26’10 South Architects — pdf

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Who: Anne Graupner and Thorsten Deckler
Location: South Africa
Operative since: 2004, formalised in 2006
Practice organised as a: closed corporation

26’10 South Architects is an architectural practice based in Johannesburg. They are committed to engaging with the radical contradictions present within the city, such as unhealed wounds, bitter-sweet memories, utopian visions, mine dumps, villas and shacks. In their work, they engage with a range of communities in order to broaden their understanding of architecture beyond academic and technical notions. They are equally ‘at home’ in the inner city, the suburb, informal settlements and in the open landscape: constraints are treated as design generators.

What desires, values and elements of support/discouragement made your practice evolve over time?

Living and practicing in Johannesburg confronts us with the post-colonial and Apartheid legacy on a daily basis. Coupled with weak governance, these are complex structural issues that are not resolved through ‘design’ but rather require processes of engagement in which strategies are developed from multiple entry and view-points which provide agency to people. It is not always possible to work in such a way and to this effect we have incorporated a component of research and knowledge management to our practice which is funded independently. This has allowed us to develop in our view, a ‘more healthy / realistic’ view of the limitations and potential of architecture as a building block of the city rather than as one-off iconic structures. This does not mean that the latter is obsolete, but that we also find as much inspiration in the unspectacular and ordinary.

What are in your case the advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses of working collectively?

When working collectively with an in-house team, one has higher overheads (equipment, software, salaries) but also access to more minds which can explore and develop projects from multiple sets of expertise and viewpoints. When engaging on projects at conceptual stage with clients, user groups or communities, a lot of time can be spent in discussions which may not yield immediate applicable results, since many assumptions are fundamentally challenged by the disparate realities of the parties involved. We find that if all parties are fully aware of the benefits of their involvement, they are incentivised to contribute to projects constructively. In SA, we have worked with residents of informal settlements (guided by NGOs and Community Based Organisations) who are highly motivated to drive the development process of their living environment. They understand that this gives them a chance to set the developmental agenda reflecting their priority of needs, which is multifaceted and includes aspects such as tenure, services, etc. In the case of need-based informal urban situations, it is not possible – as a professional with limited experience of living in such environments – to work in isolation. Implementable solutions and strategies need to be generated from the dynamism of people’s life worlds.

The professional can assist in ensuring that these strategies also meet with understanding and endorsement from the formal institutions. The problem with a highly participative and collaborative process is that, whilst it generates potentially highly specific and implementable solutions, it often takes longer and thus costs more – a cost government agencies or funding institutions are hesitant to cover as they operate at a distance to project processes. In exploring this type of work we have collaborated with the Goethe-Institut as well as the University of Johannesburg. This has also proved challenging since, as a private practice, we operate under different pressures to these institutions. For expertise outside of our team, we have worked with artists, writers, an ethnographer, film-makers, our university lecturers and various, specialist consultants. Some of these relationships have been formalized as separate businesses (sharpCITY and KWA Urbanism), but we have found this to be very onerous. Once the expertise gained through these ventures has been acquired into our practice, we have closed these companies.

How do you deal with money and wages between the components of your group? How do you deal with tensions and power relations within your group?

Our practice is relatively small: we have five employees and are two principals. As principals, we are in charge of all aspects of practice, but delegate the production of work to various team members. Team members earn agreed monthly salaries and as principals we try to set clear deliverables which need to be met within certain timeframes. This works well for motivated staff, but does depend on a constant flow of work and clear management input. Tensions within the team are easily addressed due to the size of the practice, as well as staff and project reviews which give employees and management a chance to address shortcomings as well as acknowledge achievements. On a daily basis, humour is a good way to be honest without being too formal.

How do you access meaningful commissioned work and how do you finance and carve-out time for self-initiated projects? What strategies and tactics are you making use of?

We have a balance of work, some of which is work that generates more dependable cash-flow and other projects which are ‘special’ and require more time. The cash-flow work is repeat work for a repeat client. Special projects are one-off commissions and we try to negotiate very clear terms of reference which balance our and our clients’ expectations. In terms of acquiring work, we have to date not advertised ourselves beyond the architectural media and lecture circuit and have received a surprising amount of opportunities from other architects who recommend us based on the quality of our work, the fact that we combine urban design, architecture and research which has enabled us to document and work in contexts of historic, social and political complexity. We are realizing the limits of presenting our work on the conference / academic / architectural circuit which offers exposure within a perpetuating self-referential system.

We are becoming more selective towards taking up lecturing and teaching opportunities outside our discipline. The time spent on experimental / event- and research-based work, such as exhibitions and publications, has allowed us to mine our context and to understand it better which in turn allows us to operate with a combination of ease and sensitivity on our built projects. After ten years of practicing in such a highly diverse manner, we have decided to focus our energies on realizing built work and have acquired a reputation for being able to negotiate complex briefs in a non-dogmatic but effective manner. Our central principal is to do the work as well as we can and manage our clients’ expectations. We are also in the process of re-structuring our website and copy in order to address an audience beyond our discipline.

How do you organise your time between work and non-work? What systems do you use to keep track of where you invest your time?

We hold weekly staff meetings in which admin and project tasks are delegated and managed. This includes discussing and being aware of workflow projections, critical paths and future deadlines. Keeping highly detailed timesheets has helped us not only track our profitability on projects but also to analyse where we typically spend too much time. The timesheets have been invaluable on repeat work and allow us to quote competitively outside of the % fee structure. The recons produced off timesheets have become important informants for business decisions. We also limit working overtime and operate on the basis of flexible time so that staff can skip commuter traffic as well as pursue private recreational / exercise routines.

How does your current working and living environment (geographic location, spatial arrangement) reflect (or not) the ethos, methods and dynamics of your practice?

We have chosen to live in a culturally mixed suburb and actively engage with people that care for their neighbourhood. Being two principals who are also in a relationship and with two young children, we have made a conscious decision to consolidate and simplify our lives in order to spend as much time with our children as possible. To this effect, we have developed our own office and house on the same property in a centrally-located suburb of Johannesburg which is close to our children’s pre- and primary school as well as city departments and our main clients (the university and inner-city developer we work with most). This live-work set-up saves us a lot of time commuting and we can pay rent to ourselves (rather than a landlord) thus paying off the development loan faster. The live–work setup demonstrates an alternative attitude and way of living in Johannesburg and is also a good business card for our practice. Growing our own vegetables adds to a more sustainable, cost-effective concept of living and usage of space, as well as engaging our children in a healthy activity. Many cost-saving decisions and dealing with a heritage building (i.e. recycling of historic windows, bricks, timber, fittings, etc.) can be demonstrated to clients. The outdoor bath on top of our boardroom (roof terrace) allows us to break away from the family and work routine.

Please draw a diagram of all the elements and structures that support your design practice (monetary & non-monetary resources, people, spaces and institutions, family, other assets, …)?


This interview was conducted in May 2014.