Luyanda Mpahlwa, architect and director, DesignSpaceAfrica

Q: You will be speaking at this year’s Green Building Council of South Africa convention. How do you interpret 2018’s theme of the Race to Zero?
A: The theme will be focusing on buildings that achieve net zero carbon emissions, as well as buildings with net zero water, waste and ecological impact. I would, however, want to start addressing the challenges of inequitable cities, where accessibility and inclusivity become the key challenges facing SA’s urban areas.

Before we even begin talking about meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it becomes important to address the challenges of the fragmented and inequitable city landscapes we have inherited from apartheid’s spatial planning. We cannot achieve sustainable cities if access to the city is a privilege of the few and wealthy, whatever colour or class. It is important, therefore, that we locate the Race to Zero in this context.

Q: Africa is undergoing very rapid urbanisation. What should local authorities concentrate on to cope with this?
A: The main cause of urban migration is economy driven, given the ever-growing disparity and inequality between rural and urban environments. While there are many things to be done, the one thing authorities first have to do at national level is to devise new policies and strategies to make informal settlements habitable, and engage the dwellers in participatory planning processes in order to achieve this.

The notion that one day we shall eradicate informal settlements is neither sustainable, nor has it been achieved anywhere else. At local level, cities have to develop ‘inclusionary zoning’ to make affordable housing accessible close to the areas of employment, and improve the safety of public transport while reducing the risks associated with long-distance travelling to work. The poor spend 40% of their income on transport every month.

Q: A decade ago you designed the 10×10 initiative in Mitchells Plain – low-cost sandbag houses. Could this concept help ease SA’s urban housing crisis?
A: We had hoped that our realisation and experience with alternative building systems would help change the narrative in public housing for the urban poor in our country. Unfortunately, this has not yet taken off. SA’s building industry and its policies are still stuck in ‘conventional’ building systems that have been proven and tested.

Anything new has to go through the testing and certification process by the various agencies, which is costly and not subsidised by the state.

For the building of the 10×10 sandbag house, we managed to integrate the community in the building process, with much success. Working with the people of Freedom Park in the construction of their houses was an important lesson in the power of design. However, this was a pilot project – a private initiative that could not be sustained … as there was no further government support.

Q: What are your feelings about the country’s inner-city areas that are becoming gentrified?
A: Gentrification should never be at the expense of the poor and those who can no longer afford living in the inner city. However, due to the ever-growing wealth gap – and the ever-increasing cost of living within inner cities around the world – gentrification becomes inevitable. Without alternative housing opportunities and solutions, and without fair compensation, gentrification will always be at the expense of the urban poor.

Q: How important is the translation of African culture and traditions into a contemporary architectural aesthetic?
A: Culture and tradition are important to any nation or people that wants to survive and prosper through generations. However, these cannot be theoretical constructs; they must be embedded in everyday life experiences and in overall education – especially in the teaching of architecture and design and engineering disciplines.

For many indigenous African peoples, their cultures and life experiences have been excluded from academic discourse for centuries. Their values have changed over time and the lack of identity has manifested in some communities being alienated from their own cultures. There is fluidity in the issue of cultural identity and I think the dilution of culture is a crisis.

When young professionals are properly educated to love their cultures and their languages, these traditions will become the norm, and people will appropriate them as they see fit. It cannot be imposed from above by anyone.

In my work as an architect, I have been able to find ways of infusing my culture and my identity in my work in a contemporary, forward-looking way – embracing the current level of knowledge and technological development. In our efforts to translate African cultures and traditions, we cannot look back.

Q: You spent many years working in Germany. How does that influence your design in SA?
A: I achieved the highest academic qualifications in Germany, in a foreign language and at a time when black people were disregarded in SA. This is one of the aspects of my life experiences in exile I cherish, and which has given me a new perspective and professional growth.

The integration of culture, tradition and technological advancement is the benefit I have derived from living, studying and working in Germany, a country very much rooted in its traditions and work ethic yet technologically highly advanced, as we know.

This defines my professional life, and I strive to be true to the values I have acquired and that have shaped my professional development.

By Ilze-Mari Gründling
Image: Janine Petzer

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