Architecture Influencers: Luyanda Mpahlwa

Architecture Influencers: Luyanda Mpahlwa

WORDS Annette Klinger PHOTOS Supplied

Ever wondered who our current generation of architects looks up to? For the director of Design Space Africa, the socially centred designs of Renzo Piano, Diébédo Francis Kéré and Charles Correa continue to inspire.

As a young boy growing up in the 1960s in the former homeland of the Transkei, Luyanda Mpahlwa loved drawing houses. It was something he’d completely forgotten about by the time he’d reached his matric year in 1976, when it was time to make the critical decision about what he wanted to do with his life. “My father was an English and Latin teacher, and wanted his three sons and daughter to study engineering, because that’s where he thought the future of the country lay,” says Luyanda. “But my mother, a nurse, remembered that I used to love drawing houses, so she managed to get me an internship at what was, at the time, the only white architectural firm in Umtata, Osmond Lange. In the same year, the Transkei received its so-called independence, and the Soweto uprisings were happening. My politicisation started then.”

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Two years later, after a gap year during which he had to wait for permission from South Africa’s Minister of Education to attend a white university, Luyanda was accepted at the former University of Natal. “Given the Group Areas Act, we weren’t allowed in residences on campus and could only stay at the Alan Taylor Residence for black medical students in the Austerville township,” he says. “It took two hours every day to travel to varsity and back on public transport, hitch-hiking part of the way, because there was no university bus system. Given the nature of architecture studies – working all-nighters, building models, needing photocopying facilities – this arrangement was designed for failure for the first group of black students allowed to study.” Logistical obstacles aside, the actual learning environment itself was also far from nurturing, with racist preconceptions among lecturers towards black students being the norm. “My first year was a disaster, and I failed.”

Luyanda Mpahlwa
Luyanda cites Piano’s Fondation Beyeler museum in Basel as informing his understanding of space and scale.

It was only when he reached the Technikon Natal two years later that Luyanda’s confidence in his own abilities was restored. “I enrolled in 1980 as the first and only black student that year,” says Luyanda. “Our studio master, Alaric Napier, recognised my capabilities and supported me. He encouraged the white students to look at my work, and this contributed to the cohesion of my class, which to this day has maintained a relationship, even though we’re spread all over the world.”

Luyanda Mpahlwa
Tthe embassy in Berlin was the first major commission by the South African government.

During Luyanda’s final exams in 1981, he was arrested by the police to provide state evidence against three peers accused of high treason. “I could not associate myself with being a state witness when I was not regarded a citizen of South Africa,” he says. “I took the principled position that I wouldn’t be part of the implementation of apartheid policies, and therefore, I essentially chose to go to prison.”

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After serving a sentence of five years on Robben Island, Luyanda got in touch with Amnesty International and was sent to the former West Germany, where he spent three years learning German and getting his German A-levels, before being accepted to do his master’s in architecture at the Technical University of Berlin in 1989. “I was in Berlin at the time of unification, after the Wall had come down,” says Luyanda. “There was this large area of ‘no-man’s land’ between the East and the West, where it used to stand. Berlin launched an architectural competition to design what would become Potsdamer Platz to occupy this space. It ended up being won by one of my favourite architects, Renzo Piano; then, architects from all over the world were invited to do projects there, including Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. It was an exciting time to be there as a young architect.”

Luyanda Mpahlwa
The interior of the South African embassy in Berlin incorporates motifs that were hand-carved by a team of female artisans.

Piano’s work has remained an inspiration throughout Luyanda’s 25-year architectural career, which has been a balance between public works such as the award-winning South African embassy in Berlin, NGO endeavours like his “50 Schools in 50 Weeks” project in the rural Eastern Cape, and commercial buildings including the Radisson Red hotel in Cape Town’s Silo District. “What interests me is that Renzo works at different scales: small design projects, mega buildings, and urban design,” says Luyanda.

Luyanda Mpahlwa
Luyanda’s “50 Schools in 50 Weeks” project replaced mud schools in the rural Eastern Cape with campuses based on an easily adaptable “kit of parts” concept.

“One of his projects that impressed me is the Fondation Beyeler museum in Basel. It’s a simple, well-designed red sandstone building in a park-like setting, designed to human scale but with an extended roof that shades the generously glazed facade openings to allow natural light selectively from the sides and top. It really inspired my understanding of architecture in terms of space, transparency, scale, and the relationship between interior and exterior.”

Luyanda Mpahlwa
His approach to the Design Indaba 10×10 Low-cost Housing Project earned him a Curry Stone Prize for humanitarian design.

Luyanda has always maintained that architecture should be a socially inclusive practice, referencing and respecting the local culture of its future occupants. Perhaps the best expression of this ideology is his much lauded Design Indaba 10×10 Low-cost Housing Project in the informal settlement of Freedom Park in Cape Town’s Mitchell’s Plain, where double-storey houses were constructed by erecting timber frames and filling the wall cavities with stacked bags filled with sand – a material there’s no shortage of in the area, and which has the added benefit of being fire-retardant. Future residents were given a sense of ownership by helping to fill the sandbags of their homes, and the design was such that they had the option of extending their properties in future.

Luyanda Mpahlwa

Luyanda cites Indian architect Charles Correa’s socially oriented design of (especially) low-cost housing and Burkina Faso’s Diébédo Francis Kéré (whose primary school in rural Gando was built with the community using local materials and traditional building techniques interpreted in contemporary design) as inspirational peers in the realm of social design. “There’s a lot to be said about working as a professional with ordinary people, actually relating to the way they live and work, and not imposing yourself by saying you’ve got all the answers,” he says. “Architecture requires a participatory approach.”

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