ECIA Chair slates ‘too big to fail’ developments

This piece appeared on the website on 6 September 2014. It captures some of my views on the city and the profession at the moment.

ECIA Chair slates ‘too big to fail’ developments

The past two years have seen the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects’ (ECIA) take on a higher level of advocacy and engage more actively with the public, business and government to educate and share the power and joy of the art of architecture; and on how design can be used for good.

?ECIA President, Tim Hewitt-Coleman says, “The city is its buildings; and the city is the spaces between its buildings. We must work hard to develop a dialog about the ‘Art of Architecture’. A critical dialogue that helps us all see what it is that we like, what we don’t like and what we would like to see our own cities and towns become.”
“I continue to be astounded at how architects in our region manage to achieve such excellent buildings against significant odds, something we must consider a major achievement. There are many of these and we have taken the time to build an exhibition of outstanding design currently on display at the Athenaeum.”
Hewitt-Coleman is adamant that architects have a crucial role to play in protecting excellence. “We are in a desperate fight to defend the tradition of excellence in the built environment against a recent irrational and completely ill-considered attempt to buy the services of an architect on the basis of ‘cheapest is best’,” he said.
“The public sector, spending tax payers’ money, is the number one culprit in this mindlessness. We call upon the public to assist us in this fight, by demanding excellent buildings, excellent parks and excellent spaces. Architects in our region are ready to provide these services.”
The celebration of excellence has been an on-going call to action of the current ECIA committee, which has been in place since 2012. Today a new committee was also elected to carry to mantle forward building on recent achievements.
The ECIA has made significant inroads in involving the profession and public more actively in the design process and engaging them in debate around the way urban spaces are shaped.
“The inaugural Urban Assembly was hosted in October 2013 presenting an ambitious collection of regular ECIA events and a series of new public events, including the popular Archi Race and the prestigious Milde McWilliams Memorial lecture given by the inspirational Luyanda Mpahlwa of Design Space Africa,” said Debbie Wintermeyer, ECIA committee member.
In April 2014 the ECIA also hosted an exhibition at the Athenaeum which showcased competition design entries for two major projects at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) and the design of the new NMMU Alumni building, allowing the profession and public to engage with the idea of the architectural competition as a method of procurement. The ECIA also promoted awareness of the Union of Architects World Conference inDurban in July.
Hewitt-Coleman said the new ECIA committee must remain focussed on what he sees as the “needs” of the profession and the built environment: Clarity, education, training and ethics: “It was a joy to serve with this committee over the last two years. To be an architect is to be a member of a very old profession that pre-dates Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilisations. Those of us who are asked to care for this profession in our specific corner of time and place, do so out of a deep sense of gratitude to the generations on architects who shaped our tradition.”
Recently the Eastern Cape has seen innovation temper local design, with the construction of green buildings which are less expensive to heat and cool, use less energy for lighting and are generally more comfortable to live and work in. Many of the projects in region are leading the way nationally.
However this is not the norm.  “For the large part, our cities a terrible sprawling dust raps of poverty and desperation. While much of this is understandable because of our history of apartheid city planning, what is happening right now in 2014, in architecture and city building is completely inexcusable.
“I don’t just mean the mindless rows of matchbox houses sprawling over the hills, but also the megalomaniacal big capital shopping centre monster way outside of our city to the west and in all other directions of the compass where cheap land can be found to build ‘too big to fail’ monuments to our system’s uncaring arrogance,” Hewitt-Coleman said, adding that architects everywhere are calling for a “human face” to the planning of buildings and cities.
“Architects are being called upon to step forward, out of the shadows, and claim the space needed to design and plan the cities of our future. We are slowly and tentatively developing the courage to do what it takes to wrestle this space back.”
Reflecting on 30 years of a changing architectural landscape – which is shaping and reconstituting modern South African cities – the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects’ (ECIA) latest exhibition, Excellence in Architecture: 1983-2013, celebrates how the region has morphed through architectural intervention.
The ECIA exhibition opened on Friday 5 September, and runs through to 12 September in the Athenaeum.

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