All that is “building” is not “Architecture”

This column first appeared in the
The Port Elizabeth Herald on 14 October 2013.

Last week Monday, 1October, was “World Architecture Day”. No; I did not do anything special either. I suppose I got distracted and caught up in all the excitement of World Yo-Yo day and the International Tennis Elbow Awareness week. You see, we live in a world where everything is important and Architecture has become one of those many, many important things. But, I wonder, is a world where everything is important not the same as a world where nothing is important? To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about any of this on the evening of World Architecture Day. I was at home mending the hole in my backyard chicken house that the dogs had caused over the weekend while we were away. I did notice though, that the weaver birds had built the first nest of the spring in the Mulberry tree that overhangs my duckpond. The nest was well constructed, strong, resistant to wind and, I presume, quite dry inside. But, we know that the weaver bird’s nest is not “Architecture”. Animals can build, but only artists can create Architecture. Architecture is much more than just building, it is an art form. Architecture is a statement by a human mind about the mystical nature of beauty.

Two thousand years ago the roman Architect Vitruvius explained that for a building to be described as “Architecture” it must fulfil the requirements of “commodity, firmness and delight”. In other words, it is not good enough for a building simply to stand and to be functional. It must deliver “delight” to the users of the building. It must deliver “delight” in the same way that a great painting, or a great sculpture, or a great piece of music delivers “delight” to its audience. The difference with Architecture of course is that it is a functional, public art form that, in a very real way, touches the lives of the people that use it. But, the great advantage and significance of this art form is also its great weakness. Because, while those artists who paint with oil on canvas are left to do their own thing, Architects, are continually harassed by bureaucrats and salesmen claiming to be experts in “firmness” or “commodity”. The debate and discussion around “delight” and “what is beauty?” is largely abandoned in favour of arguments that can be supported by “measurables”: tangible things that can be quantified and counted. What strength of beam? What level of compaction below the surface bed? What length of escape to the fire exit?
But why, you may ask, am I even bothering you with this discussion? Is this not rather for Architects and Artists to discuss among themselves in coffee shops and libraries? I would say: “No! Absolutely not!”, because architecture, like other art forms, can only exist as art when it conects with the pubic that view it and use it. Great architecture needs great Architects, but only as much as it needs a public to appreciate it and powerful people to commission it.
Great architecture today, as always, happens only with the commitment and dedication of private sector investors, public sector developers and civic minded wealthy families. Very often individuals in these institutions make extraordinary sacrifices and take big risks in order to promote the idea of great architecture in an environment hostile to “outputs” that that which cannot be readily measured. An entire municipality or department of government can achieve a “clean audit” for ten years in a row without building one great piece of architecture. A property developer listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange can deliver excellent results for 20 years without building one great piece of Architecture. Wealthy families can show a much faster return on their money than by investing in great Architecture. Yet still, selfless individuals in these institutions, dedicated to the idea that there is more to this world what can be easily measured, have consistently seen to the implementation of great works of Architecture by great Architects. Because of this fact and in honour of these extraordinary people, every two years (for much of the 112 that the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects has been in existence), we pause to recognise and acknowledge great Architecture of our region. This process of acknowledgment culminates in an awards ceremony next week and a public exhibition of all the works of Architecture that put themselves forward for public scrutiny in the hope of receiving a much coveted “Award of Merit”.
This year the public are invited to view this exhibition of great work.  All of this happens in the dignified setting of the Port Elizabeth Opera House on 14, 15 and 16 October in an event called the “Urban Assembly”, which not only has three different exhibitions running simultaneously, but also has debates, speakers and activities running in the ornate and beautiful spaces that comprise africa’s oldest Opera House. This event seeks to elevate the discussion around the building of great Architecture and by extraction the building of great cities. It is for people that believe that we are able to transform the cities of our future and for people that know that, as a country and as a city we already have all the essential ingredients to build a great urban work of art in which we can all live our lives sustainably, efficiently and with the joy and pride that comes from being of a place that resonates with our contemporary culture.
Make a point of being there.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 9 10 13

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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