THE DEBATE AROUND DESIGN
Tension amid the worlds of architecture and development, both driven by commerce, is an age-old phenomenon. So is the successful integration of sound architectural design in many a memorable commercial building project
By Anna-Marie Smith
Debate continues over the promotion of responsible development that would prioritise quality architectural design of commercial properties in urban areas, in particular that of inner city development. Collaborative processes between planning authorities need to reflect in end products, from municipal level, to architects and urban designers, property developers, engineers, and construction companies.
Current industry concern is that the single biggest focus of some commercial developments, reflect maximum capital return. Industry specialists say in the absence of good urban design frameworks, what becomes visible instead, is a neglect of design context, setting and scale. Consultation is essential, especially for the preservation of the cultural heritage of areas. By promoting public opinion, consideration would also be given to impacts on urban areas, be it functional or aesthetic, historic or environmental.
Worth considering then is industry opinion that the architectural and urban design within South Africa’s cities can no longer be with a singular purpose. Representing the South African Institute of Architects’ opinion is Julian Cooke of Claar Architects’ expression of concern over exacerbated focus on capital gain versus memorable design. He says design should show “good architecture that comes from a powerful synthesis of complex questions which reflect the intricacy of human life on an infinitely sensitive planet.” Essential to the process, says Cooke, is urban setting, programme, culture, history, materials, structure, climate, environmental control, economy and construction process – each consideration complex in itself.
President of the Gauteng Institute of Architecture Daniel van der Merwe highlights some issues with regard to mixed use developments within inner city areas, where urban densification needs strategic design interventions to maximise potential. He says: “The value of historical and cultural preservation, as well as a green ethos practised through a sensitive design approach, also makes rands and cents sense as strategic industry interventions are catalysts for further economic development.” He says successful examples locally are following European high street trends that offer entrepreneurial opportunities, which in turn stimulate commerce in mixed use city nodes. Evidence of this is seeing what the redevelopment and refurbishing of the Old Biscuit Mill development has done for the regeneration of Woodstock.
A great many responsible developments are seen throughout South Africa, some which are awarded industry recognition for adhering to sound architectural, urban and environmental design practice, such as the Fulton, Corobrik and Afrisam awards programmes facilitated by the South Africa Institute of Architects. However, not all good design practice earns public or industry recognition, just as those contrary to the upholding of a professional ethos remain visual scars for generations.
The South African Institute of Architects’ opinion, expressed by Fabian Architects’ Andries Samuel in the Journal of the South African Institute of Architects, addresses the profession’s engagement with regard to public interest, opinion and participation in conceptual and urban design of the built products by commercial property developers. Samuel contends that pre-emption by way of collaboration would avoid neglect that comes as the result of public disillusion with the architectural profession.
Increased global awareness is seen among commercial property owners who acknowledge the wellbeing of building occupants by looking beyond capital expenditure on building costs and maintenance. A recent example is the SAPOA award-winning new Alexander Forbes head office. Chief Executive Officer, Edward Kieswetter, revealed how the design of the new building reflected the values and attitudes of the company. These extended from the transparency the company wishes to portray and is reflected in the huge volumes of natural light and glazed layering. Hugh Fraser at Alexander Forbes says trust, which is a major component of the financial services industry, is extended throughout the design elements of the building, revealing not only the mores the company wishes to convey to its clients, but also enriching the lives of its employees.
In promoting the property sector, both on a global and local scale, is Estienne de Klerk, incoming President of the South African Property Owners Association. De Klerk highlights skills shortages and poor education as other challenges facing the local property sector in attracting foreign investors and business to South Africa. He says education, training and skills development, as well as providing the sector with valuable information and research, would be key priorities for the industry body in the year ahead.
Serving the purposes of skills development for this industry are any number of centres of excellence at tertiary level, from where the private sector and government are able to draw qualified professionals. Such institutions also facilitate the process of furthering the existing skills base within the industry through research and additional training programmes. One of many examples nationally is the University of Cape Town’s Masters Programme in Urban Infrastructure Design and Management through the Fellowship programme, funded by the Ove Arup Foundation.
This hands-on programme includes formal as well as problem-based learning through projects and cases, and offers an integrated approach to skills training in the management of urban issues. Students benefit from course material prepared by some of the world’s best academics and practitioners in this area from the faculties of engineering, architecture, planning, environmental sciences, geography, social sciences and management. Such skills incorporate practical implementation of guidelines provided by Spatial Development Frameworks of cities, the results of years of research based on ideas from a broader collective for the purposes of integrated commercial development.
In addition to the value of heritage preservation, van der Merwe maintains that social and cultural transformation is possible through the use of old buildings where by refurbishing, retrofitting and recycling, investors and developers can acquire existing properties at below replacement value, instead of building new structures.
The issue of preservation of cultural heritage related to property development furthers the case for sound regulation by industry watchdogs. It highlights the role of the architectural profession within the framework of bodies such as the South African Council for the Architectural Profession and different heritage councils. Also leading the way for change in creating increased public awareness through learning experiences, van der Merwe says, is the use of institutional properties where exhibitions that are open to the public showcase the work of architects and urban designers.
Regarding the future of commercial architecture, Samuel says: “Many fellow professionals in this profession who have a fundamental impact on the places where human beings dwell, body and soul, have a duty to take care to engage with the full extent of the design problem, no matter how clamorous the conflicts are. And if one concern is making money for the client, this is no more or less a consideration than any other.”