ARCHITECT Luyanda Mpahlwa’s first work at the drawing board in Cape Town was in the early 1980s – though he didn’t have a practice then and his formal qualification was years away and at the other end of the globe.
It was doubtless against the odds he had a drawing board at all in 1983; the trainee Mpahlwa’s “studio” at the time was a cell on Robben Island. The tall, urbane Berlin-trained architect and director of the award-winning Design Space Africa practice in a stylishly refitted warehouse on Alfred Street, near the V&A Waterfront, has the satisfaction of looking back from a vantage of no modest stature on the beginnings of a career that must at times have seemed improbable.
It appears to have been driven by a kind of intuition. His 87-year-old mother, Laura, still living in the family home in Mthatha, would no doubt agree. Mpahlwa’s father Maxwell’s hope was that his son would go into engineering, a career the businessman and former Latin and English teacher believed a future South Africa’s needs would match. His mother had other ideas.
“I wasn’t sure at all, typically for a guy who’s just matriculated,” Mpahlwa said this week. “I really didn’t know. But my mother reminded me how I’d used to draw houses on my slate and always show them to her. So she said: ‘Why not architecture?’ “
That settled it. She secured a year’s internship for him at the local office of Osmond Lange and in 1978, two years after matriculating at St John’s College, he enrolled – with a special dispensation from Pretoria – as an architecture student at the then-University of Natal. His first year – hobbled as he was by off-campus living arrangements (commuting four hours a day) and a crippling unfamiliarity with model-making and technical drawing – was a “dismal failure”.
He might have packed it in were it not for the advice of his thoughtful studio master, Errol Haarhoff, who evidently saw the student’s potential. He urged Mpahlwa to switch to a diploma course at Durban Technikon. After another year at home – working again at Osmond Lange – Mpahlwa returned to KwaZulu-Natal. His first year went well – he acknowledges in particular the encouragement, a “real boost”, of his new studio master Alaric Napier – but in the course of his second year he became politically active, along with a number of like-minded young lawyers.
Their dissident activity earned security police attention, however, and Mpahlwa and his friends were rounded up on suspicion of running a terrorist cell.
When he and some others, including democratic South Africa’s first director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, refused to give evidence against one of their comrades, the late Judge Patrick Maqubela (murdered by his wife in 2009), they were given stiff sentences, apparently to deter such displays of loyalty.
Mpahlwa’s five-year stint on Robben Island – quite apart from the opportunity to do his drawings in his cell and complete his diploma – was salutary; the young firebrands were exposed to a more considered island tradition of political analysis and tolerance and a grounding in the imperatives of reconciliation, justice and learning.
“There were many different lessons from the island and at a human level, too – including the relationships we had with our warders,” he recalled.
When he was released in 1986 and banished to Mthatha, however, the future seemed doubtful.
“Nothing stopped my desire to be an architect,” he recalled. But what was to be done? Through friends in Germany and with the assistance of Amnesty International, he clandestinely left the then-Transkei for Botswana and flew from there – on a South African passport – to Berlin.
It would be a life-changing experience. He spent 1987 mastering German and the next year completing A-levels, enrolling at the start of 1989 as an architecture student at Berlin’s Technische Universität, emerging six years later with a master’s degree. His thesis was on the transformation of Robben Island into an international centre of peace.
Studying abroad made all the difference.
“I came to an environment, in a foreign country, a foreign language, where my abilities were not being questioned. This was very important for my self-belief and my personal development towards being the architect I became.”
One of the virtues of being in Berlin in the 1980s and 1990s was his exposure to the opportunities created by the dynamism of Germany’s transformation – the unification of east and west after the fall of the Iron Curtain – and the personalities drawn to the city. (In 1995, he also met his wife-to-be, Stuttgart-born Uli, a co-practitioner at Design Space Africa today, who was at the time studying architecture at Berlin’s Academy of Arts – and later did a postgraduate degree in urban design at UCT.)
Among other things, Mpahlwa found time to sideline as “a World Music DJ”, bringing African sounds to lively parties and dance venues. As an architect, however, his Berlin days exposed him to an international scene, influences and friendships that have grown since.
In the late 1990s, freshly graduated, Mpahlwa also had the good fortune to be part of the team that created South Africa’s new embassy on Berlin’s Tiergartenstrasse.
In the same period, he worked with the team that designed no fewer than five Nordic embassies in the German capital. Later, his Cape Town practice built the South African embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Place-making at home, though, remained his lodestar. He returned to South Africa in 2000 and has steadily grown his practice – deliberately representative of the whole city community – in the years since, taking on projects ranging from housing to sports centres, schools to railway stations and picking up awards and acclaim along the way.
A just-completed two-year 50-school project in the Eastern Cape – the team created a “kit-of-parts” modular design of discrete human-scale buildings encircling a courtyard, which could be adapted to widely divergent hilltop or valley sites – is the subject of a major international exhibition in Europe this year.
It’s no surprise Mpahlwa brings to his practice the lessons and insights of his early years, not least his time on Robben Island. His idealism, he said, was undiminished.
“You cannot go through that and be complacent – reconciliation, tolerance, serious political thought and an understanding that the Struggle was not about race, but a better future. I regret that much of that has been lost… for so many, now, it’s just about power and position.
“But I still live by it. I am an architect, I didn’t go the political route – but I have chosen to operate in the context of improving conditions in the sphere of my activity and knowledge. It’s not about glamour, it’s mostly about social issues.”
Cities, he said, “are not made up of buildings, but spaces”.
“Maybe we can do great cities, but we can also mess up, thinking we know it all, thinking we can leave people out of the process.”
It is precisely this modus that earned Mpahlwa’s practice an international award for a 10-unit pilot project in Freedom Park, Mitchells Plain, where the team created multistorey homes whose plastered walls are made of sandbags. The project represented an alternative to soulless ranks of RDP housing in more ways than one.
Part of the innovation was having beneficiaries help in the building process.
“We forget about sweat equity. It makes a big difference when people have a stake in what they have helped to make. And we have forgotten that people build their own houses in this country,” he said.
“You know,” he added, “there is no Xhosa word for architecture.”