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Why Architects Must Do More to Improve Housing for the Future City

"This is not enough, we are not doing enough to diversify living conditions in our cities."

public lecture Housing and Educating the future

A view of Wednesday 13 May evening from Claire du Trevou, a Young Urbanist, about the the public lecture: 'Housing and Educating the future', hosted by Future Cape Town, and Young Urbanists members.

An open public lecture, entitled Housing and Education the Future, bought together two inspiring architects to share their work in informal settlements and fragile contexts. The projects they shared moves away from the glossy architecture we are fed daily, and grapples with the complex conditions that urban peripheries tend to present. The resulting interventions insisting that everyone deserves good design.

Luyanda Mpahlwa, of Design Space Africa and Alfredo Brillembourg of Urban Think Tank shared the platform, and while their work happens largely on different continents, their methodologies, approaches and visions are similar.


The question driving both parties; 'What is the role of the architect in such contexts?'

Mpahlwa further questioning, as architects and designers, how do respond to these conditions, these spaces which are composed of fragile and intricate networks and 'survival economies'. Mpahlwa's approach is to engage the community, as through their involvement, the architect will uncover something. When working on the 10 x 10 Design Indaba initiative, Mpahlwa and his team discovered the use of sandbag construction through community engagement, and went on to use this technique to challenge the entire way of how low cost houses are built.

The project also challenged the typical, monotonous layout of RDP houses by designing the buildings to create an urban presence. Mphahlwa's lecture also provide a solid introduction to the context of a fragmented, disconnected and segregated city effectively illustrated during his presentation by a series of bubbles within the city's spatial plan.


So while Mpahlwa posed the question of 'How does one intervene?' , the sensitivity of his designs may offer some guidance.

Also on the agenda was a mind blowing short film about the tallest slum in the world, the Torre David. This building is the improvised home of a community of more than 750 families, living in an extra-legal and tenuous occupation that some have called a vertical slum. The Torre David made it evident that there is potential for inner city vertical living. Watch the trailer here.

It is inarguable that interventions into peripheral settlements can be contentious, but Brillembourg makes it clear that the intention of Urban Think Tank's work is not to be the absolute solution."We may be designing the walk-man or we may be designing the iPhone6, we don't know, but what we do know, is that it needs to evolve. But we have to start somewhere."

This process of 'do and review' allows government to see built alternatives to their own housing models and, Brillembourg believes that this can begin to change policy.

The enthusiasm Brillembourg showed during his presentation was enough to get the whole room invigorated and determined to find solutions to the multitude of questions he raised; "The smart city for whom? What technologies are appropriate where? Governance for whom? Who is really thinking about the poor?"

Possibly the most hard hitting for many young South Africans being "I wonder how many of you have been to the townships? How many of you have friends there? Because you should."

Alfredo Brillembourg (right) and Luyanda Mpahlwa (left) hold the Young Urbanists postcards.

Alfredo Brillembourg (right) and Luyanda Mpahlwa (left) hold the Young Urbanists postcards.

Brillembourg, in partnership with a local NGO, Ikhyalami, are working on a project entitled the 'Empower Shack'. A master plan for a small section of Khyelitsha, sees new double storey shacks replacing existing dwellings in such a way, that space is opened up for public courtyards and additional rental units may be added. While the initial prototype which was built last year lacked the same sensitivity and urban presence one saw in Mpahlwa's 10×10, the latest edition does much to address this. And while it may not be the iPhone6, it certainly is far more than a walkman.

The lecture moved many and left others with burning questions around funding, political will and how one can actually go about doing this kind of architectural world.


The architectural industry and education system is so geared toward creating western-minded individuals who are able to realise the dreams of developers – that as a graduate or student, it is seemingly impossible to make any difference.

Brillembourg's energised response to 'Just do it! Find an NGO and work with them. Get out there and do it!', was grounded by Mpahlwa's persistence to get to understand the African condition and really work from the existing architectural constructs outwards – constantly questioning the role of the architect within that condition.

"This is not enough, we are not doing enough to diversify living conditions in our cities." says Mpahlwa, giving rise to what could have been an in-depth discussion point around education, funding and the politics of the latent apartheid city. However, time constraints meant that discussions were cut short. The crowd of around 150 'young urbanists' were fed images of projects and anecdotal stories of working in such conditions. But what is needed now, is a platform for engagement, where ideas can be shared and current works challenged by the young, aspiring architects and urbanists.


  1.  Photos: Claire Du Trevou

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