South Africa | Cape Town – by Mokena Makeka

Cape Town | January 6, 2011

Cape Town’s physical identity as a city is a direct result of human intervention, namely architecture and how it collectively shapes and informs street life and the character of the city. With an abundance of historical architectural fabric in the central city, our buildings tell an interesting story of our past,” so it starts our guest contribution – ‘Architecture and the City’ – by Cape Town-based architect Mokena Makeka [Makeka Design Lab]. A 1000 words and 23 images is where our 2010-11 South African journey ends.

Architecture and the city by Mokena Makeka [Makeka Design Lab]

Cape Town’s physical identity as a city is a direct result of human intervention, namely architecture and how it collectively shapes and informs street life and the character of the city. With an abundance of historical architectural fabric in the central city, our buildings tell an interesting story of our past. Architecture is not merely the management of aesthetics as some would naively have it, but is in fact an expression of a culture in time, the effectiveness and presence of it’s technological skill, its values and its hopes. Through our buildings we are able to reflect on the mythology of western civilisation, the exquisitely sculpted Corinthian columns of an Adderley street bank, or the facades inspired by the art deco movement, or the ubiquitous Cape Dutch iterations, these all tell a tale of the dominant cultural and economic power at a particular time.

For those immersed in these cultural landscapes, these buildings can reflect a nostalgia for a contested past, but more importantly the subtle references can provide a sense of comfort to those desirous of replicating a western sensibility in Africa, or at the very least an African chic to a fundamentally European outlook. In short architecture is often the most emotive site for expressing the values of a culture or empowered elites and this inadvertently serves to reinforce other class and cultural distinctions.

Like all cities, Like all cities, architecture must deal with the imperatives of what brought the architecture into being, but every architectural act has a responsibility to reflect and it’s time and where possible, indicates not only where a people are, but where they would like to be. What is particularly challenging about architecture and what makes it an art like no other, is that architecture often outlives their authors, societies change and evolve, and hence architecture needs to anticipate the future. In an age where everything is about here and now, the instant gratification and temporary nature of the cyber culture; it is easy to forget that architecture has a different timescale and requires a more sophisticated sensitivity for it to reach its full societal potential in short, medium and long term.

As we imagine As we imagine ourselves as a creative city, one in which we offer ourselves to the world as a place that is both worldly and local, it is hard to ignore the fact that our public buildings and private architecture have not engaged proactively with the question of a post 1994 South African identity, where arguably hidden cultures have a right to be expressed in architectural and urban form or performance. The bold moment to support the creation of a more complex architectural identity for our city has been hesitant to emerge in the Western Cape, and the public at large have taken no vocal position on how our cities should work and appear. This vacuum of an inclusive cultural consciousness around the architecture and the built environment has allowed the past to forestall the future to emerge, and entrench historical spheres of influence. Whilst it is important to recognise that truly beautiful cities support the new and the old to coexist, Cape Town is often accused as being far too European in culture in its cultural and architectural expression, and there is a substantial portion of our population that quietly would see this as an achievement rather than a strategic disadvantage.

But when city But when a city lives in denial of the myriad cultures that reside in it, the hegemony of one cultural discourse can weigh heavily on efforts to make us all effective, empowered and dignified citizens of the city and isolate us from the contemporary world or South Africa, the continent and the world. The irony of this denial is enhanced when one considers that many European cities to which cape town aspires or competes with have embraced diversity and have no discomfort with avant-garde architecture residing side by side with the ancient. Architecture in these progressive and often ancient cities is used as a tool to reflect the current status of a society and what is aspires to achieve. Public buildings should be at the forefront of supporting this dialogue with the broader public, for when our architecture becomes merely a utilitarian exercise our humanity suffers; why should our buildings be mere shelters when they can inspire whole nations to better themselves? Inspiration is the key driver of innovation and with it economic and social progress.

We have yet to fully evolve out We have yet to fully evolve out of the fascism of our brutal past, and the austerity of our current times has forced us to imagine ourselves as not needing of architecture, beauty and inspiration but only utility in our lives. The tragedy is that we need inspiration more than ever, precisely because our democracy is still evolving and our common identity as a people is held by the fragile strings of sport, and passports, and arguably little else. Our history of segregation has robbed us of the ‘true commons,’ and we as urbane people are unaccustomed to culture being expressed in a public manner and we are learning how to live as urban citizens enjoying the rights of the city. We hold our traditions fiercely behind closed doors, and yet treat our cities and public spaces as a realm divorced from who are, and let fear drive our choices about the types of activities that should be in our streets, what is appropriate architecture and public behaviour. This is not to advocate urban anarchy, but to recognise that cities are complex and ever evolving; the most vibrant cities engage with the tension of tomorrow creatively and encourage innovation wherever possible.

We have a right to a fully functioning, safe and pleasant, city, but more than that, we all have a right to be inspired by our public architecture new and old, and that is the core foundation of sustainable civic pride. Our pride should be based on what we are doing today to make a better tomorrow, not merely the preservation of a particular epoch or mode of being at the expense of others. If we truly believe in ourselves we need not fear tomorrow.

Words by by Mokena Makeka [Makeka Design Lab]. Pictures by

Mokena Makeka directs Makeka Design Lab, a laboratory practice that designs innovative urban, architectural, cultural and installation solutions. He graduated with a degree in Architecture in 1998. Makeka was selected as one of the Ordos100 architects; sits on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Design; and on the boards of various private and public institutions. He is a two-time recipient of the CIA Award of Merit and a 2010 nominee for the Johnnie Walker Celebrating Strides Awards in Design. Makeka’s vision is to create a sound African aesthetic that serves the public and clients, bringing dignity and grace to the built environment.

Mokena Makeka Interview [Icon Magazine Online | June 2010]
Mokena Makeka on why Cape Town is a design city [Cape Town 2014 | November 2010]

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