Architecture in South Africa: A reflection of society


Historically, the story of South African architecture has been one of extremes: The bulky Neoclassical edifices of mining offices and Modernist apartment blocks in the Johannesburg CBD, with the gleaming corporate towers of steel and glass glittering only a few kilometres away in Rosebank and Sandton. Cape Town’s embellished Victorian finery in Tamboerskloof, with the vernacular Cape Dutch thatched manor houses of Constantia just on the other side of the mountain. The South African landscape has been reformed by those wanting to make a clear statement of power in a country spoiled for space, most often to the detriment of those already living there.


Architects have, by and large, had free reign to play and build a uniquely South African structural language. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the likes of Frank Emley and Herman Kallenbach impress their ideas of what a modern and affluent city on the highveld should look like onto the open patches of grassland in early Johannesburg. Today, Pierre Swanepoel’s CIRCA Gallery and Fanuel Motsepe’s imaginative redesign of the colourful Kago ABC Le Kay Motsepe building have given the city a very different architectural flavour. Of course, this narrative doesn’t account for the millions of architectural stories told through town halls, village squares, suburbs, districts and homes all over the country.


Architecture in South Africa has been quite explicitly weaponized along racial lines due to colonial thought and apartheid. This continues to contribute to our worsening wealth gap, and all that comes with it, from lack of access to basic services and infrastructural amenities. 


After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in 1998, the national debate centred on how architectural practice could contribute to national healing in South Africa. Buildings, urban and peri-urban spaces have always played a major role in forming a national consciousness, so it was here that the work needed to start. In this way, we have begun to understand that the practice and theory of architecture are constantly affected by the social and historical upheavals experienced by a particular society. 


Change and transformation are, however, slow. Now, almost three decades into democracy, our context continues to weaponise spatial practice as a way to maintain harmful social systems.


Organisations, government departments and bodies representing architects

Two organisations, in particular, were mentioned by stakeholders during our research process. One, the South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP), is where individual architects and architectural businesses can register to access information on building tenders, workshops and bursaries. SACAP also organises regular industry events, including an indaba focused on transformation. You cannot register or practice as an architect in South Africa without a SACAP-registered architectural practice number.


The other, the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA), offers members benefits such as linking them with regional and international architectural unions, offering advice to practices for navigating regulatory changes brought about by government, and they also present internationally recognised awards. Member architects are able to earn Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points by attending events, conferences and online learning activities. SAIA also publishes an annual magazine, Arch SA, and regularly works in tandem with SACAP. 


Aside from these larger bodies, there are several smaller architectural organisations offering workshops, events and professional support to practising architects. The Gauteng Institute for Architects (GIFA) is affiliated with SAIA. It offers similar services and also runs the annual GIFA Award in Architecture. The Pretoria Institute of Architects (PIA) is different in that its events and workshops generally include a wider range of professionals who are not necessarily from within the field of architecture.


As part of the South African governmental structures related to the built environment, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) and the Public Works Department (PWD) are tasked with protecting existing and encouraging new structural developments in the country. SAHRA engages with and empowers local and provincial authorities in the maintenance and management of historically and culturally significant sites and buildings. 


An important question arose during our inquiries: Are these bodies still serving their communities in an effective way? How do they define transformation in a South African context, what work are they doing to effect this transformation, and how is this work measurable?


Universities offering architectural courses and degrees

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) runs the School of Architecture and Planning (SoAP), offering a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in regional and urban planning, urban design, urban planning and the built environment. The Graduate School of Architecture (GSA), falls under the remit of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and was started in 2015. The model of teaching within this school is based on that used at the Bartlett School of Architecture at the University of Central London (UCL), where master’s and honours graduates work and learn together. The University of Pretoria (UP) also runs a Department of Architecture. 


The University of Cape Town (UCT) offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in architecture, landscape, city and urban planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. In the same city, the School of Explorative Architecture (SEA) is a newly registered academic institution offering a Bachelor of Architectural Studies degree. 


Our research has revealed that there is a large portion of architectural students of colour that don’t complete their studies or go on to be practising architects. Some of the reasons we uncovered for this concerning trend could be workloads incompatible with existing family commitments, financial stresses, the ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ nature of obtaining employment and contracts in the industry, or the slow downturn of work in the sector in line with larger economic challenges.


Private architectural businesses

There are many private-sector architectural firms in South Africa, so the list generated by our inquiries is by no means comprehensive. The biggest names in the field, and those that cropped up often during our research, were Mashabane Rose (designed the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, The Apartheid Museum and Freedom Park in Pretoria),  Boogertman + Partners (working inside and outside of South Africa in countries like Ghana, Zambia and Kenya), Paragon Architects (the Rosebank Link, Barloworld Head Office) and Peter Rich Architects (Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre). Stretch Architects in Cape Town are doing interesting work in the domestic architectural space. 


The all-female team at Counterspace, led by Sumayya Vally, were awarded the commission to design the 2020 Serpentine Pavilion in London. Vally has since been appointed as the curator for the Islamic Arts Biennale in Saudi Arabia in 2023.


Architectural events in South Africa

The architects we interviewed for our research unequivocally agreed that there is a need for a public-facing architectural event, exhibition, symposium, colloquium or biennale that brings the important work that architects accomplish in South African society directly to a larger audience not already involved in the field. This event should include all architectural organisations and bodies. Presently, organisations such as SACAP, SAIA, GIA and PIA run their own events and workshops, but there is no collaboration. 


Events and exhibitions focused on architecture, the built environment and academic discussions related to these industries are commonplace in Europe and speak successfully to a wide audience in an exciting and engaging way. An event like this in South Africa will also assist in educating the general public as to the complex processes involved in architectural practice.


100% Design has a space dedicated to architecture, and this is where some of the South African architects we spoke to have exhibited work. It is currently the only in-person event that makes room for architects within the creative industries.

The annual Sophia Gray Memorial Lecture and Exhibition is hosted by the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and has been running since 1989. The purpose of the lecture and exhibition is to highlight the important architectural contributions of the person nominated as a Laureate in that particular year, and to conserve the important architectural heritage of the city of Bloemfontein. 2022’s laureate was Mpheti Morojele, owner and founder of MMA Design Studio. 


What are the current trends in South African architecture?

According to the stakeholders we interviewed, universities teaching architectural degrees (such as UJ) are focusing increasingly on changing the structure of their curricula to better accommodate a wider range of students. This includes opening conversations around what space means and how it is formed so as to include indigenous perspectives that have been historically sidelined. This feeds into a new trend towards the study of architecture being more inter and cross-disciplinary in an effort to more fully understand and therefore remedy the negative political and social effects of constructed spaces in former colonial nation states like South Africa.


There is an increasing awareness that architectural theory and practice needs to include buildings and spaces that might have historically been termed as informal. As products of human enterprise and need, these are architectural areas that need to be included in larger conversations and debates. These spaces and structures are relevant, and contain knowledges, practices and principles that should be shared both locally and internationally. The onus might rest on the new generation of younger architects to accomplish this work, as they navigate through and around larger organisations that have traditionally enjoyed hegemony in the South African built environment.


As in the other creative sectors we have researched, sustainability is an important concern and driver in South African architecture. The industry is consciously rethinking how spatial practice can positively impact our changing climate in a conscious, responsible way. Handmade and artisanal items are also increasingly becoming more important to both architects and their clients.


Where are the opportunities?

In South Africa, there is a wide gap in pay that is predominantly gender- and race-based. The architectural sector is not immune to this, as our research has indicated. This speaks directly to a continued racial divide present in South Africa that must be remedied. Bodies such as SACAP and SAIA cannot protect their members against this practice, as their pay threshold quotes are advisory and are not enforced by law. 


The players in the South African architectural industry that we interviewed identified a gap in measuring the real-world impact of academic conversations related to transformation in architectural practice. There needs to be a methodology developed for quantifying or measuring this impact.


The expectation that architectural firms and businesses need to heavily discount their fees has played havoc with the industry in South Africa. This is proving to be a challenge, as architectural businesses are often making very little profit, and are then unable to afford to pay graduates for internships and mentorship opportunities and cannot hire talented, new staff. 


The DSAC and PWD can, according to our research, play a much bigger role in encouraging the participation and funding of local architects in international biennales. There is also scope for these departments to fund a local biennale or architectural fair where South African architects can share their talent with the world and draw on expertise from abroad. Currently, efforts by the government are perceived by those we consulted as an inefficient use of time, money and resources.


The government tender process for architects in South Africa can be made much more consultative, so that end results speak directly to the real-world needs of the communities they are meant to serve. Participants in our research largely agreed that, should academic university departments be involved in the crafting of tenders for built projects, the results could be more inclusive, imaginative and responsive to social and cultural gaps. 


A space also needs to be created for recently graduated architectural students that are interested in alternative and experimental approaches to the built environment.


Our stakeholders agree that there is a big divide between architectural firms and academic institutions, and that more firms need to facilitate engagements for modalities of thinking and practice that offer creative, out-of-the-box solutions to South Africa’s ingrained structural injustices. 


Architectural responses to climate change in South Africa and the continent are not happening quickly enough. Our research indicates that, in South Africa, this is because important conversations are still focused on rectifying the country’s colonial-era architectural legacy but while this is important, it should not detract from the fact that climate change is pressing and needs to be dealt with immediately.


Organisations such as SACAP and SAIA should, according to the industry experts we interviewed, consider being more flexible in terms of their CPD points system and regulations on who is allowed to register. The field of architecture in South Africa is broadening at a massive rate and becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Space needs to be made for new practitioners who are making work outside of the traditional silos. 


What are the solutions?

In the words of an industry leader we spoke to, the answer lies in “cross-pollinating the boundary between practice and academy.” This can be accomplished through teaching programmes at the graduate and undergraduate levels that invite practitioners into teaching spaces on a part-time basis to bridge the gap between work and learning. Architecture as a practice needs to be more broadly understood in the South African context, as our stakeholders have reiterated. Building things isn’t necessarily only about construction but can also be about product design, social and historical redress and thinking outside of the box. Architectural conceptual modalities have applicability across broad sectors of South African society, where they can be put to use to remedy a range of social ills. After all, architecture is meant to bring people together. It’s ultimately about community.


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