Change the world

14/09/2023

Award-winning South African architect Carin Smuts is the keynote speaker and laurate of the 2023 Milde McWilliams public memorial lecture on 19 September at Nelson Mandela University.

Launched in 2007, thanks to the generous funding of the Milde McWilliams Trust, this annual lecture provides a forum for the exchange of architectural thought at the highest level with students, citizens and members of the profession.

The Trust was founded by entrepreneur Albert Milde and distinguished architect Herbert McWilliams, son of the equally distinguished William John McWilliams, who co-founded the renowned practice of Jones and McWilliams in Port Elizabeth in 1911.

In honour the two McWilliams’ remarkable contribution to the built environment of South Africa, the memorial lecture series features eminent architects from southern Africa and abroad who exemplify excellence, innovation and relevance in architectural practice and education.

Speaking about Smuts, the Director of the School of Architecture at Nelson Mandela University, Boban Varghese, says: “Carin is renowned for designing public buildings by working closely with communities, and possesses a deep understanding of the intricate cultural dynamics at play.

She adeptly overcomes language barriers and skilfully navigates the complex social and economic dynamics within marginalised communities. Since the early eighties Carin has established a wonderful reputation for socially responsive projects. In architecture, then and now, this is a challenging proposition.”

He adds that through her work Smuts has also played an important role in women being recognised by the architectural profession.

In 2023 she was awarded the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) Gold Medal for Architecture This award is made in recognition of outstanding contributions to architecture.

Smuts’ design ethos goes back to 1984, when, as a fourth-year architectural student at the University of Cape Town, she started working with community members from Lingelihle Township in Cradock in the Eastern Cape who had asked for architectural help with a skills development workshop they wanted to build for post-matriculants.” Sufficient funds were ultimately raised to build the workshop, a creche and library resource centre.

“My experience in Cradock formed the basis of my career during which I have prioritised listening to what people need and responding to this, says Smuts. “As Kenyan author and academic Wa Thiong’o Ngugi said in 1993, Culture is the product of a people’s history. But it also reflects that history, and embodies a whole set of values by which a people view themselves and their place in time and space’.

Early in her career, Smuts worked as a project architect at Prinsloo Parker Flint Elliott van den Heever (now GAPP Architects & Urban Designers) under her university professor Ivor Prinsloo. In 1989 she and fellow architect, the late Urs Schmid, decided to establish their own practice, CS Studio Architects, with a focus on “socially relevant work”.

Part of their approach is that the people who are going to use the building help to build it. Once the building is designed, the appointed contractors are required to employ skilled and unskilled people from the area, and train them. “It significantly contributes to skills development which people can use to get employment or to build and repair their homes,” says Smuts.

One of their best known projects in Langa Township is the Guga S’Thebe Arts and Cultural Centre, completed in 1999. It’s a public space where people come together and enjoy art, design and performance.

It has studio spaces, a gathering space, an arts and craft shop and in 2015 a multipurpose theatre was added. It is built out of old shipping containers, recycled wooden fruit crates and locally available building materials like straw and clay. “We always incorporate locally available materials as part of the goal of recycling and sustainability,” says Smuts.

In 2008 she received a Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, which gave her the opportunity to meet and visit with Italian architect Fabrizio Carola in Mali. He focuses on the recovery and contemporary use of the building techniques of the traditional Nubian people from ages past, including curved structures, arches, vaults and domes.

It’s not often you can describe a hospital as beautiful but the beautiful Kaedi Regional Hospital in Mauritania is one of his many projects. The design is based on a sequence of simple and complex dome structures and it was built with locally-made bricks.

In the southern African context Smuts says architecture like the Zimbabwe ruins has had a huge impact on her understanding of space: “The way in which this African iron age city was constructed was incredibly powerful and it created such a sense of community with circular, central spaces,” she explains.

“I have used this in many of my buildings, such as schools constructed around a courtyard to keep the children safe. The space between the buildings is all-important, it enlarges the whole effect. I’ve learnt this and so many other design lessons from traditional African architecture.”

Smuts’ PhD supervisor, Professor Magda Minguzzi from the School of Architecture at Nelson Mandela shares this ethos. She is working with the leaders and community members of South Africa’s First Nation People in the Baviaanskloof area of the Eastern Cape to document the traditional techniques they are using to design and build self-made homes using local materials.

“It promotes cultural re-appropriation, the restoration of Indigenous culture and identity, and the creation of new knowledge,” says Prof Minguzzi.

To bring back to life the heritage of these people, generically called KhoiSan, her research group, which includes chiefs and members of the KhoiSan community, together with staff and students form the Department of Architecture, have also done the first scientific site surveys of precolonial fish traps located along the Eastern Cape coast.

The fish traps are hand-made rock walls strategically designed to work with the currents and tides and trap fish at high tide. There were different ways of constructing them – some were circular; others were a sequence of basins, and they would retain the fish in the bigger ones as a live “pantry”.

Following Smuts’ lecture, the School of Architecture will be presenting certificates to eight First Nation Chiefs, for their long and continuous engagement with the Department of Architecture at Nelson Mandela University, their contribution to research in the academy, and their engagement with students.

The First Nation Chiefs are: Gaob Thomas Augustus, Gamtobaqua tribe; Gaos Margaret Coetzee, Inqua tribe; Gaob Daantjie Japhta, Inqua Camdeboo tribe;  Gaob Brato Malgas, Inqua tribe; Chief Xam ≠ Gaob Maleiba, Damasonqua tribe; Paramount Chief Gert Cornelius Steenkamp, Oeswana tribe; Chief Wallace Williams, Oeswana tribe; and Gaos Anne Williams, Gamtouers/Gamktwa tribe.

Prof Minguzzi says: “The students have been exposed to a unique, first-hand history which cannot be found in books. This fruitful collaboration produced a valuable series of research outputs including a book, ‘The Spirit of Water’ published in 2021, and two documentaries screened internationally in 2022 and 2023.

“We have such extraordinary historical references and yet the tragedy is we are seeing so little of this in our built environment,” comments Smuts. “Even less is happening in the townships, it is as if the government has gone missing, and we are facing a situation where many funders say ‘you live in a democratic country, your government should fund projects in the townships’. It is totally tragic.”

Smut’s team is currently working on the design for the Methodist Church in Africa (MCA) in Langa. Colleagues of hers from London are helping to raise the funds to build the church. “It’s a small budget of R2million and we have to be very space and resource-intelligent,” says Smuts.

“So far what has been decided is that there will be loose chairs instead of pews so that the space lends itself to versatility: it can be used as an aftercare for school learners during the week, and there will be a garden outside where the children can play.

“We’ll be using clay face bricks for low maintenance and because of their thermal properties. We use glass but not extensively as people throw stones at glass windows in the areas where we work. Instead, we create rooflight from translucent sheeting which floods the interior of the building with light. For ventilation we incorporate passive ventilation design solutions such as whirlybirds and louvres for natural ventilation.”

Symphony Way Clinic, Delft township, Cape Town - Carin Smuts

The CS Studio team recently completed a large clinic in Delft Township in Cape Town where 16 young people learnt to do the mosaic trees and figures on the front fa├žade. “We are known for our mosaics on public buildings, it beautifies them and makes the entrance far more friendly and inviting. In this regard the Ndebele are a huge influence on our work,” says Smuts.

There is so much more to say, but in closing, as Wa Thiong’o Ngugi said: “Culture embodies a whole set of values by which a people view themselves and their place in time and space.” We need to create spaces where people can see themselves and live out their dreams.

Note:

The Milde McWilliams lecture on 19 September will be held in the auditorium on Nelson Mandela University’s Summerstrand South Campus.

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160
elma.dekoker@mandela.ac.za