Perhaps the most remarkable thing about last month’s big architecture conference in Pretoria, Architecture ZA 2018 (AZA18), was that hardly anyone spoke about buildings. At least not in the ordinary, traditional sense of a building as a "thing". The talk was all about the spaces between them, and what happens there. As architect and urban designer Gerrit Jordaan put it in one talk on the day I attended: "The outside of the building is the inside of the city." And everyone, it seems, is preoccupied with the inside of the city.

The conference’s emphasis on cities is, of course, a response to the rapid urbanisation taking place around the world, and particularly in Africa. It’s undoubtedly an urgent urban moment, placing some very real pressures on cities.

But at the same time, there’s a sense of excitement among architects and urban planners that the global city of the future is an African city, in the same way, perhaps, that the American city was definitive of the 20th century, and Asian cities are now. As we witness the rapid transformation of one-time colonial cities into a new kind of African city, there is also a sense that something new might happen — or needs to happen — in the world between buildings.

One of the most interesting things that came up was that it seems a number of the modernist ideals that shaped the great modern cities of the 20th century have lost their currency. Le Corbusier — probably the most influential architect and urbanist of the past century — had a vision of the city as "towers in a park" (which was more often realised, as Jordaan sardonically dubbed it, as "the tower and the parking lot").

While Le Corbusier’s ideas shaped great cities like New York, they are also held responsible for some of the disasters of urban development in the past century.

Keynote speaker Peter Barber, a British architect who has won more than his fair share of Housing Design awards, Riba awards and AIA awards, and does a lot of work on social housing projects in the UK, pointed out how the housing estates in the UK that were built along these lines in the 1960s and 1970s had a way of tearing apart the social fabric of street life, resulting in public space becoming so menacing and dangerous that people in estates were often too afraid to leave their homes.

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the city of the future, it seems, would be better off relying on something as old-fashioned and humble as the city street to create the vitality, social cohesion, economic activity and safety necessary to thrive. Streets, more than parks or other kinds of public spaces "make people visible to each other", said Barber. They create a real, authentic space for a public social life that is "part of the movement pattern of the city" rather than a separate designated leisure space, like a park.

But the secret to successful urban development — and the key to any successful city — is the creation of density instead of sprawl. Cities, all speakers at AZA18 seemed to agree, should not be allowed to spread endlessly outward.

This point speaks to a particular concern for African cities. Just look at Joburg, with its reflex for churning out housing that amounts to little more than a hangover from the days of apartheid planning, with little or no sense of how all the little boxes that are being built might connect to any social or economic lifeblood.

In fact Jordaan, who has a knack for turning a memorable phrase, said it’s a mistake for architects to be "building houses instead of building cities". Speaking about architecture or even houses shouldn’t be a conversation about "getting people into boxes".

Everything that matters in a city, from the monuments and cultural life to the economic and commercial interactions that fuel growth, hinges on the public life of the city.

Architect and lecturer Emmanuel Nkambule spoke lyrically about what an African urban space might be, relating his own experience of arriving at an urban centre for the first time, as essentially a "platform that enables ubuntu". Drawing on the thinking of the likes of Peter Rich and his studies of traditional SA homesteads, which operate more as pavilions that define the outdoor space around them than as buildings with their emphasis on their interiors, Nkambule also sees the local resonance of these ideas of public urban space.

The idea of public space that so many of the conference speakers were referring to also seems to involve a very different notion of what an architect is and does from the 20th-century archetype of the black-turtle-necked artistic genius who dispenses design solutions on the aesthetically less fortunate. It was an altogether humbler and more humane figure that was taking to the podium, and few speakers seemed to have time for the seamless architectural objects we see springing up in our commercial centres.

Changing the game

While Barber is not under any illusions that architecture has "a causal influence on how we behave", he nevertheless believes that people’s environments do affect "the way they feel about themselves and their neighbours", and that they can have a "subtle influence" on their behaviour.

Essentially, what he designs are invitations to people to occupy the spaces around their homes, which he tends to design as dense, but are nonetheless recognisable as houses rather than those ill-fated tower blocks.

He spoke of the "magic when people take control of the street outside their houses" — when they put plants and decorations around their doors, and when their private lives extend into and interact with public space.

He echoed Jordaan’s sentiment: the "idea that public space can be like an interior".

It’s not dissimilar to some of the ideas of Thorsten Deckler of 26’10 South Architects — who along with his wife and partner Anne Graupner, is a prominent figure in the field locally when it comes to blazing a trail for the ways in which architects practise, in the sense of working with communities and workshopping ideas, never mind designing and building. He doesn’t even like to think of architects as providing solutions. "Connecting people — [is] far nicer than solving problems," he says.

He, and most of the other speakers I heard, is far more concerned with people’s experience of the city than how they might fix any particular problems. Jordaan talked about "creating places for people rather than spaces for things to happen," and Deckler spoke of urban design being about creating "moments" rather than spaces. Cities, he said, need to be places "where hope can take root", chiming with some of what Nkambule also articulated.

He also pointed out one of the ironies of SA’s social housing schemes, based on his own experiences of working with township communities. "We’re building the one thing people can build themselves — houses."

All the speakers seem to agree that what people can do when given the opportunity is more surprising and wonderful than most of them could have imagined.

The architect’s responsibility, in these instances, is not to create buildings: it is both less and more.

It seemed an important portent when Mumbai-based Indian architect Sameep Padora began discussing his idea of the open city, which involves "enrich[ing] the local through global knowledge networks".

He is not particularly interested in the idea of preserving traditional production purely for its own sake, but rather in appropriating traditional techniques to advance particular skills.

"Adhering to tradition can be a form of colonialism itself," he said.

He sees transformation and modernisation as the only way to keep culture vital.

In another surprising departure from the archetype of the architect we thought we all knew, Barber said he’s less interested in being original than in finding reassurance in precedent.

And perhaps that’s the most exciting thing about the chimera of the African city of the future hovering on the horizon: it can create a modernity based on old London and Mediterranean streets as much as the outdoor space with its roots in traditional African architecture, and a notion of production based on modern India’s approach to the open city. Take that, Black Panther!