Peter Rich (73) could have joined any commercial architecture company in SA or numerous ones abroad, but he’s been focused on a multidecade project — producing heritage architecture.

He has also often documented the architecture of the places where he works, becoming something of a curator of African architecture. In his nearly 50-year career he has become known for his proficiency in architectural drawing and his ability to teach it.

Rich’s skill has now taken him to Venice and the world’s most prestigious architecture exhibition.

However, he almost did not make it.

The doyen of vernacular architecture (the use of traditional forms and local materials) had been invited to the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The event is in its 16th iteration, having begun in 1980. Since 2000 it has taken place every second year. The equally famous Biennale of Art takes place in the alternate years.

The architecture exhibition opens on May 26 and runs for six months. It consists of two parts, one for nations and one for invited talent.

The first part is the Giardini della Biennale, which hosts exhibits from about 63 countries and is designed to highlight the varied architecture of the world.

But because of a shambolic and embarrassing turn of events, SA will have not have a stand in this section at the end of the month, despite the arts & culture department having spent more than R1m to secure a long-term lease at the show.

Because of a bureaucratic quagmire, about which the details are hazy, it seems the department neglected to choose a winning tender for the project. The result is a vast sea of nothing.

Ilze Wolff of Cape Town firm Wolff Architects has been touted as someone whose work could contribute to SA’s space at the Giardini. She says a more open process is needed to avoid repeating mistakes in 2020.

"I think we can avoid this by putting in place a proper and transparent process.

"The project in Venice runs successfully as an art space every art biennial. Why can SA’s contribution towards the architecture biennial not follow the same process?"

The second part of the Venice Biennale is La Biennale di Venezia Arsenale. People may exhibit here only by invitation. To receive one is considered one of the most prestigious gestures an architect can get. This year the Arsenale is being curated by Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara.

They have selected Rich, who is renowned for his understanding of architectural drawing principles and his drawing output, to showcase parts of his work. They say this will make a valuable contribution to their theme of Free Space.

Rich’s exhibition, which is titled Landscape Architecture, will focus on his organic hand-drawn designs. The exhibition includes an installation that has 15 large canvas panels with his drawings on them that are suspended from a timber-and-steel mobile structure attached to the old rafters of the Biennale exhibition hall.

Rich is one of 71 architects who have been invited to exhibit at the 2018 architecture event and is the only one from Africa.

Farrell and McNamara are the founders of award-winning company Grafton Architects. They won the first World Building of the Year award in 2008 for their faculty building at the Luigi Bocconi University in Milan. Rich won the same award a year later for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre, the undulating 1,500m² visitors’ centre that is set among the national park’s flora and includes tourist facilities and SANParks offices.

Initially Rich approached the arts & culture department for the R500,000 he needed for his visit to Venice, but his application was not successful and he had to seek private funding.

Garreth van Niekerk, curator of Rich’s contribution, says: "We couldn’t even get a letter of endorsement from the department, even though Rich is a prominent SA architect who has given much to architectural education in SA and would be representing his work to hundreds of thousands of people."

Rich eventually got part sponsorship from PPC Cement, Corobrik and Lamy Pens, and supplemented this with his personal resources.

He uses Lamy pens for his drawings and this has prompted numerous architects to whom he has lectured across the world to use them as well.

Building a career

During his career, the Joburg architect has documented an array of African architectural styles and African architectural history in general. He has tried to incorporate the architecture of the people who the buildings he designed are supposed to serve.

As a reaction to the destruction of SA indigenous settlements under apartheid, a large amount of his research and documentation included the traditional rural settlements of the southern Ndebele people.

His work, consisting of measured hand-drawn documentation and analytical sketches, was brought to a local and international audience though extensive publication and prolific lecturing. "When people were wearing Che Guevara shirts and calling themselves activists I was focused on the designs around me. I didn’t want these living cultures to be lost," he says.

In his early career, he also designed clinics and sports facilities for South Africans who were shut out from development by the apartheid system. He later served as professor of architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand for 27 years.

Rich says his architectural vocabulary includes a fusion of modernist influences, notably from Adolf Loos, RM Schindler and Pancho Guedes, and spatial models derived from local tribal vernacular.

After 1994, Rich worked on cultural heritage projects for the state. He has since designed heritage buildings in other African countries and is now doing work in China and Limpopo.

Rich’s body of work has been described as testament to a lifetime commitment to the creation of an architecture born from a deep understanding of context and achieved through sustained research into local conditions and close collaboration with communities.

In 2010, Rich was awarded the prestigious honorary fellowship of the American Institute of Architects and the SA Institute of Architects gold medal, the highest award for architectural achievement in SA. In 2015 he received a Royal Institute of British Architects fellowship, a first for an African. He has lectured in 29 countries, ranging from Austria to Mexico and Zimbabwe.

Rich says architecture was in some ways thrust upon him. "My uncle, who died at 29 from a brain tumour, was an architect. I was then expected to study architecture."

Throughout his career the architect has been sketching. "Drawing was my salvation. One can tell a story through drawing. You go on a journey when you create a building starting with a drawing," he says.

He has run numerous drawing workshops in India and Mexico in recent years. "I had been teaching architects, who had been using computer programs, and had forgotten how to draw. It has shown me that it is a skill that people value more than I imagined they did.

"In Mexico, my students said that through drawing they could learn to see," he says.