URBAN ASSEMBLY 2013: You and the re-shaping of our cities


This month the ECIA ran a very successful ‘Festival’ of events titled ‘The Urban Assembly’. The event was based at the PE Opera House. The three day event included lectures, exhibitions debates, youth development, CPD, an awards programme and even our own version of the ‘Amazing Race’.

While the Urban Assembly posed the challenge to ‘Re-Imagine and re-shape the cities of our future’, the message came to me very clearly from a number of speakers that that the work of reshaping our cities is actually the work of reshaping the buildings that make up the city (and by implication the spaces framed between them.) With this in mind, the task of every developer of every building becomes a critical component in the ‘whole’ that is the city. Out of this thinking, the responsibility shifts to me and to my building. The responsibility for a re-shaped future with cities we can be proud of moves away from ‘them’ away from the ‘other’, to a challenging and empowering question: ‘What can I do about this? What step can I take?’

But what is Architecture? How can I be expected to take the step I am responsible to take if I don’t know the difference between ‘building’ and ‘Architecture’. My Professor used to point out that even animals can build. “See their nests, see their burrows?” he would say.

About 2000 years ago, the roman Architect Vitruvius explained that for a building to be described as ‘Architecture’ it must fulfil the requirements of ‘commodity, firmness and delight’. In other words, it is not good enough for a building simply to stand, stay dry and to be functional. It must deliver ‘delight’ to its users. It must deliver ‘delight’ in the same way that a great painting, or a great sculpture, or a great piece of music delivers ‘delight’.

The difference with Architecture of course is that it is a functional, public art form that, in a very real way, touches the lives of the people that use it. But, the great advantage and significance of this art form is also its great weakness. Because, while those artists who paint with oil on canvas are left to do their own thing, Architects, are continually harassed by bureaucrats and salesmen claiming to be experts in ‘firmness’ or ‘commodity’. The debate around ‘delight’ and ‘what is beauty?’ is largely abandoned in favour of arguments that can be supported by ‘measurables’: tangible things that can be quantified and counted.

But, is this not rather for Architects and Artists to discuss this among themselves in coffee shops and libraries? I would say: “No! Absolutely not!”, because architecture, like other art forms, can only exist as art when it connects with the pubic that view it and use it. Great architecture needs great Architects, but only as much as it needs a public to appreciate it and powerful people to commission it.

Great architecture today, as always, happens only with the commitment and dedication of private sector investors, public sector developers and civic minded wealthy families. Very often individuals in these institutions make extraordinary sacrifices and take big risks in order to promote the idea of great architecture in an environment hostile to ‘outputs’ that that which cannot be readily measured. An entire department of government can achieve a ‘clean audit’ for ten years in a row without building one great piece of architecture.

A property developer listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange can deliver excellent results for 20 years without building one great piece of Architecture. Yet still, selfless individuals in these institutions, dedicated to the idea that there is more to this world what can be easily measured, have consistently seen to the implementation of great works of Architecture by great Architects.

And this is where you come in. It does not matter if you are a housewife re-doing a bathroom, or a powerful executive building a new campus for your massively successful IT company. You, and many others like you, have great power in re-shaping the cities of our future. In this great responsibility, it is of course important that you choose a skilled architect.

If you are stuck, the ECIA will gladly give you a list of Award winners going back 10 or 20 years. It is even more important though that you are clear in your brief to the architect. Your brief must make it clear that you are committed to more than the idea of just building something that complies with legislation and not leaking. 

In this way, project by project, site by site we will without doubt re-shape the cities of our future. Yes, between building projects we lobby and harass those developers, public and private that are intent on greed and destruction, but primarily we focus on the step that we can take.

You can make a difference, but you must take a step!