Thorsten Deckler, co-founder of Johannesburg-based 26’10 South Architects, was the keynote speaker at the recent 31st Corobrik Architectural Awards. Deckler, who worked for Rem Koolhaas in the Netherlands and for Peter Rich Architects in Johannesburg before starting his own practice, Anne Graupner, is known for engaging in a range of projects in townships, the inner city and the periphery of the city.
Speaking at the awards ceremony at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton, he considered passion, purpose and making your own map. “Never before has it been easier to ‘put your name on this map,’ and never before has the moment been more fleeting. What is a feast is also a famine and in a profession like architecture, which is in many respects super slow, rich in complexity and meaning, we often just skim the surface,” he said, referencing today’s instant gratification culture and the ephemeral nature of social media.
He discussed the first project which 26’10 South Architects ever undertook, and how it was a “spectacular failure.” In the absence of a budget and local capacity to re-build the famous Sans Souci Cinema in Soweto, Johannesburg, the content rather than the container was realised. The cinema opened in 1948 but destroyed in a fire in 1994 and subsequently pillaged for building materials for the nearby houses, resulting in an evocative ruin used as an informal public space by the local youth. “Our brief from the Kliptown Our Town Trust was to re-imagine the Sans Souci as a cultural public space,” said Deckler.
Although the practice’s dream project didn’t work out as they had planned – the ruin eventually collapsed – by harnessing informal processes, and working with a multitude of role players, the architects found new ways in which to make positive and interactive public spaces. “Consequently, early on in our careers, we also had an acute understanding of the complexity of architecture,” he explained. A film festival, dance outreach project and several performances were some of the initiatives held on the site, curated together with the community and employing the ruin as an urban armature.
As is the case with many of today’s top architects, Deckler admits that he didn’t always get it right. “The times which I failed were really awful, but I learnt a lot from my mistakes,” but he implored the young architects in attendance to “help make the world a better place,” and to “get into telling the stories of how we make the built environment, because it really is not an easy thing to do.”
With his unconventional storytelling and riffing of the theme of the event: ‘Put Your name on the Map’, Deckler inspired the audience to create their own ‘map’. He asked, “How do you as graduates, now that you are on the map, even if just for a bit, use this opportunity to strike out in your careers? Knowing that this moment is fleeting. How do you connect beyond the boundaries of your discipline with the world at large? How do you create or recognize moments of connection around things that matter to people and you?” The map which this next generation constructs – each for themselves – should be constructed around the values each one holds dear.
Deckler was speaking prior to the announcement of the winner of this year’s Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Award. Renée Minnaar from the University of Pretoria, walked away with the top honours and a cheque for R50 000 for her thesis, entitled, ‘Remediator – Restoring the dichotomous relationship between industry and nature through an urban eco-textile mill and dye house’. Minnaar impressed the judges with her insightful way of tackling quintessentially South African issues that cross generations and present compelling reasons to rethink the local built environment in South Africa.
He concluded his address by saying that this was his call to arms to the next generation of architects who will create extraordinary moments. “Some will be unpremeditated, born of frustration and even failure, but they will be inspired by purpose when you work on a map of your own creation.”