MOTIF: An exhibition celebrating the exploration of ideas across 25 years of practice. Opening address by Prof. Lone Poulsen.

I felt very honoured when Colin and Heather asked me to open their exhibition as I have considered them colleagues and friends over a long period of time. I have known Colin for about 45 years since we studied at the School of Architecture in Durban in the 1970s, and I met Heather 25 years ago when I moved to Joburg and joined the Wits School of Architecture in 1991, where Heather was completing her studies. Our paths have crossed both professionally and personally during those many years and it has been a great privilege to witness the amazing work and achievements of their practice.

Colin and Heather have also successfully navigated that relatively rare combination of being business partners and life partners – architectural practice, marriage, parenthood – and pursue a lifestyle of live, work and play in the same space. Colin and Heather started their practice in the mid 1990s when the country was going through tumultuous and exciting changes. It was a time of optimism and hope and idealistic visions for the future. It was also a time to face up to the problematics of the past and the enormous challenges which lay ahead to address the apartheid legacy of spatial segregation and social injustice.

The new South Africa was, for architects and urban designers, a time to rethink our context through ambitious policies and big ideas about restructuring the city, urban regeneration, meeting the housing challenge, innovative architectural competitions and catalytic projects all signalling changes and an opportunities to create a responsive built environment and hopefully better lives for all. I suspect that as we reflect back on the last 25 years of democracy we may be less optimistic and may have lost some of the initial euphoria given the current socio-economic context and inability to meet the demands of the country, the city and most importantly the expectations of the people. This has provoked a time for reflection.

In different spaces architects have been challenged to reflect on their practice The GSA has through its International Lecture Series invited international architects to give talks but has also asked many local architects to present their work. 56 Pim Studio is another initiative facilitating a space for reflection and realignment. It has been encouraging to see that extraordinary work has been done locally by long-established and newly formed architectural practices. I think we underestimate and undervalue our own backyard and the dedicated architectural practitioners that are actively engaging with the challenges and opportunities that this difficult but exciting context demands.

This Savage + Dodd exhibition is yet another opportunity to reflect on relevant and appropriate architectural projects which create lessons and provide inspiration for future architectural and urban interventions. Colin and Heather have been at the forefront of tackling many of the difficult ‘in your face’ realities of our context and have responded with thoughtful, informed and beautifully designed architectural projects evident in the work you are about to see.

Their work ranges across a wide spectrum of architectural types from social housing, educational facilities, public buildings, heritage and adaptive re-use, inner-city regeneration and issues of informality. Their projects respond positively to their contexts and to the occupants’ needs. Their designs are thoroughly researched, founded on clear conceptual ideas, designed and explored experientially and functionally, are carefully detailed and professionally executed.

They have received numerous South African and international awards for their work and most recently Savage + Dodd Architects with UrbanWorks have been shortlisted in this years’ World Architecture Festival, to be held in Amsterdam in November, in the Future Competition Category and the WAF Power & Justice Category for yet another inner-city project entitled INTEN_CITY.

In curating 25 years of architectural practice, Colin and Heather have named the exhibition: MOTIF which by definition is ‘a recurring idea throughout a body of work’. They have chosen to reflect on the concepts that are woven through their projects and have identified a number of MOTIFs to illustrate this idea: Live Work Play / Courtyard / Verandah / Prototype / Hybrid / Repurpose / Flexible Learning / Neighbourhood / Colour

Paraphrasing from their own words:

  • Their context is the city and their focus has been on creating places for people, community and neighbourhood.
  • The use of prototypes has enabled them to innovate and develop ideas from project to project; from live-work-play in social housing which later became live-learn-play in their work on educational institutions.
  • Adaptive re-use and repurposing buildings have been a core theme in their housing practice, educational projects and heritage work.
  • The use of strong colour as a system animates their buildings internally and externally
  • The motif of the verandah and the courtyard are central spatial devices in shaping spaces that are responsive to the environment and people.

The exhibition is framed by a timeline (on the courtyard wall) which spans the 25 years of the practice and which through a coding system illustrates the interrelationships between their architectural projects (orange horizontal bands), the socio-economic and political context (blue dots), the practice’s achievements and awards (pink stars), and professional and personal memories (green vertical bands and images).

The exhibition is bookended by ‘housing stories’ and the Sol Plaatjie university.

Housing stories demonstrate the complexity of working in the affordable housing space – balancing government legislation, city regeneration objectives, limited funding regimes, degraded urban environments, repurposing deep space buildings not designed for residential, housing perceptions and the expectations of the residents.

This type of work is not considered glamorous, it is difficult and gritty – not the stuff of glossy magazines – but is rich and informed by a thorough understanding of the realities of the lives of people.

Sol Plaatjie University is one of two new university campuses to be developed since 1994 intended to increase access to tertiary education. The university demonstrates a new approach to campus design and educational facilities and is designed as open campus fully integrated into the fabric of the town of Kimberly. Rooted in an urban design framework various architects won competitions and were allocated specific urban blocks and facilities to design. Savage + Dodd was allocated the Moroka Hall of Residence, Dining Hall, Lecture Rooms and Offices and they received an SAIA Award of Merit for this project this year.

Between the end walls, the projects are arranged chronologically from earliest to most recent work. Each project is titled with one or more of the identified motifs which emphasise the recurring ideas and iterative design process of their practice.

The motifs prove that some ideas are universal regardless of the type of project, income groups, user groups, context etc…. and is actually just good design! So it gives me great pleasure to invite you to not just look at the beautiful drawings and images but to engage deeply with the exhibition. Do yourselves a favour and take time to read the exhibition through the timeline, the housing stories and the project narratives, in order to fully understand the thoughtfulness of their work… and to explore how the ordinary, the everyday and the challenges have been designed into experiential delight, liveability and positive interventions for city making.