Architecture as a Political Tool for Change

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Red Location Architecture as a Political Tool for Change

Could you talk about the context of the project-Port Elizabeth as a Port City and New Brighton as a Township?

Port Elizabeth sits on the East Coast ofSouth Africa and interestingly enough it was one of the first places to be discovered by the Portuguese, on their explorations to the East. The city sits on a large bay called Algoa Bay and offers great access to the hinterland of South Africa.

It was really given shape in colonial terms by the 1820 Settlers but in the 20thcentury became the centre of automobile industry of Africa and most of the world’s major car manufacturers had assembly lines in Port Elizabeth. So it is a tough minded industrial town. You could say it is much like a company town, a bit like Detroit. It is a place that never had any industry to support it, other than a port and the motor car industry.

In the last part of the 20thcentury it was the site of a great deal of internal struggle, mainly led by the trade unions, which were largely responsible for the downfall of apartheid. You could say that the fall of the apartheid government was made tangible by the resistance mounted within the country and it was the trade unions in Port Elizabeth who largely shaped that.

So it is an industrial town with a strong and proud trade union history. It has had its ups and downs like all industrial cities have had. The context of New Brighton then, is that it provides most of the labour for the automobile industry. The people who live there are fiercely proud. Obviously trade unionism and trade union culture is very much part of the way they see the world and Red Location is an important centre in New Brighton. It is in a sense one of the few sites of struggle in the country where trade unionism is very strongly marked.

The city was best characterized by the early work of Athol Fugard, which were all set in Port Elizabeth. The works really dealt with a tough kind of urban centre, where people struggled for survival and managed to make sense of lives that were really devastated by apartheid, and various other things.

It is a great city but it is a city that has always had an uncertain future. The people are really great, because most of them have only known hardship, so they don’t have the same kind of expectation that people from Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban might have. They are much more down to earth and much more able to put up with less, with a lot more humour. I think it is one of the nicest cities to work in.

What is the significance of Red Location?

Red Location was the first settled urban black community in the whole of South Africa, and it came about, curiously enough through the Boer War. The buildings that comprised Red Location in 1902 actually came from an Afrikaner concentration camp. At the end of the Boer War, the barracks were dismantled and were then taken to Red Location and re-assembled to originally accommodate a battalion of British soldiers, who shortly moved out. The first African black families then moved in.

So it is historically important because it was the first African black community in the country. And for this reason it actually became the centre of the intellectual and cultural life of New Brighton, which grew to a community of, what is today, roughly half a million people. You had great figures like George Pemba, the artist, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and Ernest Malgas among others who are very important people in our history who came from New Brighton.

It was also a site of struggle. In the late 1940s the struggle against apartheid intensified, many of the leaders of that struggle came from New Brighton and particularly the Red Location area. Things like the first underground, armed MK cell existed in Red Location. The first passive resistance against the pass laws was mounted in Red Location, led by Raymond Mhlaba, which took place at the Red Location railway station. So there were a number of significant events that really mark Red Location as a national site of struggle.

What for me is most interesting is this very paradoxical inversion, where you have a set of spaces [the barracks] which were constructed for the incarceration of Afrikaner women and children. They were effectively concentration camps. About thirty five thousand Afrikaner women and children died in those concentration camps. Then after the Boer War they were re-assembled in a black area, where black families lived. So with the rise of Afrikaner nationalism, you have Afrikaners, effectively imprisoning black people, in various different ways, in the same set of spaces.

So those buildings have gone through a number of different struggles. And in a way it is a strong metaphor for this country, that in a way, everyone in this country has fought for their freedom at one stage or another.

So the idea with Red Location was that it would be the ideal place for a museum, which would deal really with reconciliation. Where you could bring together the histories of the Afrikaner people and the histories of the black African people and show that they both suffered in different ways at different times, under different groups and regimes. So it was in a way about talking about a real form of reconciliation. It wasn’t just one group against another.

So the unique conditions of Red Location lent itself fantastically for a museum. Secondly Ernest Malgas, Raymond Mhlaba and Govan Mbeki wanted to find some way to keep the memory of Red Location alive so that future generations would be able to understand what people had suffered, under apartheid.

So in a paradoxical move, we thought, what better place in Port Elizabeth than to use Red Location as the new cultural centre of the city. You have the site of struggle that you then bring people from different parts of the city, to engage in cultural activities, where you have a museum which talks about all these different struggles of a whole range of different people.

And that is how the whole idea was born, which is a fantastic way of thinking about spatial transformation. It really reaches deep into the way in which people feel about their worlds if you confront them with all these different histories. So that was the intention that lay behind it and we are now trying to make that into a concrete reality.

Could you describe the central ideas for the Museum and how the histories of Red Location or South Africa were represented in the Memory Boxes?

The idea of the memory boxes was bound up with the question of how to make a museum in contemporary South Africa that would be directed towards, a public that may have never been into a museum before.

How could youre-describe the contemporary museum that would be accessible to a public that might have no concept what a museum is? And that’swherethe idea of the memory box came from.

It is something that we all know. It is boundup with the idea of representing the past and which goes all the way back to the Boer War concentration camp.One of the problems with the concentration camps was that while, thirty five thousand Afrikaner women and children died an equal number of black women and children also died in the camps.At the end of the Boer War, Emily Hobhouse wanted to make a monument that would memorialise the suffering of women and children in the war. The Afrikaner nationalists then, got hold of that idea and they removed any reference toblack women and children and made the Vrouemonument, which became this potent symbol in the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. So they effectively rewrote history and excluded black women and children in order to satisfy their particular nationalist interest.

So I didn’t want the Red Location museum to repeat the same thing for black people, where the museum would tell the story of the black people overthrowing the white people and then it would just be a story about black victory over white people. Therewere many white voices that had to be heard and there were many women that were involved. So I wanted to move away from the meta-narrative, because when you tell a single history you exclude too much, which is what the Afrikaner nationalists did. So the memory box became a way of breaking up narrative of history into a series of episodes which are bound up around themes to do with struggle rather than a series of linear events. So it was both a political idea and a spatial idea.

The new buildings within the precinct, and particularly the Museum, have a very distinct architectural language. How did the physical and or political context of Red Location give form and shape to the buildings?

There were two things which I thought were important. Firstly it was 1998 and the whole question of what constituted public architecture and how public buildings be represented in the country was up for question. There was, in a sense a fantastic opportunity, for this new beginning of making new civic architecture and realising that, at that point in time, the language of the civic architecture of the past would be inappropriate for making civic buildings of the future.

One of the most interesting exercises of that time was the Constitutional Court, which really had to do with a building which was a mixture of a whole lot of different things. And, in a way, one could say that was a very clear representation of the idea that we are a very mixed heterogeneous society and that the public buildings we make should reflect that. That was one approach.

I took a more political approach and really wanted to give expression to the heroic actors of the trade unions. In most parts of the world the saw-tooth roof is seen as a symbol of places where people are exploited and I thought maybe in South Africa there could be a different reading of it-that it could read as a place where the struggle was fought and won and that it could be a place imbued with virtue.

This idea was proved to be effective in three ways. Firstly that it was a ubiquitous form found throughout South Africa, it was symbolically associated with trade unionism and thirdly it was an effective way of ventilating and bringing light into the buildings.

So for the competition I designed seven or so buildings, and decided that the language which would hold the buildings together, would be the idea of bringing light in through the roof, but the roof form would be changed and adjusted to suit the programmatic needs of the space below.

The buildings have an implicit relationship to the street, made tangible through the interaction of people with the facades. Could you elaborate on this?

Well the urban strategy was to create an x, a cross-road, which is the most straightforward form of marking an urban space. One of the things I didn’t want to do was to create public open space, because public space has to grow and form itself over time, you can’t make it instantly.

But it seemed to me that the best public space in South Africa is the street and the way in which life happens along its edges. So what we did at Red Location was to reinforce the idea of street and where we make bigger spaces we simply created indentations in the buildings which come directly off the street.

This is however a relatively new idea for public buildings in South Africa. The city has for a long time held the view that all public buildings had to be behind fences. We confronted them on this and they were good enough to give us the go ahead. And it has worked. Other than the odd scribble here or there, the buildings have been well looked after by the people. So it seems to be a pretty good strategy for making public buildings.

For me the most successful move we made was the diagonal cut across the front of the museum because people actually go right into the space of the museum even though it is outside it still becomes part of their daily lives. They are very straightforward ideas, it is not rocket science, but we seem to have lost these things as architects because we make things too complicated, we move too far away from what is so obvious to us.

Then on a smaller scale the idea was to line the walls of the buildings with seating, shade and trees. One of the loveliest things I have seen take place during summer evenings is outside the archive building. The seats that line the wall have a series of lights above them and between them you have little dark spaces and I have seen about eight couples sitting in these darker pools, sitting there and smooching. This is like, their place where they could get together, and I thought, this is just the best thing that architecture could be-this place where young people can come to cuddle.

The buildings have a firm order, made explicit by the use of the concrete frame. Was it the intention to make the buildings adaptable or to accommodate multiple uses?

That’s a tricky one. It was never the intention to make the spaces adaptable or changeable. That said, the museum is very often not used as a museum. A lot of the people visiting the museum are attending lectures, book launches and even wine tasting. So the museum has become something much more than a museum but has become a centre for community engagement the home of black intellectuals.

So I think if you make spaces that have a strong order and that order has a good proportion I think it can always adapt to changes in use over time. I think when you have fragmented spaces, which are purely shaped by programmatic use it becomes almost impossible to adapt.But inherent in the design of the buildings is an overarching order and a system of proportion that would lend themselves to other uses if need be. They can be kicked around, they are robust.

What informed the material choices?

In general terms, when one makes a building one is always confronted with a million choices and you have to somehow limit yourself. What seems to make the most sense in doing that is to simply use what is locally available. The city has a mandate that all public buildings are required to have a 50% local labour component which meant that we had to design buildings which were not overly-complex in their making. We used concrete block which was made by the contractor. The pine is Tsitsikamma pine, which is a very beautiful wood from the nearby Tsitsikamma forest.

The other idea is really a didactic one. To say to the people who live in Red Location that we must move away from this idea of viewing where you live as a second rate place, but rather that materials used in your environment are noble materials and when used properly can really be used to make quite beautiful things. So it is not about the materials itself but how one uses them. And so it empowers people, to realise that if they build out of concrete block and pine they can actually make really nice walling systems. So it is not about showing up the kind of poverty but rather working with what is ubiquitous to the area and elevating it to give it a form of pride and respect.

I often get asked by colleagues or other architects whether perhaps people in Red Location would prefer the buildings to not be made with concrete block, pine and steel sheeting? But I have never thought of it in that way, so long as they are put together in a pleasing manner. We as middle class citizens seem to carry those prejudices more than anyone else.

On more micro scale there was a sense of trying to find a language of materials that would reflect people’s relationship with them. So the stuff that people would touch would be made from soft warm materials and the stuff that they didn’t touch would be made out robust materials such as concrete, so where people would sit we would use timber and line the walls with carpet. So it was fairly straightforward in that sense.

The buildings are really quite big, could you discuss this?

One of the first criticisms we received about the museum was that it was too big and that the scale was wrong. That it didn’t carry a human scale. I have always been quite amused by that idea, because somehow the idea of human scale, is something that humans can reach. But it isn’t that. Human scale can be present in huge buildings, it is more about achieving the correct proportions and composition of the parts.

One of the problems with townships is that they have too much of one kind of scale, there is no relief at all from these single story buildings, so the idea of building big buildings in a township is great because you then get a juxtaposition of scales.

But one always has to bring the scale down through the composition of the elements. It is the same idea as a gothic cathedral, which has a monumental scale and as you move closer and closer you see more and more detail,until you can eventually trace the outline of a saint which has been carved out of stone, with your fingertips.

It is that kind of scaling of buildings which we don’t have anymore, which is my problem with say the work of Frank Gehry, who I think is a great architect, but his buildings have no scale. One could build them at half the size and it would read in the same way. I think that comes from the computer because the computer doesn’t have a scale, and that’s a great problem we face.

Lastly, you work a lot by hand. What is the significance or importance of this, both in your personal work and for architecture as a whole?

I think through the act of drawing. There is nothing that the computer can do that can replicatethat sense ofcontrol that you have by drawing by hand. Whenyou draw by the hand you connect with your mind and your heart,and it is an action that you can control. It has immediate scale, because you have a visceral connection between your hand and your brain. So I really believe it is important. I think it is beginning to be rediscovered, you see in architectural journals that are starting to publish lots of drawings by architects, which is good.

It has also got to do with a lesson I learnt from Pancho Guedes. He taught me that one should never complete a drawing, but rather redraw and redraw and it is through the act of redrawing that the idea becomes more crystalline. I once found Pancho redrawing a plan he had worked on twenty years ago, and he was just trying to get it better and better, and that’s how you learn.