Influencer: Mokena Makeka

WORDS Annette Klinger

Ever wondered who inspires our current generation of architects? For the lauded Cape Town architect and urbanist Mokena Makeka, experiencing the work of the late Modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in person struck a deep emotional chord.

As far as plum assignments go, Mokena Makeka has been blessed with the best. In his almost 20 years as owner and director of Makeka Design Lab, he has worked on both Cape Town International Convention Centres, the Cape Town railway station renovation and, most recently, the V&A

Waterfront’s Silo District. There have also been the less high- profile but equally important public works – like the Retreat Railway Police Station and the Thusong Service Centre in Khayelitsha – which have managed to imbue worth into spaces that had been previously disregarded.

mokena mokeka
Architect Mokena Makeka.

“The Cape Town of today is very different to the one I remember from 1994,” says Mokena. “At one level, it was a beautiful city – and at another level, it was very ugly and divided.” The child of a diplomat, Mokena spent his childhood shuttling between Lesotho and the US. He remembers feeling dwarfed by the sheer scale of landmarks such as the old World Trade Center in New York and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He also remembers being struck by the fact that, despite its mountainous beauty, there were few trees in Maseru, and his father telling him that it was because people needed firewood.

In 1995, Mokena enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in architectural studies at UCT, where he was taught by industry greats, including the late Paul Righini, Julian Cooke, Matthew Barrack, Anya van der Merwe Miszewski and Rafael Marks. “I’m definitely a product of my teachers,” says Mokena. “A moment that transformed my entire career was when I handed in a project during my first year, and one of my lecturers told me, ‘I know you can do better.’

After that, I never looked back.” Working as a young architect within the context of a newly democratic South Africa, Mokena drew a lot of inspiration from Constructivism. “We were a new country, so we were in the process of inventing who we were,” says Mokena. “I found it very similar to what happened following the fall of the tsars in the Russian empire, when Russians went on this incredible journey to reinvent themselves and construct a new society.

Architects like El Lissitzky were very thoughtful about the role of public architecture, because prior to that, architecture had been the preserve of the rich. If you think of South Africa, and how the majority of South Africans hadn’t had access to dignified public environments, it made sense for me to learn from the way in which the Russians were constructing their society.”

Stylistically, the work of German-born Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and American experimental architect and artist Lebbeus Woods speak to different facets of Mokena’s aesthetic sensibilities: Mies’s for its economy of design, and Woods’s for its surrealist emotionality. “Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion literally brought me to tears,” says Mokena. “It’s a series of floating planes, but he was also designing the space between the planes.

I think, sometimes, architects try too hard, just throwing a lot of stuff at the design – and that’s often because they are battling to design the space. So they design the object instead… I think true architects design space – and the object creates the space.”

Looking for more architectural inspiration? Discover what inspires André Eksteen and Braam de Villiers from Earthworld Architects.