Architecture Influencers: Gregory Katz

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Elsa Young, Marc Shoul, Supplied

Ever wondered who inspires our current generation of architects? A stint abroad afforded Johannesburg’s Gregory Katz the chance to experience the works of architectural heroes such as Charles and Ray Eames, Louis Kahn and Hans Scharoun in the flesh.

Things have a way of coming full circle. In the early ’90s, Gregory Katz was pulling all-nighters along with his fellow Bachelor of Architecture students at the University of Cape Town. One of their lecturers, Gus Guernica, was responsible for teaching them about detailing buildings. “Gus would say to us, ‘Why does glass need to sit in a frame? Why can’t you put the window straight into the wall? Don’t just accept that a window needs a frame!’” recalls Gregory, smiling. “He taught us to go back to the fundamentals and to challenge convention; for me, that was very formative .”

Now a lecturer himself at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Gregory has spent the past year unpacking ornament and detail with his own students. “We’re revisiting ideas around ornaments in the local context, and pulling them away from the modernist conversation to find out what’s relevant here and now.”

For Gregory – who interned with starchitects Zvi Hecker in Berlin and Daniel Libeskind in Los Angeles during his undergraduate studies, and went on to do his MArch at Columbia University in New York – it took years abroad to truly appreciate the unique opportunities South African architects have. “If you’re in one place for a long time, you tend to become kind of myopic,” he says. “When you’re new to a place, you’re able to identify things of value in the local context.” One of his current projects that speaks to this is a prototype for low-cost, modular, barrel-vaulted brick structures that can accommodate multiple storeys, designed specifically for the back yards of RDP homes in Khayelitsha.

Architecture Influencers: Gregory Katz On Who Inspired His Career
Corner Fox apartments in Joburg’s CBD by Gregory.

“There’s a practice called back-yard housing, where homeowners build informal shacks at the back of their property to rent out,” he explains. “We’re looking to assist homeowners with the technology to make those areas more dense, so they can build two or three storeys. The brickwork is based on old Roman technology, but in a new setting, seen through a new cultural lens.”

Architecture Influencers: Gregory Katz On Who Inspired His Career
Gregory designed precast concrete windows in nursery shapes for this pre-primary school.

Gregory’s stint overseas afforded him the privilege of experiencing the works of his architectural heroes in person. “When you go on a pilgrimage to see famous buildings by skilled architects, the learnings are much deeper than when you see pictures of them,” he says. “You’re able to take in everything in three dimensions, to touch the surfaces, to feel the weight of the building emotionally. It has an impact on your soul.”

Architecture Influencers: Gregory Katz On Who Inspired His Career
A bold contemporary home in Johannesburg designed by Gregory.

Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie and the Berlin State Library beguiled Gregory with their masterful detailing and adventurous use of materials; Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in San Diego and Phillips Exeter Academy Library blew him away with complex spatial hierarchies and use of concrete in conjunction with softer materials such as timber; and Charles and Ray Eames’s Case Study House in California was, to Gregory, a perfect example of how the architectural power couple’s understanding of the way things were made informed their design process.

Gregory believes that the future of architecture is going to look very different – not just with regards to sustainable design (he rates BV Doshi, Charles Correa and Hassan Fathy as frontrunners in this field), but also when it comes to construction methods. “I’ve based a lot of what I do in my practice around the ideas of relooking, rethinking and reinterpreting old ways of doing things,” he says. “I have a student now who’s researching how to transform fungal mycelium into building material, and another one who’s 3D-printing with mud. As architects, we can’t keep doing things the same way we always have.”

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Check out this bold contemporary home in Joburg designed by Gregory.