Of Simplicity and Beauty

So, it’s Christmas Eve. If you are reading this you have probably survived the malls and the shopping chaos. You have probably spent more money than you had planned. You have probably bought a whole lot of stuff that you don’t really like for people who don’t really want more stuff. But this is our tradition, or rather this is what we have been lead to believe is our tradition. Even those of us who do not come from the land of snowy pine trees, jingle bells and basted turkeys have kind of begun to play along with the “season” and obediently do year after year what is expected of us.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the year-end break. I love floating in the pool, not shaving and pottering aimlessly around the backyard in those moth-eaten khaki shorts that my wife told me to throw out some time before the 1994 elections. But, when I am quiet with myself and think about it, I see that what I love most about Christmas holidays is that there is less “stuff”. There is less driving, less school, less work,  less email, less meetings and less clothing (at least in the backyard).
It is perhaps in this time that I slow down my mind enough to ask myself: “If having less makes me so happy, why do I spend so much of my life energy trying to get more? “ A curious question actually, and I am not sure that I can answer it for myself completely in my own life. But what I am more interested to talk to you about in this column today, is our cities and the buildings in them.  Because it seems to me that the ways in which we have complicated our lives with more and more stuff, is reflected back at us in the shape and form of our cities and buildings that grow more and more complex, less and less efficient and further and further away from the ideal of “natural beauty” that remains embedded somewhere deep inside each and every one of us.
So, what I am dwelling on in my mind these holidays is the question: “Can we find beauty in the process of simplifying our cities and the buildings in them?”.  For me, this quest for simplicity must be a one that understands the city as a living function whole; perhaps in the same way that the beauty of the flower or the butterfly comes out if the simplicity of the design solution as a response to the “whole”. The design of the honey bee colony seems to me to be the simplest, most efficient way of pollinating flowers while feeding honey to young bees. Therein lays its beauty. But our cities are not like this. Our buildings are not like this. Rather, they invent complexity. They reflect in-elegant clumsy solutions of our busy cluttered minds.
The most efficient and simple way to put bread on the table is surely not to be a worker in a giant bread factory in order to earn just enough wages to buy bread. The most efficient and simple way to deal with rainwater can surely not be to pay taxes to build a bureaucracy to run a massive storm water systems to lead perfectly good drinking water off our roofs through complicated concrete channels to the sea, while catching other rainwater deep in the mountains in expensive dams and piping it hundreds of kilometres right to your toilet where you flush it into yet another pipe that takes the water away again to be collected in one big smelly lake before being dumped again, in the sea.
No, of course it does not make sense. But we have become so tired from working so hard to accumulate more “stuff” that we have forgotten that it even had to make sense in the first place. But before you think that I am going on about bread making or water reticulation, I am not. I am asking myself for example: “ Is there a simpler more beautiful way to educate my children?”, “Is there a simpler more beautiful way to provide quality food for my family?”, “Is there a simpler more beautiful way to provide shelter for my family?” “Is there a simpler, more beautiful way to see to it that my family is clothed?”
The sad truth is that I, like you, know that there are simpler and more beautiful ways to do all these things. We also know therefore that there are simpler design solutions for the buildings and cities that must accommodated these things.
 I, like you know, that if we were to have the courage to change, we would be much happier people on a much healthier planet.
 But……where to find this courage? Perhaps it is here, in my backyard somewhere? Perhaps in the cool shade of the Avocado tree?

All that is “building” is not “Architecture”

This column first appeared in the
The Port Elizabeth Herald on 14 October 2013.

Last week Monday, 1October, was “World Architecture Day”. No; I did not do anything special either. I suppose I got distracted and caught up in all the excitement of World Yo-Yo day and the International Tennis Elbow Awareness week. You see, we live in a world where everything is important and Architecture has become one of those many, many important things. But, I wonder, is a world where everything is important not the same as a world where nothing is important? To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about any of this on the evening of World Architecture Day. I was at home mending the hole in my backyard chicken house that the dogs had caused over the weekend while we were away. I did notice though, that the weaver birds had built the first nest of the spring in the Mulberry tree that overhangs my duckpond. The nest was well constructed, strong, resistant to wind and, I presume, quite dry inside. But, we know that the weaver bird’s nest is not “Architecture”. Animals can build, but only artists can create Architecture. Architecture is much more than just building, it is an art form. Architecture is a statement by a human mind about the mystical nature of beauty.

Two thousand years ago the roman Architect Vitruvius explained that for a building to be described as “Architecture” it must fulfil the requirements of “commodity, firmness and delight”. In other words, it is not good enough for a building simply to stand and to be functional. It must deliver “delight” to the users of the building. It must deliver “delight” in the same way that a great painting, or a great sculpture, or a great piece of music delivers “delight” to its audience. The difference with Architecture of course is that it is a functional, public art form that, in a very real way, touches the lives of the people that use it. But, the great advantage and significance of this art form is also its great weakness. Because, while those artists who paint with oil on canvas are left to do their own thing, Architects, are continually harassed by bureaucrats and salesmen claiming to be experts in “firmness” or “commodity”. The debate and discussion around “delight” and “what is beauty?” is largely abandoned in favour of arguments that can be supported by “measurables”: tangible things that can be quantified and counted. What strength of beam? What level of compaction below the surface bed? What length of escape to the fire exit?
But why, you may ask, am I even bothering you with this discussion? Is this not rather for Architects and Artists to discuss among themselves in coffee shops and libraries? I would say: “No! Absolutely not!”, because architecture, like other art forms, can only exist as art when it conects with the pubic that view it and use it. Great architecture needs great Architects, but only as much as it needs a public to appreciate it and powerful people to commission it.
Great architecture today, as always, happens only with the commitment and dedication of private sector investors, public sector developers and civic minded wealthy families. Very often individuals in these institutions make extraordinary sacrifices and take big risks in order to promote the idea of great architecture in an environment hostile to “outputs” that that which cannot be readily measured. An entire municipality or department of government can achieve a “clean audit” for ten years in a row without building one great piece of architecture. A property developer listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange can deliver excellent results for 20 years without building one great piece of Architecture. Wealthy families can show a much faster return on their money than by investing in great Architecture. Yet still, selfless individuals in these institutions, dedicated to the idea that there is more to this world what can be easily measured, have consistently seen to the implementation of great works of Architecture by great Architects. Because of this fact and in honour of these extraordinary people, every two years (for much of the 112 that the Eastern Cape Institute of Architects has been in existence), we pause to recognise and acknowledge great Architecture of our region. This process of acknowledgment culminates in an awards ceremony next week and a public exhibition of all the works of Architecture that put themselves forward for public scrutiny in the hope of receiving a much coveted “Award of Merit”.
This year the public are invited to view this exhibition of great work.  All of this happens in the dignified setting of the Port Elizabeth Opera House on 14, 15 and 16 October in an event called the “Urban Assembly”, which not only has three different exhibitions running simultaneously, but also has debates, speakers and activities running in the ornate and beautiful spaces that comprise africa’s oldest Opera House. This event seeks to elevate the discussion around the building of great Architecture and by extraction the building of great cities. It is for people that believe that we are able to transform the cities of our future and for people that know that, as a country and as a city we already have all the essential ingredients to build a great urban work of art in which we can all live our lives sustainably, efficiently and with the joy and pride that comes from being of a place that resonates with our contemporary culture.
Make a point of being there.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 9 10 13

The Three Headed City Monster

(This piece first appeared in my column in the Herald on 20 September 2013)
My wife and I missed our evening walk on Tuesday. I decided rather to attend a critical evening meeting at the PE St Georges club. I usually prefer to avoid evening meetings to do important family work and to” veg out” on the couch with my dogs, but this meeting was different. It was one in a sequence of meetings that report back on the work of an exciting grouping of business leaders volunteering their time to what they call “Project NMB”. Under the direction of volunteers like Kobus Gerber, Michelle Brown and Andrew Barton, the project has in very little time, identified a clear list of “doable” projects that would turn this region around. They speak about plans for public access high speed Wi Fi, they speak about a clean, Green City, they speak about the freedom precinct and they speak about a full calendar events strategy. Great ideas, great clarity and an impressive commitment that comes from the sincere passion of people that know that Nelson Mandela Bay is yet to live its finest hour.
Sitting through the presentations in the Club’s grand and ornate colonial dining hall, I was remind again that this city is not faced with a shortage of great ideas. It is not faced with a shortage of great individuals. It has great weather. It has no malaria. It is not in a warzone nor is it a viable target for multi-national terrorists. So what are the obstacles?  To be honest, I am not exactly sure, but with your permission I would like to try out an argument on you to see if it resonates.
My argument to you is that the most significant obstacle to meaningful spatial transformation of South African cities lies not in a shortage of academic “know how”, not in a shortage on public sector investment, not in a shortage of private sector mobilisation, but rather in the entrenched dysfunctional relationship between the public, private and academic sectors.
Each of these sectors operates increasingly as a “silo”, separate from the next with no mechanisms available for true collaboration. The public sector has become driven by a number of imperatives that require it to “procure” the “services” offered by the private sector in a standardised procedure designed to “procure” anything from light bulbs to toilet cleaning contractors. The obvious fact that public and private sectors can best serve the urban crisis by contributing the best and brightest from their ranks to collaborate in providing, vision, leadership and direction, is of no concern to the faceless authors of our public sector’s “supply chain management” procedure. The unavoidable net result of this strategy is a contested, completely unproductive standoff between the public sector “urban silo” and the private sector “urban silo”.  No vision emerges from this standoff; no leadership emerges from this standoff.
In a similar way urbanists in the “academic silo” come under increasing pressure to focus not on the South African urban crisis, but rather on “purer” academic pursuits. A 23 year old with a Phd that deals with some arcane branch of architectural theory is much more likely to assume a professorship in Architecture that a practitioner with 20 years’ experience in city building. This trend seems unstoppable with a momentum developed from very high up in our higher education community.  Architects who teach are now actively discouraged from participating in private practice. Those from private practice who give on their time and share their experience do so as volunteers. Academics offering to serve the public sectors are treated the same as their private sector counterparts, as a commodity to be bought through a “procurement system” with the same resultant frustration.
In this way the silos grow more and more isolated and positions within them become more and more entrenched, urbanists of otherwise impeccable credentials begin to withdraw into cynicism and isolation. Great ideas are shelved, big visions parked and energy diverted.
The sorry fact is that no workable protocol exists that enables top urbanists from the public, private and academic sectors to collaborate and share thinking on the spatial transformation. Instead we have developed the unsubstantiated and unscientific belief that a formalised, project level “public participation” process will magically and miraculously manifest the big ideas we know are waiting to turn our cities around. Well, it hasn’t and it won’t.
In the world of city building I am afraid “public participation” amounts to no more than  a series of noisy meetings in stuffy halls where the housewife’s, car guards and estate agents clamber for the microphone drowning out the voice of any academic or private sector urbanist with real value to add. Yes, its democratic. Everyone gets a say. But that does not mean that we are harvesting the best ideas from the minds of the few that are excellently placed to take us forward. There is no meaningful collaboration, so we stay where we are.
Is there any solution? Is there any alternative to these dysfunctional relationships? Is there any way out of this urban crisis? Of course there is. These challenges were made by people like you and me and the can be overcome by people like you and me.  It’s up to us to develop new protocols and to have the courage as activists, in whichever silo we sit, to do whatever it takes to push them through, to confront our management, to put ourselves at risk.
The re-shaped cities of the future depend on our action.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman  18 09 2013

We can all take green action

(this column first Appeared in The Herald on 7 August 2013)

I spent last Sunday afternoon strolling around the exhibits at the Homemakers fair in Port Elizabeth. I had a reasonable cappuccino, did not lose any children and managed to cleverly avoid a route that passed by the super expensive leather lounge suite my wife has had her eye on.  All in all, not too terrible an outing. But as I drove home on that wintry afternoon, I caught myself harbouring curious, little, almost subconscious feelings of guilt for not buying all the cool and trendy “green” home improvement technologies on offer. I shrugged off the guilt very quickly as I came to see for the first time that we have been lead very cleverly into a trap of believing that climate change is our fault because we have not bought the latest vacuum tube solar water geyser, or the rainwater harvester with in- line UV sanitizing, or the super efficient wind turbine with deep cycle batteries. We have somehow allowed ourselves to be conned into believing that in order to solve the problem on years of excessive consumption, we have to buy more stuff!

 I love all of these new technologies. They are so much fun. It gives a sense that all of us are pioneering a new path in some way. But, there is a lot more that we can do to bring about greener buildings. No, I don’t think its practical that we all start living in houses made of coke bottles and Checkers packets and I don’t think that we should feel guilty about not being “hippy” enough to do it.
The action that ordinary working people can take has much more to do with the choices we make than the new things we buy. Allow me to give some practical examples. Walk into your boss’s office and ask if the building has had an air tightness

test done, showing “leakage rate of less than 15 cub m/hr/sqm at relative pressure of 50 Pa”. Explain to your boss that an air tight building requires less heating and less cooling and therefor uses much less electricity, therefore burns less coal, therefore causes less climate change.

Or how about this? In your next job interview ask what percentage of the space is “naturally ventilated in accordance with SANS 10400”. Explain you anticipate receiving more than one job offer and one of the factors that will help you choose is the Indoor Environmental Quality of your future place of work.  Or perhaps when you choose a school for your child, be sure that you select  one that offers 60% or more of its teaching spaces with a “daylight factor of not less than 2% at desk height under a uniform design sky”. You don’t even need to know exactly what this stuff means (I have put a comprehensive looking list on the Urban Circle Blog. This may help).
By taking these actions you get two things to happen. Firstly you can make an informed decision and vote with your feet, letting the market slowly isolate the big property owners who are not getting with the programme and rewarding those that are. Secondly you are sending a clear message with each action that Green Building issues such as these need to be put on the agenda of these large organisations, that these are not just “nice to haves”, but “must haves”.
Next time you buy a house or rent a flat tell the agent you only want to see properties that comply with SANS 204: 2008 (energy efficiency in buildings). If a thousand of us or even a hundred of us start doing this, property developers will very quickly begin to respond.  When you sign up for a gym membership make sure the gym uses harvested rainwater to flush its toilets and to irrigate its garden. If there is no gym that does this, then choose the one that promises to do it in the shortest period of time.
Many of these actions are longer term and slower moving, but what you can do today to reduce greenhouse gases is to walk from your office to the ATM. Walk from your home to the supermarket. Take a bus to the Library. Walk to the post office. If your place of work is not within 400 m of an ATM, a post office and a supermarket, get another job. If you are a business person looking for new premises, choose one within walking distance of public transport and the basic amenities people need every day. In this way we reduce the number of cars and the emissions they cause. We will reduce the amount of electricity required to process the steel to make these cars. We will reduce the amount of petrochemical asphalt required to build the roads on which we drive these cars up and down.
What I think I am saying is, don’t underestimate the value of the action you can take every day. These actions all help toward the creation of greener buildings and a greener city. If you can buy the expensive new technologies that make you home greener, please do. If you can live in a house made of re-cycled plastic, please do. But if you can’t do those things right now, don’t feel guilty. There is a lot you can do to get the big guys in business and government to take notice and to change things around.
Start today.
THC 1 08 13

Of Fear and Order

(This Column first appeared in The Herald on 7 June 2013)

Article in the Herald – 4 June 2013

For a Saturday morning, things were going pretty much as they usually do. My daughter’s under 10 hockey match at 8:30, a quick croissant and coffee in Parliament Street, then dashing through to Charlo or Lorraine or Summerstrand or wherever ever the birthday party/play date/guitar lessons were on that particular day. To be honest I can’t remember where I was on my way to, but I do remember a mild throbbing in my head recalling a particularly tasty Friday evening Merlot and  I do remember that I drove past the site that Continental Tyres has been trying to rezone for the last two years. The land lies there, fallow, windswept and bare, offering no benefit, no opportunity and no hope. That’s probably why I hardly noticed it and why I certainly did not think of it at all again until I read Mandla Madwara speaking about it in the Herald this week.

Mandla was eloquently complaining that we can’t afford a city where, routine procedures like rezoning get caught up in red tape for such a long time that even the biggest and most well-resourced corporations become exhausted and frustrated to the point of moving their money elsewhere. My concern about this issue though is not so much about the “how” of the rezoning process, but about the “why”. I mean, why are we as a city bothering with ”zoning” at all? Don’t get me wrong. I am all for legislated building regulations that protect us from fires, shoddy construction and stairs that are too steep. I am all for environmental legislation that stops us from building flats over the swamp where the rare three toed frog lives.  I am all for Heritage legislation, that stops us knocking down a quaint settler cottage to build a Seven Eleven.  What I specifically question in this discussion is the reason for the existence of municipal town planning controls.
But what are town planning controls? Quite simply, they are a set of “rules” that the city makes up to tell you what they think you can and cannot do on the land that you bought and paid for. They are rules that tell you that the municipality would prefer, for example, that you pray there, but don’t sleep there, or that ten families may live there, but not eleven. They are rules that tell the shop owner that they are to provide 6 parking bays for their customers when he knows his business customers only need four. Other rules say that you may build two storeys, but not three, or ten meters from your boundary, but not nine. When your idea for what you want to build on your property is different to what the Town Planning controls permit, you have to prepare what is commonly called a “re-zoning” application. It is this application that Continental Tyres has still not got approval for after two years of waiting.
What I am asking myself is: “What would our world look like without Town Planning controls?” Would the resulting city be so intolerable that it would have less economic development? Would such a city create less jobs than the zoned city? Would a city without town planning controls be uglier?
There is of course no way of knowing for sure, but we can get clues from those parts of towns and cities around the world that were built before our contemporary obsession with town planning controls. I have made it a point to visit these places. I find them exciting, vibrant and viable. The best parts of Amsterdam, Mombasa, London, Shanghai, Antananarivo, Buenos-Aires and Stone Town, were all built in an era before anybody dreamed up the idea of “zoning”, “coverage” or “building lines”. In spite of the traffic jams and other minor inconveniences, these are some of the best places in the world to be. If we have developed our municipal town planning controls to prevent our cities becoming like those places, then I think our energy has been grossly misplaced.
It is actually surprisingly hard to find, in any of the Municipality’s documents any meaningful explanation as to why we need town planning controls at all. Heritage legislation explains that its reason for existence is to protect old stuff. Environment legislation explains that it exists to promote biodiversity and other such good things. The National Building Regulations explain that they are there to ensure safe and healthy buildings. But, the closest I can get to a justification for town planning controls is that they promote “order”.
“Order” seems to me to be the opposite of “freedom”. PW Botha used the word “order” a lot to justify his actions in the eighties. I remember the old UPE using the word “order” to justify why its student dress code required men to where pale safari suites with the socks rolled down at the knee. “Order” to me speaks about entrenching the status quo. “Order” speaks to me about making it difficult for a new entrant to the property market to use their property in such a way as to allow them to compete with the old guard.
So, I say to the city fathers: Stop meddling with our freedoms! Trust us. Trust the economy to create the balance. Trust the legislation to guarantee the non-negotiables. Release the landowners of this city to boost the economy, create jobs and stimulate a vibrant and integrated urban experience.

There is no reason to fear!