Apr 19, 2010
Zelda Harrison

Juxtaposing Cultural Identity with Progress: Mokena Makeka on “Humility Design”

A Design Indaba Follow-Up Interview with South African Architect Mokena Makeka

Introduction, Inspiration & Personal Philosophy

AIGA XCD: Please introduce yourself. What is your background and education? Why are you considered by some a “fringe designer”?

MM: I did my elementary schooling in New Rochelle, New York, and returned to Lesotho after starting junior high. I completed my high school education in Lesotho, acquring an international baccalaureate degree and then went on to study at University of Cape Town (UCT). I bring a sense of cosmopolitan curiosity on all my design projects. My work is driven by a proposition-based method which often critiques context from a socio-spatial perspective as much as tectonic, functional concerns. The architectural strategies which derive from such a process do not fit into the conventions of local practice; it fact it challenges core assumptions which have become normative, unquestioning and passive in cultural debate. As a young, black African creative, in the context of South Africa’s history, I occupy a space that is highly underdeveloped in the country and region.

AIGA XCD: Any key sources of inspiration? Have they evolved over time? Are your values reflected in your work, particularly with regards to the use of public space?

MM: People inspire me. My works are meant to serve Society and to allow us to defeat our lesser selves. Architecture is a noble art that can capture the spirit of a nation, its pain, its triumphs and purpose. Buildings merely serve at a functional level, whereas architecture is transcendental and makes us revel in bigger ideas. The articulation of my ideas is constantly evolving, but the central humanist purpose of excellence in the service of society is a continously maturing and consistent position. My ethics do not change from project to project. Design without ethics is tyranny.

Latest projects

AIGA XCD: Please share some of the key features of the “Inner Mongolia Project”? *** How successful were you incorporating lessons learned about FengShui, balancing private with public space, balancing the your creative expression with the cultural imperatives of the location?

***Editor’s note: The Ordos 100 is a project in Inner Mongolia, China, where 100 architects were selected by Hertzog & de Meuron to design 100 villas based on a master plan formulated by Ai Weiwei of FAKE design. The client is Jiang Yuan Water Engineering Ltd.

MM: I did not use Fen Shui at all. If anything, it was important to reflect on the context through my own lens. My building was a critique of the notion of the villa and the onslaught on the public private continuum as expressed in the ancient hutongs. My building transforms the inner courtyard into a public space and makes the home a stage for greeting and meeting.

I designed the house to set up coincidental collisions between public and private to foster a sense of unpredictable community.

AIGA XCD: Please share your philosophy of “Reading the Terrain”

MM: Every place has a story that needs to be told. Architecture is about how well you read the text of site, client, society, climate etc. Subtext is often where the real discovery occurs. I am a scholar of exploration and understanding. This allows me to design anywhere and for anyone, because I don’t bring aesthetic preconceptions, or a visual template to the exercise. Design is about understanding what needs to be, asking what’s possible and lastly striving to surprise oneself and the audience.

AIGA XCD: What was it like working on a multicultural team? And with a client whose creative brief was relatively broad? How will this project roll out?

MM: I have no problems with multicultural settings. I think it’s a more natural and enriching human state when diversity is embedded in one’s life and practices… It’s fun to create one’s own rules in order to design. Without constraints design is meaningless, irresponsible and inconsequential. One must make constraints if they are not given.

The client’s programme will be to roll out the buildings in batches.

AIGA XCD: Please briefly describe the “Taxi Project” and its essence/concept. How effectively do you think it will address your perception of the “anti-urbanism” in Cape Town? How is it being received and what is its most appealing feature?

MM: The so-called “Taxi Services” building in Cape Town has a very long name. The provincial transport shared services center is essentially the first sustainable office block for the Provincial government of the Western Cape. It is designed to serve the Taxi industry by providing a place where licenses can be acquired, disputes resolved, vehicles inspected and act as hub for certain government services. The architecture and the scale of the building is quite urban and sets the tone on the surrounding area, and is a visible expression of investment in the community. Its urbanism and architectural response has been well received, and the fenestration pattern and the strategy of having the total ensemble of buildings read as one has helped humanise the scale and bring intimacy and detail to the design.

Urban Design and Architecture in South Africa

AIGA XCD: You’ve indicated that South Africa’s progress in Urban Design is “heavily contested and heavily debated”. Could you elaborate more on this thought? In other words, what’s exciting about Urban Design in South Africa today? And the key challenges?

MM: There are a number of schools of thought relating to the role of the Urban Designer and the desired extent of their influence over the creative process. Some have argued that urban design must lead the design process, although this is not often the most appropriate solution. Others suggest that Urban Design should be principal-based and act as an assessment and guiding tool for the design process. Historical contestation by Urban Designers entering into the built environment industry and hence contesting the leadership role of the architect has often been the focus and subtext of certain processes.

Often the issue should have been design-based, and resolved on the basis of talent and skill, and their associated outputs. For many, Urban Design is an attitude which creates responsive and vibrant urban environments, and the assumption that architects are disinterested in urban issues is often false. Urban Design has been taught in a number of ways with different approaches, and does not have the historical pedagogy and rigor of other disciplines which would allows it to be universally understood and accredited as a distinct profession. People often forget that historically Urban Design is an offshoot and specialisation of interest of architects. The adversarial culture of commanding the intellectual space of the built environment in this country is counterproductive to the broader objective of creating sustainable, liveable and inspiring cities.

AIGA XCD: “Private space in South Africa is too dominant”…how would you define the “South African Space”? How successfully have you realised this space in your work?

MM: South African’s have been denied a culture of public space for historical reasons. Previously advantaged people created enclaves for themselves and developed a securitised mentality which meant that public space was heavily controlled and restricted. We are still reaping the fruit of this exercise as people on the whole struggle to engage with public space, and seek gated suburbs as an excuse for urbane living. Crime, poverty and a poor sense of community and commons across race and income groups is particularly powerful and prevalent. There are pockets of joy, of course, but successes are few in the face of the past. Ninety percent of my work is public, and I believe every project has had a positive impact on place and setting.

AIGA XCD: Could you explain the phenomenon of “Townships” to a non-South African audience?

MM: Townships are intentionally conceived and implemented ghettos, designed by the apartheid, and colonial regimes to trap blacks into poorly serviced, hostile environments to create a passive labour pool that can be easily cordoned off in the event of rebellion. Their conception is very similar to concentration camps. They are slowly being transformed into liveable settlements.

AIGA XCD: What have been your efforts at “educating” your South African clients, or has this been even necessary? Are there any misconceptions about your role in projects? Has there been a consistent selling point that your clients gravitate to, e.g., creative originality, construction costs, highlighting South African identity, competition with the outside world, etc?

MM: I educate through my work, and directly at the University of Cape Town. There is always an underestimation of what an architect can offer.

People believe that an architect merely draws, and is there to do what you tell them. Architects are professionals and artists of the highest order and lead the process of development for the greater good of society and the interests of the client. Consistency of approach is key to providing a dependable service. Designs will differ according to context, client, etc., but creativity is non-negotiable.

Placing Cape Town on the Map

AIGA XCD: How would you define a “World-class City”? What lessons are you and your fellow architects offering the World to make these claims by politicians a reality?

MM: Actually, I’ve written pretty extensively about this lately. The Cape Town of sand, sea and sun is seen by some as a sanitised version of Africa, or even as un-African. The Cape Town that is home to Robben Island is politically different from the rest of the country, and is trying to come to terms with that. The Cape Town that nestles up against Table Mountain, a World Heritage site, tries to preserve biodiversity in the face of development pressures.

The brand is deliberately segmented to attract different markets, and considerable effort goes into achieving this, but branding needs to be based on substance if it is to be durable: the city’s character needs to be consistent with the brand. We also need to be clear on whether the city responds to the brand, or vice versa.

In the Townships, the quest for tourist dollars must consider an area’s appeal. Do people visit townships as voyeurs wanting to see the face of poverty, do they want to experience music venues with a unique character, do they want to see other forms of cultural expression, or are they international volunteers coming to build houses? Which of these types of visits do we want to encourage, and what does that mean for how we plan these areas?

Cultural tourism is a tricky business. And branding is not only for targeting tourists. As a city we aspire to develop a knowledge economy and to attract and keep creative people. Competition is stiff, and the image and reality of urban spatial quality will influence our success, particularly as business location decisions consider quality of life as much as urban efficiency. If we play our cards right, we can achieve this along with social and economic progress.

Cape Town’s ability to meet the challenge of balancing heritage with dynamism will depend to a large extent on our willingness to co-operate and innovate; the richness of what we offer entrepreneurs; our sense of what is possible; and our ability to grasp what is important to the markets we seek to attract and the lives we want to live.

More thoughts about this on the men-about-town blog.

To answer your second question: architects need to make buildings that reflect the ideas they espouse. We take advantage of all opportunities, but it takes skill to see opportunity and good clients who understand and embrace their role in relation to that.

AIGA XCD: Where would you like Cape Town to be 10 years from now? Would this require a leap of faith, or is the foundation already in place?

MM: A world-class city to start. No leaps. Just a steady pace, an occasional hop helps.

Change is the buzzword in Cape Town right now, and the most visible projects are driven by expectations and requirements for a successful World Cup event. Touted as an opportunity to invest in infrastructure for an improved urban condition, it is seen as an unprecedented catalyst. But it’s interesting to consider whether each city will ensure maximum benefit for its residents. Change is not always good.

If we are simply accelerating what would have happened anyway, the legacy will hardly be transformative. Many of the projects now underway are, in fact, responding to needs that were identified long ago. We should be looking for metamorphosis; the emergence of something new and exciting from the soul of our cities. This requires a new game plan, not business as usual. And certainly not decisions based on maximising international boasting rights.

The notion of a world-class city is seen by some as the epitome of bland conformity, turning Cape Town into the Starbucks of urban Africa. Indeed, importing ideas and projects without adapting them to our context would provide an excuse to compromise our own needs to serve an external audience.

It could be argued, however, that world-class means excelling at the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. And it is only by adopting this definition that we can create a World Cup experience that is uniquely African while giving birth to a more human city.

We need to do ordinary things with as much skill, passion and flare as we apply to showcase projects. And we can, but we need more focus. If we can build stadiums, then we can build houses, install toilets and plan streets to serve people first. What’s good for tourists should be good for us too.

Imagine trains that run on time, bus stops that show schedules and locations, parks that are child friendly, streets where parents can safely push a pram and car guards that are friendly and helpful. Imagine information kiosks distributed throughout the city, offering tourism advice, a help desk for emergencies, and a friendly face in time of need. Imagine a city that is as safe and universally accessible for the youth and the elderly as it is for citizens in their prime.

AIGA XCD: What would be your dream for District 6? Any current efforts on your part to realise this dream?

MM: It should be a high density model of sustainable urban living.

AIGA XCD: Would you care to share any words of encouragement and Lessons Learned to aspiring African architects?

MM: Persevere. We were the first architects. We shall be the last.

Mokena Makeka is principal and founder of Makeka Design Lab. His most current achievement includes being selected among 100 architects globally by Hertzog and de Meuron to be a part of the Ordos 100. He is a two-time recipient of the CIA Award of Merit and a 2010 nominee for the Johnnie Walker Celebrating Strides Awards in Design. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Design, is an external examiner at the Columbia University School of architecture and lectures at the University of Cape Town. Makeka’s vision is to create a sound African aesthetic that serves the public and client, bringing dignity and grace to the built environment.

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