Shaakira Jassat: A journey beyond architecture


Studio Sway is a design studio that is rooted in the ideology of balance: between research and design, between exploring facts of the past and shaping the future, between philosophy, science, and craftsmanship. The studio was founded and is operated under the creative direction of Shaakira Jassat, whose role as a tutor is allowing her to transfer the poetic and futurist ideas embedded in her nature-centric design methodology.  

Her journey began at the University of Pretoria where she studied for a Bachelor of Science in Interior Architecture. After working in corporate architecture in Johannesburg for a few years, she moved to Amsterdam, Netherlands intending to pursue Design and Applied Arts at the Design Academy Eindhoven, where she is now practicing her tutelage. 

One of her many accomplishments in the industry is the creation of Aquatecture, which is a compact and aesthetic panel designed to collect rainwater that trickles over its openings before pumping that water into a building’s grey-water system. Jassat’s vision is for Aquatecture to be implemented in places where water can become scarce. She is teaching us the many unique ways in which architectural thinking can be used to our advantage across different areas of the natural environment. 

Jassat travelled from her second home in the Netherlands to share her experiences in the architectural world for the IQOQO Sessions held in August 2023.

Shaakira Jassat: When I was much younger, my mum and dad said that I should become a doctor. Back then it was still normal for parents to be part of the decision-making of their children’s futures, simply because they never had great opportunities to get a higher education. It was common to encourage children to study medicine, because it offered them a secure career. Journalism was my first choice on the admission form at the University of Pretoria and architecture was second. As much as I valued my parents’ guidance, it was the creativity and passion for change that left an indelible mark on me. This naturally influenced my study choices. 

In my second year at university, I switched from studying architecture to interior architecture. Same department, different vibe. To me, architecture felt like a dominating, demanding and difficult thing to learn. If you were in the circle and knew how to draw typical drawings, shape beautiful sections, and build really precise models, you would do really, really well. Besides that, and I didn’t realise it at the time, I was in search of something gentler, something closer to my personal fascinations and how they intertwined with what was taking place in our world. 

After graduating, Jassat worked for Paragon Interface Architects, helping to realise large-scale projects. Jassat and a colleague were even offered an entrepreneurship mentorship, and the opportunity to run their own firm within Paragon’s offices. But something just didn’t feel right. 

Shaakira Jassat: The environment I was in did not allow me to be quiet enough to listen to my inner voice. In the corporate world, you needed to be tough and hold it all together. Back then there was no room for the state of vulnerability that I so needed to allow my true fascinations to unfold. After months of research and thinking, I decided to take a new leap of faith and become a student again, this time at the Design Academy in Eindhoven the Netherlands. In a matter of a few months, I went from being a co-director of an architectural company to a first-year student at a design school in a new country. When applying at the academy, I was advised to do the master’s programme. I opted for the bachelor programme instead. I was then advised to go directly into second year. I chose to start at the beginning, in first year. I did this because I wanted to work with my hands, to understand materials. So I followed the basic ceramic, metal, wood and textile workshop instructions.

Being a lot older than the rest of the students, trying to integrate in a whole new culture, acclimatizing to bad weather and getting used to non-academic educational structures proved challenging. The academy also came with its own confrontations. People of colour were underrepresented in the student and tutor body. While studying there I felt that the South African context from which I was from was not fully understood by my tutors, who were all European. It took me a while to find my creative language and ways of communicating and it was only in the year leading up to my graduation, that I felt a turning point in my own design methodology.

At the Design Academy Eindhoven, Jassat was part of a programme in the Food Non-Food Department that was newly formed to explore food as a design material. She began to explore new waves of knowledge and ways of working. 

Shaakira Jassat: While starting at the Food Non-Food Department, I was intrigued by water as a material in my work. Water flows. It’s colourless. It tastes refreshing and is one of our most important elements on Earth. It’s alive and gives us life. It has a distinct duality of being calming and fierce. 

At the same time, around 2017, Cape Town was experiencing a major drought. Seeing what was happening back home and talking to family and friends from the Mother City made me shift my focus to the lack of water. During the drought, locals were restricted to using 50 litres of water per person, per day. This only accounted for the water we could physically see. What I kept thinking about was the hidden water contained in all those activities. Virtual water is the amount of water used in the production chain of products. The project Thirty-for-One illustrates that one cup of tea takes 30 litres of virtual water to make.

This project is a ceramic installation made up of a tiered pyramid of teacups with extended spouts, each flowing into the other. When making tea with this tea maker, a user needs to fill the top cup continuously so all the cups are filled until there is enough water in the last cup. I was fortunate to present this project at the height of Day Zero at the Design Indaba in Cape Town, in 2018. After that, it became clear to me that visualising virtual water in an engaging way is an important step and crucial in paving the pathway to altering behaviour. For me, this was just the beginning and I wanted to keep researching and going further. I went to tea farms in Japan and Sri Lanka to follow the virtual water footprint with more depth. 

In her exploration of water, Jassat was plagued with one question, “How do we make design great enough for both the gallery and reality?” 

Shaakira Jassat: During Cape Town’s drought, I walked around observing the city. People began installing tanks on the roofs of their properties in the hopes of catching every single drop of rain that would fall. Over the centuries, we have mastered how to keep water out and away from our buildings, especially in the cities – where water is directed further away, treated and then it travels all the way back into the city via an invisible network of pipes until it finally reaches us through our taps. 

Water harvesting has been around for centuries; it is a simple and effective practice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit well within our urban setting, due to size, aesthetics, and convenience. My project, the Aquatecture water harvesting system, looks at how we can work together with the natural water cycle to retain water exactly where it is needed in the city. Some call it a giant cheese grater. Others call it something out of a modern art gallery. I call it a simple thought that crossed my mind observing my neighbour’s wall when it rains.  

Aquatecture is a compact and modular water-harvesting panel. It can be installed as side panels in buildings or it can be used as freelancing elements in landscapes. As falling rainwater trickles over the openings of the panel, it gets captured and flows down to a collection tank. The water can then be pumped back into the building’s greywater system or stored for later use. The main goal was to create a water harvester that fits in dense urban spaces through its compactness, visual identity, and ability to integrate into architecture, and potentially able to store water for dry periods as well as ease stormwater drainage during heavy downpours. The project is reaching the end of its pilot phase with test locations in both Cape Town and Eindhoven where efficiency, performance, and durability are monitored.

Jassat’s creative practice is architectural design that caters to the environment and moves beyond what we traditionally think of the field. 

Shaakira Jassat: My studio sits in the niche between philosophy, poetry, design and innovation. Aquatecture relies on my foundations in architecture and helps me redefine it into being more in tune with my own embodied understanding and current needs of the world.  My journey has not become any easier, but it is exhilarating. I recently began tutoring the Design Academy Eindhoven students in the Netherlands. Through being gifted with this role, I hope to bring more understanding and awareness of indigenous knowledge and inclusive practices into spaces where they are so desperately lacking. 

Perhaps the work of a doctor is to cure someone who is ill. Yet, actually, my work is not much different from that. As a creative changemaker, I have hope that, in some way, my work will lead to a more positive impact on the world. I hope to continue bringing people towards wonder, always staying curious and aware of myself. Never forget that the journey is ever-evolving. Sometimes static, sometimes speeding, but always growing.

With her practice clearly rooted in design, Jassat is forging new paths and ways of thinking. How do you define, or even label, the kind of work she is doing?

Shaakira Jassat: It is super difficult to explain what my design is. It’s between concept and innovation. For example, with the Tea Drop project, it’s a conversation piece that can sit in a gallery and people can walk around it as well as read a blog about it and be amazed by how the machine is working. On the other hand, Aquatecture is an innovation that I hope to bring to the market very soon, so people can buy it off the shelf or through their architects. 

It’s really hard to say I’m a specific kind of designer. For a while, I was calling myself a symbiotic designer because I am so intrigued by nature. I’m so intrigued by the fact that we are all not the designers. Everything around us is designed and all we have to do is go out and discover things. It’s all waiting. So, as a symbiotic designer, design is about taking cues from what already exists around you, it is about how you apply that to become relevant for society in general. 

As much as she is passionate about her work – the wonder and impact of it all, Jassat acknowledges that architecture is as much of a business as the corporations or organisations of other non-creative industries. 

Shaakira Jassat: It’s not an easy journey, especially financially. Architecture is a lot of self-investment, but I’m at a point where I cannot be self-invested anymore. It is a process that stands still and then moves, and then stands still, and so on – depending on what happens around it, who is interested or who would like to contribute. So it is a lot of work to get something like Aquatecture off the ground. I am quite lucky to also have had funding help for it, and that’s just in terms of the creative side. When it comes to the innovation aspect and taking it into the market, it’s a whole different ball game, and I’m only beginning now. 

It is quite difficult to enter the space, to be very frank. However, if you have a great idea and are really passionate about it, if you develop something in your kitchen and it has potential, you will find the right people. You just need to have the stamina to go through the process because it does take time. It’s not something that happens overnight. 

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