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thinking out of the box
thinking out of the box

MOKENA MAKEKA on designing Cape Town


Bernard Franz - Oct 3rd 2013, 18:21

Bernard Franz asks award-winning Mokena Makeka, the founder of Makeka Design Lab, for his take on Cape Town’s architecture.

Firstly, how do you feel about our country’s architecture in general?
In terms of helping to shape society, I don’t think it’s in a good state. If I look at the nature of our civic institutions (whether it’s police stations, train stations, libraries or clinics) there is little appreciation of what architecture could be doing. There hasn’t been a real vision about the public life of this country. It is mostly in residential architecture that South Africa excels,
which is ironic.

Why so?
We have fantastic residential architects on par with some of the best in the world, and
in a local framework of residential nouveau modernism there are some really amazing
buildings, but it’s not an arena where it matters to engage in culture. The same could be said
about safari lodges and hotels. A house is not about the country. It says: this is my money
and this is what I want to do with it.

What’s your vision for architecture in Cape Town?
I would like it to address some of our burning issues, and importantly I would like it to be less
fearful. There is room for 10 iconic buildings in Cape Town. There is no need to be fearful
of taking away from the mountain if we had iconic buildings. The whole discourse reflects
an anxiety. It’s all too serious. Where’s the optimism? I would like architects to signal,
“Hey, we are free!”

In an interview with 021 last year Helen Zille said she felt relieved that the design of the
Cape Town Stadium didn’t compete with the beauty of the mountain. Do you agree?
Look at the Christ Statue on top of Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro – surely that
statue is not taking anything away from the beauty of the landscape? Perhaps it
even enhances it. In a way, Cape Town’s natural beauty can be its Achilles heel. The
mountain, the wine farms, they all keep us from investing in the human capital. We
should act as if we didn’t have a mountain.

But isn’t the mountain a unifying factor for all Capetonians?
Yes, it’s a constant reminder of what unifies us. We are all proud of it, we all think it’s
beautiful … and yet it also separates us. There are many untold stories about the mountain
and how people relate to it. If you were in prison on Robben Island, it meant a sort of
torture because it signified an unattainable freedom. To the elite it is a refuge. It seems
accessible to all, but since the population of District Six was removed from the mountainside
to the Cape Flats, the psychological sense that everyone can access it is just not shared.

Would you say you’re critical of the beauty we have?
Look, I love Cape Town so much, that’s why I am so critical. Like any architect I’m obsessed by beauty, but buildings need to have a purpose. Beauty on its own can be false elitism. It can mean that as long as it’s beautiful, it’s fine – but how many projects are changing the social discourse? And that’s what I’m interested in: public discourse triggered by architecture.
Architecture often reflects what is going on in a country, but it can also guide a country. I’d like to unpack the agendas to see what is creating public life. Does a project serve the community? It’s important that we have projects that hold us together.

What about initiatives such as the Seven Natural Wonders, the World Design Capital 2014 bid or the initiative to name your hood?
I think they’re great. They show that people can take ownership of the city. These initiatives put Cape Town on the map and trigger discourse in what is generally a dire lack of civic culture. They might also entice locals and foreigners to say: I want to live in Cape Town. 

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