A congress for humanity

7 Aug 2014 - Blog

By Yasmin Shariff published in RIBA Journal 7th August 2014

The 25th UIA Congress, held in Durban, South Africa, provided a platform for architects across the world to tackle economic and social issues

Seen as the most exciting event held in Durban since the 2010 World Cup, the 25th UIA Congress generated great public interest in the city with many planned fringe events and parties lightening what was otherwise a deeply serious agenda. Marimba and brass bands permeated the airwaves and delegates rocked their way through the sessions.

The opening keynote speech by Hilton Judin, architect and curator working in Johannesburg, set out the theme of the congress, ‘architecture otherwhere’, and he pulled no punches. Like the first UIA Congress in Lausanne in 1948, this year’s event sought to provide a platform for architects across the world to work together in tackling difficult issues. Judin made it abundantly clear that architecture is politics, and politics is at centre of everything we do. The aim of the congress was to disrupt what has always been, and to find another space. Judin stated emphatically that we cannot continue to be trapped in economic ghettos which reinforce the status quo and that we should act immediately to address structural tensions facing humanity, putting aside geographical camps, and imagining alliances through transformative modes of architectural practice – where on earth we go next.

The congress sought to acknowledge the built environment as a major force in harnessing a better life for all. This was explored through the sub-themes of resilience, ecology and values. Three-hundred peer reviewed presentations were scheduled over three days with an additional 130 side events, and a rich feast of exhibitions, and social and cultural activities. The congress programme was an in-depth investigation of cities, the way in which architecture is produced, and how communities interact with the built environment. It explored ‘Otherways’ of addressing the urgent human need for shelter, infrastructure, basic services, employment and social development; how political decisions are made; and what impact the global economy has on communities and the environment.

The participation of politicians at the conference was impressive, with presentations by South Africa’s minister for public works, its minister of higher education and training, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal Province and Durban’s mayor. They saw Africa as the ‘sleeping giant’, and the congress as marking a significant milestone for South Africa, 20 years after apartheid. Architects were seen as critical to social development because they design housing and infrastructure. The mayor outlined a vision to make Durban the most caring and liveable city by 2030. Schemes and ideas were being sought for all sectors of society, not just the small minority that currently benefits from architectural support.

The premier of KwaZulu-Natal spoke about the implementation of the growth and development plan, building strategic infrastructure to drive social change. Its aim is to remove all slums and provide decent homes for all. The minister of public works outlined the problems of persistent poverty, inequality, rapid urbanisation and the mushrooming informal settlements. The government demanded engagement with architects to get a paradigm shift. It also says the profession has to transform itself and become more diverse and representative of the people it serves – a minority of 24% black architects and 9% women is not acceptable. The legacy of apartheid must be overcome, and this can be done with a vision to respond creatively to the opportunities to address problems of homelessness, poverty and inequality.

Professor Edgar Pieterse, founding director of the African Centre for Cities, outlined obscene inequalities in the world: 2.5 billion malnourished children; brutal slaughter in Palestine, Syria and the Ukraine; an uncapped cycle of consumption; and rising global temperatures. He spoke of political hope among this barbarism, consumption and waste, pointing to the recently published UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which recognised that cities are key to poverty reduction and that there will be an opportunity for architects to contribute to Habitat 3 in 2016.

Cameron Sinclair, former chief executive of Architecture for Humanity and co-author of the best seller Design Like You Give A Damn, illustrated the power of design to transform communities. He introduced himself as the chief eternal optimist, with a background of growing up in an impoverished area of south London. Architecture for Humanity has worked with 35,000 architects in 63 cities and with 2.1 million clients. Its focus is social and economic change by embedding local architects into the community and paying for their professional services. The community are engaged as partners and they listen, learn and design together. The construction process from start to finish supports local construction companies and uses local resources, providing additional jobs and income. The ownership of the final project is transferred to the local community, who have to ensure they can maintain and run it.

At the end of his presentation Sinclair shared the limelight with architects who had designed sports facilities in Africa sponsored by FIFA, and with health programmes as part of their brief. Architecture for Humanity is like a pop-up practice that responds to crisis situations, building modest facilities that have a huge impact. Small mobile noodle kiosks in Japan for fishermen after the Tsunami delivered not only noodles, but created community centres to help communities repair physical and social damage.

Rather than focusing on starchitects pirouetting their grand schemes, this congress dealt with the serious issues facing humanity, and provided a stage for architects to have a dialogue, share ideas and empower them to make a difference. Other presentations included the ‘Distress Road Tours: Building Empathy One Conversation at a Time’ by Wes Janz and Olon Dotson from Ball State University; and the Bloemfontein Taxi Terminus (Typology Architecture) awarded a prize by the South African Institute of Architecture. Such award-winners inspired congress goers through the way individuals can and are making a difference. This is surely a congress for humanity of which the South Africans should be proud.

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