Architects need to address our transformation challenges

Article based on a speech presented by Kevin Gadd at the CIfA Stakeholders meeting, 22/2/2017

The Cape Institute for Architecture is the largest regional architecture body in South Africa, with the potential to influence development in the city of Cape Town and the wider region. President of the institute Kevin Gadd calls for architects to engage at all levels to create inclusive and sustainable architecture and a profession that is more people-centred.

“For the first time in history more than 50% of the world’s population now live in cities. This is set to rise steeply to over 70% in the next 20 years, and most of this urban growth will be in the developing world. Urban migration will continue to accelerate regardless of any efforts to focus on rural development.

“However, cities are not always nice places to be. People opt to live in them because they believe that they present significantly greater economic opportunities than the rural areas they are leaving. Of course this is not always the case, and slums house millions of people around the world.

“Our cities hold many of the solutions to South Africa’s socio-economic challenges. They attract skills and investment, can provide sustainable, vibrant environments, and can be drivers of innovation and educational opportunities, as well as of growth and development for decades to come. Unleashing this potential of growing cities to become part of a people-centred solution requires creative, coordinated actions involving local and national government and the private sector, and the advice, experience, expertise and creative acumen of architects.

“Twenty-three years after our first democratic election spatial inequalities are still with us, hindering the realisation of a more inclusive society. As architects in South Africa we need to develop an agenda for sustainable change and to work together to deal with some of the real challenges facing our cities and our profession. One of these challenges is the pressure which architectural practices face regarding the importance placed on the financial profitability of development. Our cities are formed and develop in ways that advantage development that generates profit, and this is often viewed as very beneficial for the economy of the city. However, these developments are often exclusionary, accommodating and serving a limited number of people and built at the expense of social interaction, economic and educational opportunity and sense of community.

“There are many examples of how these competing forces are creating tensions in the city. We need to articulate a common vision of how these seemingly contradictory aspirations can be reconciled. Architects need to be a part of this conversation and to demonstrate that successful interventions enhance quality of life. We need to find ways for development associated with rapid growth to accommodate the need to provide economic opportunities which attract vital investment, while also being inclusive of less affluent citizens and cognisant of the city’s rich history. We need to contribute to the creation of a more equitable society which everyone can participate in – which will reap immeasurable social, environmental and economic benefits.

“While members of the Cape Institute for Architecture have been involved in regular discussions with city officials for many years, we need to ensure that these have a positive and enduring influence on our shared environment. This engagement must also be expanded to encompass both provincial and national bodies in order to assist in regularising and simplifying the many administrative hurdles preventing the acceleration of service delivery.

“It is vital that architectural students and learning centres are also involved in this debate. Structured interactions between practitioners and students, through mentoring programmes, internships and visiting lectureships, need to be encouraged. In this way a vast range of practice experience will be made available to students, while architects will gain valuable insight into some of the wider discussions and debates. Universities could develop more midcareer training opportunities and special master’s degree programmes that acknowledge and encompass special and noteworthy work carried out in the context of architectural practice. This increased interaction would assist in eroding barriers – perceived or otherwise – between older and younger members of our profession.

“Universities and architects must work together to raise awareness among learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, of the potential of architecture as a career. At the moment there are perceptions that architecture is an exclusive domain and does not have much of a place for them. We need to make inroads into understanding and changing these perceptions. We need more women and people of colour in our profession – and in fact right across the construction and property industry – and the barriers to entry need to be addressed. How will the needs of diverse populations ever be met in our built environment unless members of these are also part of creating the solutions?

“As architects we need to get more involved, listen to our audiences and nurture and embrace quality work that can and will contribute to the real issues we face. A shared vision will ensure that our profession continues to evolve, and that we embrace challenges and create better and more equitable spaces. Our planning, practice and profession need to be more people-centred at every level.”

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