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What architects must learn from South African student protests

Grim, single sex workers’ hostels are still common in South Africa’s economic capital Johannesburg. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

What architects must learn from South African student protests

Grim, single sex workers’ hostels are still common in South Africa’s economic capital Johannesburg. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

2015 has been a year of protest and struggle at South Africa’s universities. The environment remains highly charged.

Academics are trying to establish where they stand. How does it affect me? Should I support it, or steer clear? I believe the protests by students, and on many campuses workers, are an invitation for us to start asking some hard questions about our own disciplines, their broader political implications and the role of universities in society.

Examining architecture

My particular field is architecture, a part of the wider built environment profession which includes planners and engineers, among others. The protests have led me to question issues the profession has paid lip service to over many years. But there has been no significant or tangible progress in either education or practice.

“Transformation” is a word that crops up often in South Africa and has been one of the key narratives of the protests. It refers to creating a more equitable society that reflects different races, genders and socioeconomic groups. From my professional perspective, transformation has meant changes in the following areas:

  • thinking and practice;

  • education, content and methods;

  • regulatory bodies and professional institutes;

  • greater representation to ensure that the profession, and those who teach it, better depict the country’s demographics; and, finally,

  • spatial transformation towards equity and access to opportunity in South Africa’s cities.

In educating future architects, it’s important to consider the difficult conditions under which many people live in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid means that cities remain deeply divided. Architecture is a profession that may offer spatial, technical and social expertise to serve large segments of the population. Yet it remains relatively disengaged, isolated, untransformed and elitist.

A history of segregation

During apartheid, South Africa’s cities were carefully planned to ensure racial segregation. Housing landscapes evolved into sterile, regimented, inefficient settlement patterns. This perpetuates today because there has never been a major rethink about how cities and housing are planned.

This lack of imagination is further exacerbated by unequal funding patterns that entrench the status quo. Stand-alone, mono-functional housing models result in residential environments that remain poorly located, poorly serviced and highly segregated.

Single sex workers’ hostels, created during apartheid to keep cheap black labour close to the city, remain in place. They are virtually uninhabitable and cause serious social problems.

South Africa’s cities have some of the lowest densities globally. This is a major disadvantage for poorer residents who spend large percentages of their meagre incomes, and a large segment of their day, on commuting. The images of apartheid linger: bus and train-loads of black people being brought in to service the elite city early in the morning, then “shipped out” again just before dark.

There is clearly a huge role for architects and built environment professionals to play in beginning to unsnarl South Africa’s cities.

The current approach

Architects have often called for participation and ongoing engagement with the communities that aren’t yet adequately served by the profession. But alternative approaches are not yet the norm and have not yet strongly influenced the way that the discipline is taught, practised or how professional institutes and councils operate.

The industry still tends to focus on wealthy clients and the architect as “creative individual”. When working in complex, poverty-stricken and politically polarised contexts, this designer-centred approach is in direct opposition to a user-centred approach.

It is highly problematic and irrelevant, yet it seems to dominate South African departments of architecture. Other methods are still considered “niche” and have not yet made it into mainstream teaching and practice.

As a result, South African architects have little understanding of how to avoid entrenching disadvantage through spatial and technical solutions. All spatial and technical decisions are value-laden as design decisions reflect our beliefs about access to the city and about poverty.

Many so-called “solutions” and “innovations” inadvertently lead to further disadvantage. Many of the so-called “developments”, in teaching and in practice, may actually be regressive rather than progressive.

Alterations needed

Many aspects of apartheid cities were meticulously conceptualised by built environment professionals who served a particular political dispensation. And these cities can only be “undone” through massive spatial restructuring. Cities require complex, multi-disciplinary interventions and the architectural profession has a major role to play.

Opening up the profession to young people from diverse backgrounds would be a start. Transforming what we teach in terms of content and skills will also ensure that young professionals will be able to practice effectively.

We need to become critically aware of the power of the built environment. The profession must speak up strongly on how architecture is sometimes complicit in practices that disempower, humiliate, restrict opportunities, destroy livelihoods, damage ecosystems and disrupt economic networks. All deepen conflict and reinforce divisions.

A learning moment

The ongoing student and workers unrest provide us with an opportunity to reflect, learn and ask: where do students and workers live? In what kind of environments? How do they travel to institutions of higher learning? What kind of relationship is established between university campuses and their proximate neighbourhoods?

It will do us good to understand why there is so much anger and why South Africa’s universities have let their communities down. These broader political – as well as discipline-specific – concerns have lead me to support the country’s student movement.

I celebrate these emergent voices of dissent in the hope of achieving real transformation across South Africa.