Facebook reminds me that I was in Korea two years ago today. (Thank you Mark). Sadly though we are no closer to building an International Convention Centre in PE today than we were then (nor sadly closer than we were in 2005 when the city first commissioned a business plan that gave the “green light” to build it.) Perhaps its time for the private sector to become more aggressive in insisting on this game changing project. Perhaps business leaders like Nomkhita Mona, Mkhuseli ‘Khusta’ Jack , Thembinkosi Matunda and Mandla Madwara will take the reins and bring our city to its rightful place in the world economy?
There was beautiful rain on the farm on Saturday night. It’s been very dry here, so the sound of rain on the tin roof as we huddled in front of Netflix was even more pleasant, even more comforting than it would usually be. Except of course that the tiny cottage we live in is located in a little patch of third world where, for some reason, the internet goes down every time there is the smallest drop of rain.
With no connectivity, activity in the cottage quickly gravitates to reading, playing chess or trying to teach our enormous great dane “Tank” to add “lie down” to his small repertoire of tricks. My grown son Litha, was slouched behind the Weekend Post. “Dad…What can we do to get it opened?” He asked, referring to the headlines talking about the “Disgrace” that the beautiful Red Location museum remains closed to the public for six years now. “It’s not that simple” I mutter vaguely as I try for the third time to reset the WIFI router. His question interests me though and we end up debating the issue well into the rainy night. The exchange got me thinking about the issue and wondering if this whole matter has been thought through properly.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that the buildings that make of the Red Location Museum precinct are the best collection of contemporary buildings in the province. The buildings were lovingly designed by Jo Noero, an architect deserving of the highest levels of respect. I suppose, though, the question still remains “Why does the museum remain closed?”
Perhaps there’s more to it this than the lawlessness of the local neighbourhood? Perhaps there is more to this than the fumbling incompetence of the three spheres of government that have power and sway here. I’m beginning to think that the real problem is that Red Location Museum was way ahead of its time. But not in a good way.
I have visited Berlin. There is a Holocaust museum there (as there are in many other parts of the world) While these museums are all different, they have one thing in common. They were built after the holocaust was over. Just like the Vietnam War memorial was built after the Americans lost the Vietnam war. Just like the little memorial I visited in Buenos Aires was built after the Falklands war. I suppose it’s a matter of timing.
Mayor Nceba Faku was the best Mayor PE has ever had, but perhaps he got this wrong. Perhaps he declared victory in the struggle for liberation against apartheid too soon. Perhaps the people struggling in desperate poverty to this day in Red Location and hundreds of other places like it, may say that it is even now, 25 years after 1994, still too soon to celebrate or to memorialise victory.
After all, our World War 2 hero, Winston Churchill did not declare victory on “D-Day” when the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy. No. They pushed on, did the dirty work and cleared Europe of every last Nazi Pantzer, released every last Jew, Gypsy, Gay and Slav from the concentration camps and then, and only then, declared victory on Armistice day.
I guess that the city’s great thinkers, like the erudite and well-spoken Rory Riordan, who worked tireless to ensure the Red Location museum received funding, got built and became more than a mayor’s pipe dream, will argue that I am misguided. He will point to the projected economic impact and how the tourists could flock there, spend their Euros and Pounds and Zim Dollars and thereby stimulate the economy and create a better future for the poor and destitute of Blawa, Ndokwenza and Katanga. Well friends, I am afraid the jury is out on this one. In the thirteen years since the museum was opened in 2006, it could not even generate enough tourist spend to keep its own little museum restaurant running, let alone stimulate the rest of the region’s tourist economy!
I am afraid colleagues this project is a failure. It is a failure despite the good work of Noero, Faku and Riordan. It is a failure by the ancient measure of that most famous of roman Architects, Vitruvius. Even before the time of Jesus, Vitruvius helped us understand that in order to for Architecture to be enduring and cared for, it must prove itself against the age-old tests of “Firmness, Commodity and Delight”. Yes, Red location Museum is “Firm” (It hasn’t fallen down). Yes, it is delightful. But no, it does not offer “Commodity”. It is not used. It has no function in this particular time, in this particular economy and under these particular social conditions. By the measure of the great Vitruvius therefor, The Red Location Museum is failed architecture.
Of course, we are concerned as tax payers that we have spent so much money on these buildings. We feel therefore that something productive must be forced upon them. This mistaken thinking, friends, is the “sunken cost fallacy” AKA “throwing good money after bad”. Even the Berlin Wall and the Sardinia Bay Life Savers Club were demolished when we reached consensus that building them was a mistake.
Perhaps then, if anyone ever resuscitates Mayor Faku’s great plan to demolish the freeways that devastated the once bustling and thriving Strand street, they may also be so wise as to add the Red Location Museum onto the list structures to be dynamited!
There is a Natural Order to things. I see it when I look around me.
Our dog “Tank”, a huge Great Dane, is friendly and sociable. He is a pack animal. Being friendly and sociable comes naturally to him. It’s also completely “natural” for him to chase the chickens, lick his genitals while we’re watching Netflix or bark at our assistant, Roy, when he comes to work in the morning. It would be completely “unnatural” for Tank to live in a fishpond or to eat a raw, low carb, vegan diet.
Of course, the idea of the existence of a “Natural Order” is not new at all. Lao Tsu spoke of it 4000 years ago already. The idea of a “Natural Order” makes perfect sense when we apply the thinking to dogs or even to people like you and me. We can see that there is a natural way to be that just seems comfortable and right. My thinking though has (over the last 20 or so years as an Architect in private practice) meandered to the question of whether we can find a “Natural Order” that will guide the design of buildings, objects and spaces.
- Is there a way that a brick wants to “behave”?
- Is there a way that a piece of timber or a roof sheet wants to “behave”??
- Is there a natural way in which a landscape or a building site would like to express itself?
- Is it possible for an architect to facilitate the expression of this “Natural Order” through a conscious and mindful design approach?
- Is there a “Natural” way in which a team can come together to design and build beautiful things?
When I begin to doubt myself I ask: “What is “Natural” anyway?” Perhaps a better word to use would be “comfortable”? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I can easily spot when something is not natural, when it feels uncomfortable. When a building is “pretentious” and “over designed”, I can feel it. When a building is overly decorated or overly complicated or when it is just unresolved and clumsy, I can feel it. I have no doubt that can feel the absence of a “Natural Order”. It is this quality, this “Natural Order” I seek in our buildings and in the spaces we design. It is this quality we set out to achieve at the Bhisho Contact Centre, The Gqebera Advice Centre, the Missionvale Library and many other of our precious projects. The quest for a Natural Order informs these buildings geometry, their relationship to the site, their use of materials and their play with light. Theses buildings seek to answer the question, what was “meant to be” on this site. These buildings seek to answer the question: “What would this space / surface / door / window / ceiling / component look like if it were to look like it were “meant to be” like that? This is what we have come to see as the “Natural Order” of design. I have come to see that this design approach is crucial if we are to play any part in creating a Natural Order Habitat.
To be clear, I am not speaking about a search for minimalist simplicity like our respected friends Mies van der Rohe or Tadoa Ando.
I respect that quest and I love the work of these and other great Architects like them.
But I have come to see that sometimes the Natural Order of things is very simple but at other times it can deliver surprising complexity. Also, to be clear, my quest to find a Natural Order in design should not be confused with attempts at “Bio mimicry”, where we learn lessons for the building of a staircase from the geometry of a sunflower or where our parquet tile floors are inspired by the patterns in the scales of an Armadillo. I love all that, but that’s not my quest right now.
My colleagues and I have been searching for this Natural Order for a long time. Yes, we are very interested in the design of buildings, but it is the design of the contemporary human “HABITAT” that dominates our thoughts. That HABITAT includes buildings. It includes the spaces between buildings and of course it includes the landscapes that we move through and live in on our way to and from buildings. The quest for a NATURAL ORDER HABITAT permeates our attitude toward design and also, perhaps even more importantly, our attempt to find a comfortable and natural “feel” in the interpersonal collaboration that makes up the design and construction process. Some say it’s a silly quest, some say it’s a waste of time. I say though, that it’s a quest that I know may not reach a clear answer, a specific result or a particular destination. I know that this may in fact be true, but I also know along the way we will learn. Perhaps like the Alchemists that searched for a way to make gold from ordinary stuff, we may not find this elusive “NATURAL ORDER HABITAT”, but we will learn many lessons along the way.
As we learn, I will share with you.
Tim Hewitt-Coleman 20180927