This piece was first published on The Herald on 3 May 2021.
I must admit that I had only a passing interest in the 2020 Matric results released last week. I have been busy with other things and I refused to be drawn by those who would like to entangle me in pointless political discussion and develop an opinion on whether these results serve as evidence that the government is doing a good, bad or average job. I can tell you though that what did catch my interest is what I did not see.
What struck me, in fact, was the absence of a widespread collapse of the matric results in spite of the fact that for the most part of the 2020 school year, those preparing for matric were not able to make use of the very expensive buildings we have come to think of as essential to the education system. Rather, what we saw was the incredible resolve of ordinary learners and ordinary parents and ordinary teachers doing whatever they could with whatever they had, to overcome what was by all measures and extraordinarily terrible year.
Architects (and others in the construction industry) found to their dismay perhaps that the sad fact that school buildings could not be used for the most part of 2020 did not seem to devastate learning and teaching. You see, Architects are generally blessed with very large egos and it is very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that the buildings we commit our lives to creating are not the centre around which the universe revolves! Besides, we are still reeling from the blow to our sense of worth dealt by the #FeesMustFall campaign of 2017. Let me explain. I remember being an external examiner that year for an incredibly talented group of final years in the Nelson Mandela University Masters degree in Architecture. For much of 2017 these students preparing for the exam could not get to campus. They could not access the library, the studio or the labs. When it came to the exhibition and examination, that was the climax of their year, they were prohibited by those threatening violence, from using the Architecture department’s studio space at NMU’s south campus. Seemingly unperturbed, the clever leadership at the NMU Architecture department made arrangements and transformed the City Hall in Govan Mbeki avenue into a very comfortable (and in fact memorable) examination and exhibition venue. I found to my surprise that other departments and faculties had made similar arrangements in public buildings throughout the city to ensure that their students were able to safely and comfortably continue with the examinations programme. I was left wondering that year if the very successful response by the NMU leadership to the #Feesmustfall campaign’s attempt to deprive students access to the campus meant that we no longer needed university buildings? In the same way, I am now left wondering if the acceptable Matric 2020 results mean that we no longer need school buildings. But after having given this some thought over the weekend, I can tell you that, no, I don’t think so. We do need these buildings. But I do think that the events of 2020 (and of 2017) help us see that we have significant spare capacity in our building stock. There is spare capacity in middle class houses that allow schooling to continue in the case of a COVID lockdown and there is notable spare capacity in civic buildings throughout Nelson Mandela Bay that will allow even large institutions like the NMU to run a complicated and sophisticated examinations programme without the use of its campuses.
So what is this truth telling Architects and the construction industry? No, the message is not that we don’t need any new buildings ever again. I think rather the clear message is that we need to design and plan for flexibility. We need to design and plan for the inevitability (not just the possibility) that our buildings will need to be re-purposed many times over in their lifetimes. The one thing that we know about the next crisis is that it is very unlikely that we will be any good at predicting it and therefore very unlikely that we can make any specific plans for it. What we do know though is that we can make ourselves ready for change. What this means practically in the built environment is that we need Land Use Management systems that allows repurposing to happen effortlessly and organically. We need a Land Use Management system that allows and promotes continuous tinkering and tweaking of buildings to meet what is very likely to be the almost continuous environment of change that we will face for the foreseeable future. Gone are the days when we can cut and paste the zoning schemes, by-laws and regulations that limit and give shape and form to our city. This kind of cut and paste thinking will not do in politics, it will not do in business and it certainly will not do in the built environment. Our future success demands constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our political institutions, constant tinkering and re-purposing of our business institutions and constant tinkering with and re-purposing of our built environment. This is the only way in which our economy and our society will continue to evolve new strength and the only way in which we stand any chance of surviving the next crisis that we know will come.