome the worst of our Victorian Puritanism
•We are dealing slowly with our bigotry.
We are living in a beautiful time.

Yet still, no matter how you look at it South African cities eighteen years into democracy can all still, without exception be described using the terms “Town” and “Township”.

Yet still, in spite good policy documents, South African cities have continued to become massive sprawling, polluting, fossil fuel dependent, crime ridden poverty traps. These cities, in which 50% of our population now live, are monuments to inefficiency and environmental arrogance.

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 undoing this divisive sprawl our model of development since1994 has continued to perpetuate and re-enforce this failed pattern.

As we speak, this pattern is playing itself out in the city to which I have dedicated my professional life thus far. Where, if big private capital has its way Nelson Mandela Bay 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 the EIA has been approved for a massive new regional shopping centre to the west along the N2.
The question, I suppose is:
•Have we, as a community of Architects, stopped to think what it is that we are allowing to happen here?
•Should we give up hoping that our cities too can become “things of beauty”?
•Are we happy that our cities and especially our “townships” continue their low density sprawl endlessly, like a tumour, consuming the landscape?
Government support for ugly, anti-urban developments of this nature seem strange, contradictory and confusing, especially since it has become generally understood that the economy can no longer afford to keep building environmentally destructive sprawling cities the way we have been building since the World War 2.

Government policy documents since “breaking new ground” to the first drafts of the National Planning Commission documents are clear that South African cities need to be “accessible”, “compact” and break away their “divisive spatial and physical past”.
To add insult to injury South African cities are also reminders of another massive mistake of recent history! The mistake, with which we must now rapidly come to terms, is that South African cites have been designed under the false assumption, and the lie, that cheap fossil fuels would be available in perpetuity. This is now proving to be a colossal and expensive mistake.

The International Energy Agency have told us that global oil production has continued to increase year on year, since oil was first extracted from the ground in 1859, but that production has now peaked. In fact the consensus is that oil production peaked sometime in 2006 already. In other words, each and every year since 1859 the world was able to meet the increased demand for fossil fuels by simply finding new oil fields or drilling deeper into old ones. But now, supply is rapidly declining, while demand continues to grow unchecked, most notably to meet the needs of the growing Chinese and Indian economies.

While the implications of peak oil are now broadly understood, what I would prefer to focus on is what this means for how we approach the design of our cities looking forward.

Firstly, I would suggest, let us concede that we have got it all horribly wrong up until now. South African cities are of a very low density and have sprawled very widely. The brutal truth is that the general public are going to have to pay a very heavy price for this design error. It is soon going to become unbearably expensive to move around in private motor vehicles. It is going to become unbearably expensive to distribute food and goods within our sprawling cities It is going to become unbearably expensive for police to patrol and for municipalities to collect refuse. Even if our cities suspend their sprawling today, it is still going to be very tough!
•But what are architects able to do about this?
•Is there a role for the architect to play in moving us out of this crisis?

The Architect in contemporary society takes on sometimes the guise of the teacher, sometimes the guise of bureaucrat, sometimes an employee of a private sector developer, but most of all it is the Architect in private practice that we see as being “typical”. The Architect in private practice makes up the majority of our kind and are perhaps most visible to the public.

But, I am afraid in practice we have had our energies diverted away from the challenge of envisioning a better urban future. We have become obsessed with geometry, blinded by fashion and seduced by style. Our students hang on every word of celebrity architects, who are perhaps better described as entertainers than champions of the built environment.

When on the rare occasion have come to work those in townships (areas most in need of intervention, areas experiencing the crisis most intensively, area where our cities display their most ugly selves), Architects seem to have completely misunderstood the question.

As Architects, we seem to have completely failed to see where our real contribution can be made and where it is most needed. We have allowed ourselves to get caught up in the notion that somehow marginalised people (read black in the South Africa context) are a “special case” that requires Architects to apply a special methodology and approach.
Our recent past has seen very many Architects, unfamiliar with townships or rural areas being tripped up and stumbling over an “appropriate cultural response”. Considering perhaps the users and their clients and being foreign, “different” and “peculiar”. These architects consider the brief for a Township project, as would an American casino architect considering a conceptual response to a commission in the South Pacific. “What are the symbols and materials that are meaningful to these strange people?” he would ask. Invariably the design becomes a patronising series of palm leafed, round poled, out of scale structures that speaks more about the Architect’s ignorance and his snapshot, whirlwind visit preconception of the South Pacific Island in question, than it does to the cultural aspirations of the subject islanders.
I would argue that Architects in practice are limited by their tendency to misunderstand the question.
I would argue that Architects are limited by underestimating their potential contribution to the larger more pressing urban challenges.
I would argue that Architects are limiting themselves in believing (without any supporting evidence) that some other grouping is best placed to provide the leadership and do the thinking that is required to turn our cities into quality environments supportive of good living. There is a vague, unsubstantiated view that Town Planners, or Civil Engineers or elected office bearers are dealing with getting all this fixed.
Even inside our profession we have begun to think that to contemplate the design of the “spaces between buildings” is somehow the work of secialists who call themselves “Urban Designers”. A further fragmentation, that weakens our role, in the same way as the fragmenting of project management as something distinct from what architects normally do. This fragmentation and this limiting view is contagious and severely limits the way in which client organisations (especially public sector clients) interact with the Architect in private practice. In public sector projects, the irrational and unsubstantiated belief among government departments is that the best way to harness the energy of Architects in turning our cities into happy, vibrant life supporting communities is to fragment design tasks into small unrelated and simplistic components and to put these fragmented design tasks out to tender where cost of fees will determine the architect most suited.
So, we have an urban crisis of massive proportions, but absolutely no public sector mechanism to channel the creative and leadership energies of Architects in practice toward the challenge. It would be understandable perhaps if our cities were in Southern Sudan or Somalia, where the human resource is simply not available to do the thinking and provide the leadership. But South Africa’s problem is rather the inability of our system to harness the energy skill and leadership that is locally available to us in addressing the urban crisis.
We have a “procurement system” designed by accounting minds to prevent corruption and ensure compliance. In the public sector the same system designed to procure toilet paper and fax machines is now used to procure the services of an Architect. The Brutal truth is, leadership and creativity cannot be bought this way. It simply does not work anywhere in the world.

We have recently come to do some work in China, where strangely, South African architects along with other “western” counterparts are held in high regard. And, I suppose, for good reason. South African architects come from a proud tradition where we have been routinely called upon to bring vision and leadership, not just a technical design skill, not just problem solving.

We come from the tradition of Vitruvius, Wren, Michaelangelo, Le Corbusier, Fuller, Khan and Wright. Chinese Architects are very good at problem solving and they are numerous. In spite of this fact, almost every project of any significance in China today is authored by a “Western” Architect.

The reason for this is quite simple. The rampant Chinese economy has measured architects in the same way as they have measured other sectors of their manufacturing dominated economy, by their ability to obediently carry out instructions, quickly and cheaply. The inevitable evolutionary result of course, is that what survives is a legion of architectural practices that work quickly and cheaply. Any Chinese architectural firm that has decided rather to question their instructions, contemplate the bigger picture and spend time and effort to be at the cutting edge of excellence, have fallen by the wayside in the headlong rush that has been the Chinese construction “miracle” of the last 20 years. But, now that Chinese public and private sectors developers are cultivating an appetite for “world class” urban environments, they turn around to the profession that they have systematically devastated and realise that their own architects are simply not able to deliver the required leadership and vision.

Sadly, these developers are left with no choice but to turn to “Western” Architects, whose presence in China serves to even more relegate Chinese architects to second class technical support and providers of local content.

While the Chinese experience is sad, we are even more concerned to see that this trend is playing itself out in our own country. Here private sector developers have for years seen the Architect as a convenient “gun for hire”.

Listed venture capital, life assurers and pension funds have over the last 30 years seen to the systematic destruction of high street economies in every city and town they have deemed worthy of their interest. From Klerksdorp to Kimberly, from Port Alfred to Port Shepstone, Architects working “at risk” are enlisted to prepare scheme upon scheme on cheap land on the urban periphery. Once inside the system, the Architect is compelled to persevere until eventually one of these schemes manages to jump all the requisite hurdles allowing him, exhausted,  to claim a significantly reduced fee from the cost cutting developer. The concentration of money in the hands of so few large private sector developers makes the comparatively disorganised Architect in private practice an easy target for saving a few thousand rands.

Architects are of course not the cause of the destruction of South Africa’s vibrant, complex and integrated high street heritage, but we have been willing mercenaries and we do have blood on our hands.

So too the maddening “town house developments” that have become the blight of our middle class suburbs, where architects play lapdog to a system that all of us know to our cores is delivering the poorest possible urban environments.

The crisis our profession finds itself in today is not something that started this year. It is not something that comes out of some recently scribed government tender rules. Rather, it is a global challenge that comes out of a 1980’s Thatcherite view that the unfettered “free market” must determine the value of everything. Every commodity, every service, every tradable item. This view became dominant among the Yuppie classes who became suspicious of Guild economies, like those regulated by the Royal Institute of British Architects (and of course their local cousin the South African Institute of Architects)

The Institute of Architects as an organisation of mutual benefit had evolved its systems over hundreds of years, carrying with it a tradition of honour where a fair price was fixed and an intricate system of peer pressure was put in place to ensure the delivery of architectural services was of the highest possible quality. For generations similar “guilds” so to the affairs of lawyers, doctors, tailors and cobblers. The system worked very well, but the powerful class of Thatecherite bureaucrats and industry captains have been determined in their effort to wipe out this tradition and replace it with a “dog eat dog”, no honour, no pride, no quality “short term cost only” system. The private sector started this viscous attack and with time governments in a desperate attempt to be “progressive” and “keep up with the times” followed suit.
As you can see, Architectural practice is therefore severely constrained. Those of us that were looking toward the Architect in practice to save the day are unfortunately going to become very disappointed and completely disillusioned.

We can also see how, by extension, the Architect as teacher is similarly constrained, in that regardless of the quality of the design skills imparted to the young architect destined for practice, the structure is such that the young Architects value in being able to re-imagine the city in all its component physical and spatial parts and to rethink the space and form into something original, liveable and beautiful, is lost and when squeezed and squashed into the limiting box that has become private practice.

While the large portion of young Architects (products of Architects in the guise of teachers), end up in practice, a fair portion of them end up in the employ of private and public sector developers. Here they are often able to do good work, acting as “interpreters” to the Architects in practice, working as friendly bureaucrats inside the system and for the betterment of the built environment. Generally though these bureaucrat architects are seen mistakenly by their bosses as “technical types” and don’t rise to levels of meaningful leadership, where they would able to influence meaningful urban change.
So, is the situation hopeless?
Are we destined in this country to have to endure, decaying conurbations of hostile and unliveable, car infested sprawl?
I am trying to convince you here today, that it is in fact hopeless…..
Unless and this is a big “Unless”.
Architects are able to develop the courage to step out of the traditional guises with which they have become so comfortable.

Architects must accept that, for better or worse, they are better equipped than any other profession or grouping to provide the leadership and vision required to guide our cities and towns from where they are now to where we know they can be. Architects must take the courage to be thought leaders, business leaders and where appropriate political leaders. Architects must write, they must talk, and they must take the centre stage. Architects must unapologetically seek the limelight in promoting a vision of the built environment designed and built for quality human interaction and the elevation of the human spirit.

The leaders of our profession must be sure that they make themselves available as advisors to cabinet ministers, premiers and presidents. Our towns must be run by architect mayors, Architects must go out and infiltrate chambers of commerce, gaming boards, Diocesan Councils, ward committees, development agencies and ratepayers associations. Architects must take their family fortunes and develop property of sustainable quality. Where leadership is required, Architects must be prepared to step in and provide it in a way that is biased toward the goal of a quality, people focused built environment.
I am not certain if this campaign will work. I am not certain if architects are able to slip out of their apathy and their self-doubt, but I do know that for us to continue doing what we are doing will steadily result in the decline of our beloved profession and rapidly result in the failure of our cities.
Architects; the next move is ours!

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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