Each month, Leading Architecture puts the spotlight on an industry leader. This month we speak to Daniel van der Merwe, professional architect to the Cement & Concrete Institute
Q Tell us about your background.
I grew up on a farm near Knysna, a background I’m thankful for as it instilled in me a love for the land and a spiritual understanding of the interrelatedness of all things. This profoundly influenced my world view on the transient nature of Life and to always try to evaluate the real importance of things within a non materialistic framework.
This has also influenced my attitude towards architecture as an impact which should tread lightly on the land; a connector which should enter respectfully into a contextual dialogue with its surround. Quite frankly there are too many people in this world and we are parasitically consuming her at a rate which spells doom. And, too many badly considered buildings which are draining nonrenewable resources needlessly without future regard.
I try to practice what I preach in my own projects, and hopefully during my long stint as a design lecturer at the then TWR and now UJ, this idea of being responsible and responsive rubbed of on many students who are now practitioners! As a member of the Green Building Council, The Cement & Concrete Institute where I now work as an architect, actively promotes the responsible use of concrete in a sustainable manner. We have introduced many initiatives such as the C&CI Architectural Student Sustainable Design Competition, allowing for more research through bursaries and subvention schemes and generally play a key role in assisting the promotion of responsible architecture in SA.
Q Where did you study and what qualifications did you receive?
I first studied Landscape Architecture at Pretoria University, and afterwards continued my studies in Architecture which I completed at the University of the Witwatersrand. My final year dissertation was the climatic highlight of nine years of study: a Tibetan Buddhist Complex in Nieu-Bethesda was a yearlong engagement which left an indelible personal imprint. My student years were interesting years as we were all very involved in protest politics and community service – something which I think is absent in student life today. In fact, I find students nowadays far more apathetic, materialistic and less inclined towards volunteerism.
Q How did you get involved in architecture?
Having grown up in one of the most awesome and unspoilt regions of South Africa, I was inspired by the beauty of my world. I believe this to have been a sensitising inspirational experience which evoked inquisitiveness and a call to creative response. Landscape architecture, and thereafter architecture, just seemed a logical way of answering this call towards an engagement. Also, I truly believed then – and still do so today – that architecture can be a very potent agent for change which we as her servants should endeavour to contribute.
Q What about South African architecture inspires you?
The ingenuity of the informal, of ‘n boer maak ‘n plan which is evident everywhere in our country and of which our vernacular architecture is a great and inspirational source. It is that continuation of the ancient African idea of ‘making most benefit for least resource’. I abhor commercial monstrosities which show no respect for anything and which are purely profit driven. There are many unsung small heroes, small ‘barefoot’ practices who are making a difference out there in our rural areas and informal settlements, helping towards creating the architectural framework for a ‘better life for all’.
Q Do you think SA architects provide their clients with a good service?
I would like to think that most architects are as good as the values and priorities of their clients whose needs they must accommodate! The World Cup legacy projects are a testimony to what our architects are capable of when given opportunities. South African architectural production is extremely revealing of the peculiar ways in which we view and construct ourselves as a young, short-term goal orientated society. Too many architects are still constrained by a ‘give the client what they want’ mindset which has led to very little experimental architectural endeavour. The power of architects to contribute is further eroded by the ‘cut rate’ and partial service discount attitude of many commercial developers and other mainstream clients.
More architects should become involved in the government’s massive Public Works Programme despite the challenging realities of working with and in disadvantaged communities. Over R1 trillion is earmarked to be spent over the next few years and yet the architectural profession is shining in their absence. That is neglecting the biggest client of them all and in the process doing a disservice to all of society.
Q What has been your favorite project to date?
The smallest of them all. Doing renovations and additions to an artist’s house in Attridgeville, adding a rooftop studio so that he could look out over the township and see a mountain or two in the distance. His pleasure and that of his children gave me the greatest reward. Other projects, where I have been able to persuade clients to allow the use of renewable materials efficiently, and proved to them that it is cost efficient and the right thing to do. The greatest challenge and satisfaction comes from an end result where discipline and determination was needed because cash strapped clients entrusted you with their life savings and you were able to manifest their dreams.
Q. What existing project do you wish you could have been involved in?
Nero Wolff’s Usasazo Secondary school in Khayelitsha for the meaningful contribution it is making towards that community
Q What are you currently working on?
I’m passionately involved in my work at the Cement & Concrete Institute which takes up most of my time. Free time is currently divided between doing self sustainability driven ‘off the grid’ houses in the Drakensberg and the eastern Free State. But what really excites me at the moment is my involvement as convener in the architectureZA2010 Biennale Festival, the first of which is scheduled to take place from September 21-24 in Newtown, Johannesburg. With 132 speakers, nine exhibitions and six design master classes amongst the many activities, this promises to be the biggest event ever on the architectural calendar. I trust that many of your readers will come and participate in this ground breaking event. For more information, visit www.aza2010.org
Q Where do you see architecture going in the next decade?
I foresee that ‘sustainability’ will move beyond a buzzword to become the essence in driving our search for solutions towards creating considerate built environments which can serve our future communities in a supportive manner. I trust that architects will increasingly take up the challenge as agents of change as architecture is possibly one of humankind’s most potent manifestations of that will. And I trust the architectural profession engaging ever more in a leading and optimistic manner in the formalising of our ever-increasing urbanised futures. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate!