Emerging Creative: Jaun van Wyk

INTERVIEWED BY Malibongwe Tyilo

According to architect Jaun van Wyk, architecture today is fast becoming little more than a rigorous process comparable to those precise methodologies followed by engineers, scientists and mathematicians, rather than the innovation of artists and designers.

Jaun himself has a passion for the confluence of architecture, art and design. At just 26-years-old, his passion and drive has seen him work with various internationally commended architectural practices in France, The Netherlands and the USA, including the internationally acclaimed Studio Odile Decq, Gallery Polaris, Gallery Oniris, Dus Architects and the Southern California Institute For Architecture. Locally, he has worked with Johannesburg-based Daffonchio and Associates as well as Propertuity, the developers behind the Maboneng Precinct. Since his return to the country he has worked with internationally commended and award-winning SA architectural practice, SAOTA. However, Jaun is still driven by his passion to reinstate the architect as a creative individual above all else, a passion that saw him selected as one of the 40 talents whose work was exhibited this year as part of Design Indaba’s Emerging Creatives programme.

On a practical level, what does it mean to bring art into architecture?

It’s not quite that literal, like showcasing architecture in a gallery. It is more about the role of architects today, and understanding that architecture as primarily an art form, the architect’s artistic expression. Similar to conventional fine arts, where an artist would express himself using a canvas or paper, we [architects] use the built form to express ourselves. Thus, I’m advocating for architects to reclaim their role as artist, especially now, as what we’re facing today in South Africa is an extremely conservative industry, coupled with extremely conservative clients, which makes the process of making architecture nothing more than a rigorous – and quite mundane – process.

With regards to SA then, where would you say the opportunities lie for innovative architecture?

When we compare art and architecture, we find that with art there is often an underlying message that the artist is trying to convey. Likewise, architects today should incorporate similar concepts and comment on the urban environment, the zeitgeist, whether it be social, political or economical. These would subsequently inform and ultimately drive the morphology and typology of the building. This is where I find myself today, in that I’m creating small interventions carrying significant messages. The long-term plan is of course manifesting these small interventions on a much larger scale.

Please talk us through the project you exhibited at Design Indaba. [pictures above]

The work was part of my dissertation, a commentary on the current zeitgeist, which is that of continued cycles of violence. I wanted to design something which would not only comment on the current state of violence, especially in Cape Town which has the highest prevalence of violence in the country, but would attempt at addressing violence and its subsequent ramifications. I started my research from post-apartheid, looking at the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) through to current research on the subject matter conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR). I found their research quite interesting and thought provoking and wanted to create a building that would not only house this research but showcase it in a kind of sensory manner.

I proposed constructing this building on Cape Town’s Foreshore – a site which is now intended for yet another office block – close to the V&A Waterfront. I proposed this site keeping in mind resistance art and how these highly controversial artworks where showcased in opulent galleries worldwide. In a similar fashion I saw the proposed building as quite controversial and the Waterfront my gallery, exposed for the world to see.

You’re a young architect, at 26. Is there enough of a space or opportunities for young architects to propose and be awarded projects of that scale?

Not a lot, especially in South Africa, and Cape Town specifically. There are no competitions, which I believe would help drive innovation. If you have competitions that are open to any architect to participate you would end up with a result that is highly creative and innovative, and unfortunately we don’t have that kind of system.

How have you negotiated the challenges you have to deal with as a young architect so that you create the space to show and exhibit some of the work you’ve shown here and abroad?

It is extremely difficult to establish yourself as a credible architect, especially if you are young. The traditional route would be to work for an acclaimed office, build up a reputable portfolio and hopefully, after years of experience, be deemed creditable because you’re considered to be ‘of age’. Early in my architectural career I made a conscious decision to rebel against these traditional and conservative constraints. In my opinion, innovation and creativity don’t come with age or experience. In fact, as a young architect, I have far fewer limitations and constraints than corporates. I can take on whichever project I want and express myself however I want.

Has you work been well received?

It hasn’t always been received well and I’ve had a lot of criticism, at times for being too daring. I’ve just stuck with it and slowly but surely it’s coming to a point where people can truly appreciate my work because it is different, it is innovative, it provokes questions, and it raises certain concerns with today’s architecture or what we see out there.

In terms of what you have planned for the near future, how are you going to deal with these challenges in order to push through your point of view?

At this stage, I’m relooking the way in which I portray my work and clearly defining the services that I provide, so that it might be more comprehensible and accessible to the general public. In this sense, I’m building my business as more of an ‘ideas farm’ rather than an architectural practice, where the main focus would be the first three stages of development: (1) Appraisal and Definition, where we’d first engage with clients and determine their vision and requirements for the project, (2) Design Concept, where we’d respond to the latter and propose a conceptual solution that meets the client’s requests, and (3) Design Development, where we’d take that concept and develop it thoroughly, together with a team of consultants.

Is this something you’re developing while you’re fully employed?

Yes, because of the nature of my project it’s not in conflict with my job, which focuses more on high-end residential work.

Yes, your work comes across as leaning more towards the institutional.

Definitely, I find there is more opportunity for a stronger message in institutional buildings. I find the idea of working with museums or galleries far more appealing than working on a house. That’s not to discard houses, but for the time being, I am much more fascinated by institutions.

View more of Jaun’s work at jaunvanwyk.com.