Each month, Leading Architecture puts the spotlight on an industry leader. This month we speak to Michael Magner of Activate Architecture
Q Tell us about your background.
I grew up in Gauteng, mostly in Centurion and moved to Johannesburg to study. It felt like home and so I have lived here ever since. I did a lot of competitive sailing where I got provincial and junior Springbok colours and went to school to fill the gaps between the weekend sailing programmes!
Q Where did you study and what qualifications did you receive?
I studied at Wits Uni where I met Edward Brooks and we set up the beginnings of Activate Architects during our thesis year. With BArch degrees in hand we started at the beginning of 1998 with our first two jobs; measuring up the Old Mills buildings for another architect and converting a friend’s double garage into a rentable cottage. House alterations were the order of the day and with support from architects like Colin Savage and Luis Ferreira da Silva we were able to navigate the steep learning curve of real clients and real projects. What we lacked in experience we made up for in enthusiasm and admittedly a little arrogance. Activate Architecture has grown since then – there are now three partners (Reon van der Wiel bought a share in 2006) and we opened a sister company ‘Activate Space’ in 2005 which does space planning and interior design.
Q How did you get involved in architecture?
I somehow decided to become an architect when I was in standard 5 (grade 7). Why is not apparent to me other than a vague memory that I thought it would be a mix of creativity and practicality. My grades were a few points shy of automatic admission to Wits and UCT so I had to write a portfolio which I made as wacky as possible. In the end I begged Don Tindale, then admissions and first year master, to let me in. He said I needn’t worry, because if I didn’t get in I could always do Quantity Surveying!
Q What about South African architecture inspires you?
We were at varsity during the birth of our political rainbow and the sense of pride in being South African was at an all time high. This set an African pride pathway which has influenced our outlook at Activate to define a language of architecture that is inspired by this place – the place the building belongs to in both time.
Q Do you think SA architects provide their clients with a good service?
I am not sure. I don’t have a broad frame of reference to other countries architectural offerings, but judging by the inroads into the rest of Africa and the Middile East I would have to assume that we are on a level that can compete.
Q What has been your favourite project to date?
The seminal projects that have marked Activate’s progress and assisted us to step up a level were Moyo in Melrose arch in 2000, our first publically accessible project, which lead to the Forum Homini Boutique hotel project in 2005 in the Cradle of Human Kind. This then lead to the Lebone School competition project for the Royal Bafokeng which we won beating MRA in a head-to-head over six months! All of these projects were/are demanding projects which challenged us and left us stronger in the end.
Q What existing project do you wish you could have been involved in?
The FNB stadium project or a high-rise in Rosebank or the CBD. A project we have often hypothesized about in the office is an urban renewal of the Johannesburg CBD using all the capital invested by business to move out of the CBD between 1990 and 2005 matched by an equal amount of investment from local government to create a New Jozi of housing, offices and retail with a sustainable green city initiative.
Q What are you currently working on?
The new Lebone School, Innes Chambers which is an 11-storey office building revamp, three hotel/lodges in Tanzania and Zanzibar, a pretty, out-of-the-box house on Northcliff ridge, a set of green offices and a scheme to build self sustaining ‘green’ science labs for a private school.
Q Where do you see architecture going in the next decade?
We were chatting about this in the office last week. Rob suggested that he predicts that we are going to see more cutting edge work of once-off projects of non-rectilinear design because software is making this more assessable and plausible to architects. I agree with him but would say that the need for the built environment to be more sustainable is an imperative and we all have to step up to the plate. Activate has joined the newly formed Green Building Council and aims to be a leading architectural voice in the green building field.
Activate has also calculated its carbon footprint created since its inception and are embarking on a community project to plant 300 trees to offset the 11 years in business. Going forward we intend to remain carbon positive.
Michael Magner was one of the recent winners of the DesignMind referral campaign. For more information, visit www.designmind.co.za, a networking and information service that makes it quick and easy for anyone in the built industry to collaborate.