As I interview Rahul Mehrotra, Indian architect, urban designer and conservationist (and final speaker of the day) the pieces of the puzzle of the day's words and ideas start to fall into place in my head, as if the presentations of the speakers have been specifically coordinated as to to tell a story about the way that architecture could be taking shape in our country.
The morning session with Kibwe Tavares caused a sensation, specifically amongst the students I noticed, as he showed some short film clips of the work he has done with his animation studio, Factory Fifteen, over the last year. He also showed the visually astonishing "Robots of Brixton" which is the animation piece that he created for his final year Architectural thesis project at the Bartlett Institute in London. In it he creates the vision of a post apocalyptic future dystopia (one of the recurring themes in his private not commercial work), where robots are a slave workforce to the human race. A riot takes place, during which flashbacks to the 1981 riots in Brixton, are shown. The result is a dessimated machine littered street scene upon which note the film ends. Although the film piece expresses elements of a story, the narrative is disjunctional. It's like a graphic novel that alludes to a story (rather than telling it), most of which must be pieced together in the mind of the viewer; leaving a set of unsatisfactorarily answered questions at its finish. It's somewhat existentialist and disturbing. In this sense the film portrays its message purposefully.
What does this have to do with architecture? As South African trained architects the concept of this film as a final year thesis project is unfamiliar. We are so used to the practical and physical applications of our building ideas. Some perhaps looked upon this kind of architectural education with disdain (as a reflection of the disconnected, immaterial and globalised spirit of our time), others with a hint of jealousy (myself included) at the freedom of unique expression allowed. This is why I say it caused a sensation amongst the students. Tavares is the first to admit that "it's not real, is it?", but he loves the freedom it allows him to explore and express the essence of his creative self. There is architecture in it, as the images of dystopia involve images of reality (Brixton in "Robots") layered with almost paristic futuristic architectural structures. These however are two dimensional as the animator focuses on the visual of the camera shot only - detail is added where it must be, but omitted where not. I think what grounds his work is that it invokes relevant social messages, as opposed to being indulgently introspective.
Rescripting architectural education...
So much more to be said. I attended the next session called "Rescrpting education" and found there to be such contrast between the education at the Bartlett Institute for example and the way we are thinking about architectural education in South Africa. One of the main differences is that we face such stark external realities here - our society has desperate needs that need to be addressed. Britian seems to have a kind of collective amnesia about their own social problems. Not to say South Africa doesn't! Thorsten Deckler and Alex Opper presented a particularly interesting project in Ruimsig which the students of the University of Johannesburg worked on with some of the local planners. They assisted in "reblocking" the urban structure of the community. This concept (which I was intitally sceptical of) involves giving identity to the existing urban layout of the houses. Since informal settlements are commonly seen as negative, this is a way of giving significance to the inhabitants - a way of recognising their claim to exist within this space.
Rahul Mehrotra's work also looks at giving significance and recognition to community through the creation of spaces that cross social boundaries. These crossings he calls "collective thresholds". Heinrich Wolff mentioned earlier that the problem with Johannesburg is that people deny where they are and this is an issue that needs to be addressed in South African cities. We can no longer be embarassed by our social issues, and avoid them by creating imaginary worlds (like Century City and Tuscan golf course estates). Mehrotra demonstrates that there are ways of encouraging communites to interact by arranging spaces in different and unexpected ways. A beautiful example is a house designed for a young filmmaker which includes an outside portico that is used by the inhabitants on weekends and the locals in the village during the week as a public space. Because the locals feel that they have been recognised, there is a mutual respect between the two parties, although they are of such opposite classes. Other examples include public toilets which were reconceptualised as a "community centre" where children can come to study at night. The caretaker has the "penthouse" on top. The audience was inspired by a project in Rajasthan where low cost housing and shelters for local elephants was built (a competition won by Mehrotra's firm). Water is very important to the elephants and what was created is a series of water bodies in existing sand pits on the site (from quarrying in previous days). Water has now collected in these pits and the site is lush and green. What is also significant is that the relationship between keeper and elephant is key and there is a ceremonial process of care - for example bathing with the elephants at the end of each day. The spaces allow for these intangible experiences to take place without stifling and limiting them. Mehrotra mentions that the other entries to the competition mostly involved "fetishised" interpretations of traditional architecture which were entirely innappropriate for the social context.
I am inspired to ask Mehrotra, whether the process of forming ideas also begins with a collective approach. He believes strongly in collaboration and empowering the members of his design team. Architecture today consists a lot of privileged authorship and he prefers an approach where the stamp of the architect is not obvious. I remark that his buildings seem to be more like places than objects - containers for people in which they can express themselves as opposed to buildings that express purely themselves and are secondary for people.
Again there is much more to be said yet I'm looking forward to the image of architecture that the full picture of this conference will inspire.
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.