Symbiosis and Architecture

Pierre Lahaye of MDS Architecture explains his view of symbiosis and architecture.

It is fair to say that society’s interests have changed with the passing of time. This phenomenon is especially true of the South African situation with its diverse cultures and turbulent history.

Symbiosis is defined as an interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, usually to the advantage of both. In the context of architecture, this translates into a view of the art of architecture as an expression of the spirit of an era. That is, buildings that are designed today should be part of the cultural heritage of future generations.

It is difficult to draw clear cut lines, but the focus of interest seems to change with every decade. For the most part of the 20th century, an industrial society was creating a world of visible technologies and machines. Architecture existed as an analogy to these visible machines.

The 1990s brought about massive change in terms of South Africa’s history. It also marked the advent of the information age in practical terms. The challenge to architecture was whether it would, indeed if it could, express the invisible technologies of the information age?

Freed from the need to represent the machine, architecture would become expressive for its own sake. It represented an opportunity to evolve into architecture that values the creation of meaning, architecture that is no longer tied directly to function or reason.

Architecture alive
Today’s technology is invisibly transmitted in waves through the air. The concept of screens emerges, with architecture coming alive and participating in an interactive collaboration between the architect, the viewer, the screen and the architecture. The architecture, as end product, could be a process which is happening before your eyes. The collaborative venture that is created is one in which the architecture takes on a live and interactive quality. Thus, an information age is not one of substance or material itself, but one of relation.

In a global context, South African architecture is in a unique position to create symbiosis between this New World-based technology and the local vibrant cultural landscape in which we now live.

For a country like South Africa to survive, grow and ultimately prosper, it must take positive steps to accommodate other cultures. Cultures must be able to co-exist whilst still preserving their own identities. Within South African cultures we should see the symbiosis of nature and architecture of tradition and technology, of past and present, of subtlety and boldness and the symbiosis of different cultures that are opposing entities.

Few would argue that a city in which historical buildings are preserved and exist alongside contemporary architecture in symbiosis is preferable to the purely abstract ideal new world cities like Brasilia in Brazil.

No ideal architecture
We must revise our ideas on contemporary architecture by examining our Eurocentric focus and the belief of universalism. European culture was historically regarded as the epitome of human civilisation and the non-European world was expected to aspire to European cultures. Progress was measured in terms of European cultural norms. I say we should aspire to co-exist with more cultures, thus creating a richer environment. Like our senses that take in more than they want, activity and passivity should be sought simultaneously.

There is no single ideal architecture and no one correct order. Architecture does not express a single system of values; it is a conglomeration of many different value systems, or an order that embraces many diverse elements. Formal architectural modes of expression, sign and symbol will produce a multivalent and ambivalent meaning. The conscious manipulation of elements from different cultures will evoke meaning through difference and dysfunction. Let’s seek multiple ways of reading and interpreting architectural expression!

Since ancient times, pure geometrical forms have symbolised a vision of the universe that transcended regional cultures. The central philosophy of Eurocentrism is to lift culture from chaos through the exercise of reason in categorising, analysing, defining and limiting natural phenomena – an attitude that is central to Western culture. African culture on the other hand was regarded by Eurocentric commentators as being based on abstraction, as chaotic, irrational, vague, ambiguous and unscientific.

I contend that by allowing geometry and abstraction to exist in symbiosis, multivalency occurs – the ability of a single item to represent more than one thing at once. A symbiotic association creates multiple interpretations of experience. Abstract-geometry poses a common cognitive universality in which different cultures can share, at the same time creating special historical significance.

Architecture and cities are always changing. Structures should be open and the relationship between architecture and nature valued. It is not only man-made lakes and parks that should be recognised as being part of nature, but also our cities and technologies. When there is too much focus on substance and matter, life becomes absolute. Human relations need to be free and open, not restricted to any one community, class or religious group. Culture, like architecture, must be able to change and grow, allowed to rebuild itself, so as to benefit from scientific, technological and economic successes.

Likewise, intermediate space is important when conceiving of architecture. Symbiosis creates a dynamic relationship between two elements while allowing them to remain in opposition. An example of this idea is the verandah. A verandah is an intermediary zone between the garden or the street and the house. Through opposing forces, the spaces are linked in symbiosis. By placing an intermediary space between two opposing spaces and a neutral zone linking public and private spaces, ambiguity and ambivalence are introduced and a rich and suggestive architecture is created.

Through symbiosis we can preserve the identity of regional culture, the unique nature of place and the symbolic sanctity of the individual. By respecting that ‘secret zone’, that which is not fully understandable and thus considered unscientific, a symbiosis of different cultures could be made possible. The buildings we design should be a result of this symbiosis.

Architecture is not a self-enclosed independent entity that produces meaning. Rather, the relationship between architecture and its environment, as well as the relationship between the distinct spaces within the work of architecture, will produce meaning.

The architecture we produce today is our legacy. We have an opportunity to represent various interpretations of history, of culture, of experience. In the final analysis, how will our art be judged?