Buildings can help to unleash energy and heal Cape Town, says Mokena Mokeka

Mokena Mokeka’s strength in architectural design is matched only by his opinions on the subject. He sees himself as a “provocateur”, someone who asks “why not?” and “what if?”

What is your background?

I was born in the Eastern Cape on the border of Lesotho. I went to junior school in New York, high school in Lesotho, and university in Cape Town. I’ve lived in Cape Town since 1994. My passion for architecture began at UCT when, in our first lesson, we went to a building and were asked to hold hands and run around in a circle. The artistic nature of architecture told me “this is it, this is home”.

I was studying something where I could use all my talents and experience and personality – and be productive with it. I wasn’t schizophrenic in that I had to shut off a part of myself. Because architecture touches everyday life, you can be inspired by anything around you. It is as wide as you want it to be.

Do you consider yourself a leader?

I see myself as more of a provocateur, a commentator; more of a voice of an alternative consciousness, someone who asks “why not?” and “what if?” In some instances that allows discussions to develop and processes that have leadership elements to it, but it’s not about me trying explicitly to lead. Rather I’m trying to instigate a process.

The notion of leadership in this country is poorly defined, for I think we confuse authority with leadership. True leadership comes about through the ability to influence and make things happen in a positive way that people engage with. Because if it’s not positive, it’s bullying. Authoritative decisions whereby I tell you to do this and it gets done; that doesn’t mean that leadership has been displayed.

I’m interested in the idea of “adaptive leadership” in this country. Public participation in building (housing projects) is a perfect example of where leadership and leadership styles become an issue. As an architect I’m trained in human development issues, I understand housing and informal settlements and how to get it to work. But if you’re dealing with a community of 60 people who are less informed than you, you can abuse that position of leadership. You can just give people what you have told them that they want.

“Adaptive leadership” means engaging with the community to empower the people there, and having the foresight to recognise that people aren’t going to be satisfied with the very thing they wanted once it’s done. It’s about listening and anticipating – knowing when to intervene. Not having a blunt tool and saying “I’m a leader and we must do this”. People will follow a leader if they trust that he or she is thinking about the things that they are not thinking about. Leadership is a stylistic issue. It’s inclusive. It makes people want to be better than who they are.

One of your first projects was a police station in Retreat. Your brief was to build a “fortress”, but you built a modest building praised for the way in which it almost invites the community inside. Tell us about that.

The most efficient societies are self-policing, and the police are needed only for extraordinary things. When things collapse, and someone is suffering the psychological damage of having to go into a police station and report their trauma, the architecture of the building has a big impact on that person. So I explained to the police officer (my client) how building a fortress would only create more problems from a phenomenological and social perspective.

Buildings are not just brick and mortar. They are symbols; they are metaphors. You won’t find a strip club in a cathedral. The building’s form tells you what is inside it. The nature of architecture is that it subliminally gives you signals on how to behave. So if you want to build a police station that is for the safety of the community, the symbol of the building needs to communicate that. If the police build a fortress that projects an image that we are in a “state of fear”, then what will society think? So we need the police to project an image of self-confidence and courage.

Seeing as it was one of my first jobs I had insecurities and was initially trying to please the client. But pleasing the client isn’t necessarily good leadership. I could’ve taken the brief and built a fortress, but that wouldn’t have demonstrated the type of leadership that was required – which was to take the client from Point A, catapult them to Point B, and help them evolve through the process while also creating a building that allows other people to see the police differently.

South African architecture?

A lot of our public buildings remind me of Eastern Europe: made of hard-wearing materials, functionalist, minimalist, inhumane, almost cruel buildings that have been stripped down to their narrowest function. We have a culture of fear, and not yet a culture of celebration. Take a place like Rio, for example; their museums and libraries are inviting from a distance. The human dimension comes through more. Here we have a past culture that was highly militarised and highly functional, almost dispassionate. Part of apartheid’s subtext and legacy is that people were seen as numbers and objects, and our buildings reflect that.

Of all the arts, architecture is the slowest. Fashions come and go, food appreciation can change quickly, and the appreciation of art can also vary. Buildings are the slowest marker of societal change, which also makes it the most important.

A building’s symbols and the use of space in a city are important; if you get that right, it can work for 100 years.

In Cape Town we have the opposite: a city that is still highly divided, with very particular social groupings that continue to replicate themselves because of how they were designed. Even though the laws changed in 1994. We have a macro problem: how do our cities work in terms of you and me interacting? Do the blacks retreat to their ghettos and the whites to their suburbs? Where is the interface? Public buildings are the most important passive way to get people into conversation. We need to examine more closely how our environment affects our behaviour. It informs how we eat, how we spend, how we live.

Responsibility?

I believe every person in whatever it is they are doing should be making a positive imprint on the people around them. With my architecture I’ve tried not to take the path of least resistance and just make as much money as possible. I try to make buildings that make a difference to society.

Right now we are in a transitional period, and we’re busy creating a space for the next generation to enjoy what it means to be a South African. I knock my head very often, people disagree with me, and my office doesn’t work very well financially, but I’ve accepted that it’s my time and place to open the way for others.

I understand what design and architecture can do to help society and I’m highly sensitive to the racial fractures in this country. Cape Town is a beautiful place that is filled with a lot of sadness. There’s a lot of healing to be done, and creatives can help this healing process by being leaders. There’s so much energy and spirit within us as people. Architecture can unleash or repress that.

l Justin Nurse is a freelance journalist and founder of Laugh It Off.