architecture | photography
We built a wall
We are the spaces we occupy.
In ‘An Essay on Architecture (1755)’, author Marc-Antoine Laugier paints a picture of first man’s quest to find shelter by reacting to nature’s giving. This resulted in a simple structure of columns, entablatures and pediments formed by the convergence of the roof elements, today we know this as the Primitive Hut (Laugier, 1755). In search of shelter from nature’s wrath, we secure and guard our own kin, our dealings and find new privacy through additions of walls intending a form of segregation from each other. We are the spaces we occupy, evident in the traces we leave behind and much like the walls we build we construct to define this space we occupy. These are our personalities reflected unto nature.
Since the discovery of the wall, building them has never stopped. Humanity boasts a rich and diverse history of walls and fences; and we know all this too well in this discipline. The vast open fields of nature were just too much for us to take. It seems we are not as free as the nature we come from – like animals we show an affinity to group ourselves in likeness creating a sense of belonging and assuring survival. Bore out of the need for privacy, walls exist first on a mental level before they can exist in the physical realm and therefore act on both levels in enabling or disabling users. Re-imagined, the wall can build empires, divide nations or families in a township block.
A wall is a wall, is a wall and if the need to move through it arises, we place a door. If you so wish for the light to penetrate this structure, you give it windows to see. All walls are different, and everyone has a personality unique to itself. With us humans, it is no different. No two of us may occupy the same space and therefore each one exists for an entirely unique purpose. In today’s average South African city, architecture is reflective of the zeitgeist of apartheid, it’s cousins and children. Every element marked by time’s passing. Ghost images of failed ambitions passively waiting for their end to come.
The hollow towers of Schubart-Park encircled by a tornado of birds nesting in the shell is a surprising pleasure, nature moving back in where humans once stood. The cold liquid stone marked with a ghostly presence and taking in the high vistas of this city. The columns and beams sweeping to the heavens – this soul of architecture. Walls navigating the territory to mediate privacy and exclusion, to guide and enable or disable users. This begs the question; “what becomes of the city when these walls disable more than they enable?”
There exists a friction between the occupying society and the architecture forming our cities. Native Africans navigating European inspired territories, filled with buildings ruined in their ambitions but masked to survive as heritage – heritage meant to preserve the principal characteristics of the time it was conceived in, through place and object making while we preach a democratic paradigm. To further adopt these into post-apartheid ‘94 cities that play host to a democratic dispensation, without any ambitious nation building alterations to the fundamental structures, we acknowledge values of a separatist society within whose walls they reside. The buildings don’t seem to care what party is on government’s seat, they will never change their ways till we make these changes. As humans, we can adapt to the growing diversity of life and death, but things made of concrete have more of a permanence within the landscape and can surely outlive us, reflecting to future generations our ideals and values as a collective. For the sake of privacy and security we’ve unleashed segregation questing to connect to each other.
The cities I refer to were built for a white minority ruling class but today serve a black majority population – today’s loving society is simulated within the very environment it was previously barred from existing as these places became vacant at the dawn of democracy. This, added to heritage laws and history of our context, come with a psychological malaise (Jencks and Kropf, 2008) as the zeitgeist of apartheid retains dominance over the landscape, reducing inclusion at every other turn.
The heritage of a people exists in the hearts and minds of those people, it is fundamental to their identity. What then exists on buildings is sentiments of that heritage projected by the people in their intentions to preserve memory through place. These principal values should never stand in the way of the evolution of a city’s landscape and its desire to connect with its time. We must move on as architecture cannot afford to be fragile in a time of change and highly advancing technology. People don’t hold on to the first Macintosh just because it holds some cultural significance to the development of the current iMac, development entails a sense of progression.
Surely cities cannot be museum collections of architectural artefacts whose sole purpose is to be admired from the distance of the gallery floor, barring us from touching and experiencing their delight beyond what the eye sees. Where will one find a sense of space, place and that of being if they cannot be immersed within the hut? The architecture of a city belongs to diversity and homogeneous space occupying entity. The layering of walls within this entity will mediate privacy and can either lock or unlock the potential of the city.
Right now, we are trying very hard to heal what is in our hearts but within our built environment we see more concerned for an architecture preoccupied with issues of security and constant repetition of colonizing the land. This is my opinion; city architecture must reengage aggressively with its walls and find means to disengage from the political meanings and ties built within them, something which will prove harder than burning it all down to start afresh. Heritage buildings have become monumorials of a time past and fail to address current societal issues. The design of a building is not to become a relic for future generations but to contribute to the idea of nation building, especially in South Africa and if a building fails to serve the interests of the community, it deserves to die. Our discipline should free itself from paradigms, styles and movements because the conception of buildings it is not a fashion statement but a fundamental need in building a cohesive society.