Architecture Influencers: Yasmin Mayat

WORDS Jo Buitenbach PHOTOS Getty Images, Supplied

Ever wondered what inspires our current generation of architects? For Johannesburg-based Yasmin Mayat, it’s not only who but also what, with inspiration coming from the city she loves and from South Africa’s complicated past.

Author LP Harley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So how does South Africa, a country with such a complicated history, begin to grapple with and understand its past and heritage? As an architect, heritage consultant and Wits lecturer, Yasmin Mayat ponders this question often, specifically in relation to space, design and urbanism. “It’s important to be cognisant of our past and our history – and not just the nice side of history, but also our inherited trauma,” she says. “I think what’s important about heritage is that it’s interlinked with who we are, our identity and what makes us who we are today. Without it, we would be lost.”

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After studying architecture and doing a master’s degree in conservation of the built environment, Yasmin and her husband Brendan Hart started their Joburg practice, Mayat Hart Architects & Heritage Consultants, in early 2012. They focus on both design and heritage. “What’s great is having an opportunity to not only work on new and contemporary buildings, but to also get the option of retrofitting older buildings and try to give them a new life, whether that’s just a newer intervention or even restoration work,” Yasmin says. One such project is Aiton Court. Located in Hillbrow, the Le Corbusier-inspired apartment block was designed in 1938. In the 1980s, it was one of the first buildings to break apartheid segregation laws. After a period of being illegally occupied, it was turned into affordable rental housing for lower-income residents – and the duo were part of that. Yasmin says she is immensely proud of the complex project. “We were able to rehabilitate it, and it actually won the Docomomo International award for rehabilitation,” she says. “We were also able to also use it as a teaching tool, so students got to interact with it.”

Yasmin Mayat
SESC Pompéia in São Paulo, Brazil is an adaptive-reuse project by one of Modernism’s best-known architects, Lina Bo Bardi, whose work was an inspiration to Yasmin in her formative years.

The Joburg creative finds it difficult to pinpoint just one architect who’s influenced her work – many favourites, including landscape architects and several South African mid-century modernists, make that list. She does, however, explain that some of her formative inspirations were Geoffrey Bawa, Charles Correa, Luis Barragán and Lina Bo Bardi. “They were modern architects for their time, with such an energy to them,” she says. “But they were all about place and architecture that is relevant to its context. They were true to themselves, and true to their identity and their heritage.”

Yasmin Mayat
Another of Yasmin’s influences is Charles Correa, the Indian architect, urban planner, activist and theoretician.

Mexico’s Luis Barragán was known for revolutionising architecture in his home country. He was also acclaimed for using lively block colours and establishing beautifully landscaped gardens. Yasmin is particularly fond of Casa Luiz Barragán, built in 1948 in Mexico City. The UNESCO recognised house is a masterpiece in the development of the modern movement. She also admires Indian architect and urban planner Charles Correa’s work – the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in particular. The simple and modern memorial museum, located at the ashram where Mahatma Gandhi lived, was completed in 1963, and aimed to be an expression of swadeshi – a self sufficiency movement central to Indian independence.

In 2018, Mayat Hart Architects were tasked with the upgrade of the SS Mendi Memorial at the Avalon Cemetery. The memorial pays tribute to 607 black South Africans, all members of the South African Native Labour Corps, who were killed when their ship sank on the way to France in 1917. For Yasmin, this project was incredibly significant “because of its dark history in South Africa as well as its context within a cemetery. We were trying to create a memorial space that wasn’t just about the event, but that had a more interactive element to it”. The finished project is an unassuming structure that educates and adds context – but it can also be walked through or sat in for quiet contemplation.

Yasmin’s greatest muse by far is the City of Gold. “Johannesburg has always been the backdrop of our design and practice,” she says. “It’s an ever-changing city, so there is always something new happening and something new to learn, which has a big impact on our research and our work.” She also thinks that growing up in the historic Fordsburg area on the western outskirts of the inner city was key. “Having that juxtaposition of old and new from my childhood has been formative,” she explains. “Both my parents grew up in the city, and I think both their experiences and how they navigated them have definitely influenced me.”

And whether she’s designing a new home or restoring a dilapidated old building, for Yasmin, “Good design isn’t architecture with a capital A.” Rather, it’s about “the quiet interventions that we can implement – it’s the seamless projects that we can add to a building, or when we can create or design something to enhance the experience, allowing the building to speak first.”

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