Yoruba-inspired: Lagos’s Wooden Tower by Cameroonian architect Hermann Kamte, which won the WAFX prize in the cultural identity category. Picture: SUPPLIED
Yoruba-inspired: Lagos’s Wooden Tower by Cameroonian architect Hermann Kamte, which won the WAFX prize in the cultural identity category. Picture: SUPPLIED

Transform or die! This was one of the first challenges posed to delegates at the Architecture ZA18 conference in Tshwane’s city centre space 012 Central.

The event, from May 3-5, explored how to create sustainable, adaptive and integrated cities that can respond to growing social, economic and environmental challenges.

The theme was WeTheCity: Memory & Resilience. More than 600 architecture students from SA and Namibia made up more than half of the delegates. The rest were architects.

The role of architects in the built environment is being increasingly highlighted as new opportunities are created for improved resource consumption; economic and social dynamism; and market creation, human development and climate change adaptation.

"We have already seen the results of rapid climate change," said Prof Christina du Plessis of the University of Pretoria in introducing the conference theme. "We are ill-prepared even though all the predictions, for example, pointed to the drought situation in the [Western] Cape.

"What we have now is the new normal. It is not an emergency situation, it’s here to stay."

Hermann Kamte. Picture: SUPPLIED
Hermann Kamte. Picture: SUPPLIED

People had created a world they don’t know how to inhabit and find it difficult to adapt to sudden changes, she said. This required innovative thinking to avoid being overwhelmed by increasing social divisions.

"We aren’t separate from the environments we create. To be resilient we have to think and respond positively to change," Du Plessis said.

Sponsored by the South African Council for the Architectural Profession, the National Home Builders Registration Council, PPC and Boogertman + Partners, Architecture ZA18 offered a platform for engaging with ideas and solutions that are regenerative, adaptive and diverse — in discussion with some of the industry’s key thinkers and practitioners.

Gabriela Carrillo, selected Mexican architect of the year in the 2017 Women in Architecture Awards by The Architectural Review and the Architects Journal, said she had developed coping strategies because Mexico was always in crisis.

"It’s all about working with what you have and being as inclusive as possible while transforming. We are in constant dialogue between the contemporary and the original. It is important to take advantage of the old structure when thinking of renewal," she told delegates.

One of her projects was a court for a country where many people are incarcerated for decades without trial, often innocently. "It was about creating democracy for people who don’t have liberty," Carrillo said.

"The main difficulty was to adhere to strict security rules while at the same time suggesting a space that would give everyone a feeling of freedom and transparency."

She said that city spaces could transform social encounters. It would be especially valid in SA, which still had racially segregated living areas.

"We need to practise architecture that can evolve and embrace problems."

Carrillo said she was constantly aware that most people could not afford architects; only 7% of Mexico’s population used them. "We have to look at ways to do it economically by, for example, reminding people where they are."

In Mexico’s rural areas wood was freely available, yet people preferred to build with bricks and concrete.

"We can help build everyone’s dignity, which is part of creating wellness for everyone," she said. "Better-quality spaces are important, but we politicise space," she said.

Carrillo studied architecture at a largely free university that had a mixture of students from wealthy and poor backgrounds. "Many of us still teach there even though the pay is dismal," she said. "We know the difference it makes to lives to learn in this kind of inclusive environment."

She chooses her projects very carefully and profitable work allows her to take on other projects in which she might not make money. "I don’t make much money but my life is rich in many different ways.

"My job is not a job, it is a passion," she said.

Still in the early years of his career, Cameroonian architect Hermann Kamte designed for his people while retaining a spirit of Africa in all his work.

"It’s important to preserve who we are," he said.

Wood is his preferred building material and he won much attention in the architectural world by designing a Lagos-based wooden skyscraper for an international competition.

Because the area in which Lagos was built was a tropical rain forest, it made sense to turn to wood. "It’s about our past and what it represents symbolically," he added.

"People think you are simply providing food for termites", but he used wood to express a moment and place, and the relationship between the people and their environments.

Kamte said he strongly advocated for the culture of a place to be reflected in its architecture so that it became a legacy between the past, present and future generations. And then go bold, he told delegates at the conference, which is exactly what he does with his Yoruba-dictated design and patterns in his wooden tower-block building, which won the WAFX prize in the inaugural cultural identity category in 2017.

Only two days into his Pretoria visit, he realised that bricks and concrete were the preferred building materials in the city.

"You have to pay attention to the culture," he warned. "You can’t make it happen, but you can make it possible."