Stop for a moment. Look around you. What do you see? Space, and the objects that fill that space? We walk past them daily. We inhabit them. We engage with them absentmindedly. We start to take them for granted. The objects. The buildings. And everything in between. Architectural design is the most beautiful thing when it does not impose itself yet serves as a character in our lives, when it blends seamlessly into our world. Leading global architect Sir David Adjaye said, “Architecture has to be attentive to its inhabitants and to its place.”
Architecture, and design in general, is about humanity and human beings. Those who do it well do so from that perspective. For Cape Town-based architect and designer, and founder of Makeka Designs, Mokena Makeka, architecture is “actually about conversations. Sometimes we walk into a room and we are challenged by the level of conversation. We find ourselves unsettled, we interject, we find our arguments challenged. This is great architecture. Sometimes we walk into a room, and the conversation is thin, coarse, perhaps even dismissive of our potential. It is stilted, concealed, condescending. Sly eyes give discourteous glances and whisper hurtful words - this is the architecture of pessimism, and actual disinterest with what we are and who we want to be.”
He goes on to say, “Sometimes the room is charged with energy, like a courtroom or a classroom. Power literally drips from the walls; we need to be on our guard. Sometimes the room places us far away from the action but elevates our role as spectators. Here the conversation is about controlling our experience - think of a stadium or a theatre. What makes architecture amazing is not the stuff you touch, see or feel. It’s the manipulation of human behaviour in space. For example, when you enter a cathedral, it’s designed to make you revere and be aware of sound; or the design of a hotel foyer which communicates ‘welcome’. It’s about smart conversations without words.”
This applies to the outside of things but equally to what's inside, the soul. Daniella Salguiero, an interior architect with Savile Row, takes it a step further. When asked to define interior design, she says, “It depends from person to person. I studied interior architecture in varsity, and we started off with those studying architecture, learning its foundation and then branching off into a different direction to elements like ergonomics, material studies (textiles, temporary and lightweight materials), etc. We deal with the structure of things, exploring space planning, interior design and interior decorations.”
With a hotel refurbishment project in Botswana, she was dealing with a building that had been in operation for many years. The whole building was gutted, the furniture removed, ceilings and services, taken out, leaving just the structure, the shell. They then completely redesigned the interior, firstly to create a better customer experience and, secondly, to enhance the staff experience and, therefore, the productivity of the business.
I always wanted to be an architect but I was intrigued by the level of detail you go into with interior architecture and I enjoy the human factor involved in it.
What drew Salguiero to interior architecture was the sensory nature of the work. She says, “To be honest, I did not know it existed until I went to an open day at Tuks (University of Pretoria). I always wanted to be an architect but I was intrigued by the level of detail you go into with interior architecture and I enjoy the human factor involved in it. We work with the architect right from the start to figure out what the interior will look like. For an office, such as for a multinational, we make sure that the interior takes into consideration the country’s climate, traditions, and so on. We will have a work survey, engage in detail with the client, gather data on how the office is working and what is not working. We contextualise the interior.”
For a new client, Savile Row Interiors will go into presentations with the primary objective of understanding the brand, its standards, what it is about and what images represent the company. For example, they will show different types of suits or cars or colours and gauge which represent the client best. For instance, an SUV is multi-faceted whereas a sedan could be about luxury and comfort.
It is this nuanced understanding that enables architects to create spaces that allow people to flourish within them. When Makeka is working with a client, his approach is to “listen to what is being said and what is not being said. To have fun with my client. Surprise them. Don’t just do what you were asked, nurture discovery. I watch movies. Rap lyrics sometimes inspire my thinking. Politics. Dreaming. And daring. And doing.”
He sees architecture as an esoteric discipline within which philosophy, poetry and mathematics are of equal importance. What appeals to him about the field and why he both studied it and pursues it as a profession is that “it is about a visual language with a global vocabulary. In the way that hip-hop breaks down and then reassembles language into something familiar and new, really good architecture has the same effect.”
He goes on, “I was illiterate in a manner of speaking until I began to understand architecture. Much like listening to classical music or jazz for the first time, it takes time for the body, mind, and soul to appreciate the art. I love its depth. I found engineering so easy it bored me. Architecture is endless like music.”
Both Makeka and Salgueiro feel that there is a lack of understanding that gets in the way of their being able to do their work effectively. Salgueiro sees the greatest misconception as interior architecture being easy when, in reality, space planning can be one of the hardest parts of the work. A client comes with figures around different elements from cost to, for example, the size of desks, without taking into consideration ergonomics, ease of use, or space for something as simple as a chair in a particular section of the building.
Makeka reinforces this with a wonderful analogy, that building is to architecture like drinking nectar is to warm water. Both are liquids but they are not the same. Another misconception is that cost and value are the same thing, with the consequence is that you lose a lot of value when trying to save costs.
Adding value is of utmost importance. Salgueiro says, “I am most proud of the hotel refurbishment in Botswana. I was thrown into the deep end and yet we were able to add true value to the space. In a building in the hospitality industry, you get to see the end result in a real way. The most rewarding thing was being able to actually experience the space and seeing other people enjoying it.”
Her dream project would be the design of an island resort, from start to finish. “With an island resort, there is nothing there when you start. You have to cover everything from the basics of getting materials and other resources there, such as something as simple as food and also the people to work. In South Africa, we often take these things for granted. Logistically, it is the ultimate challenge.”
Makeka finds that cultural and public projects gravitate towards him and he loves all design - except shopping malls! The important thing is for him to learn and to be involved in projects that allow for his artistic journey to add value. “If it’s a building you want; it’s far better to get a builder or a handyman. I live for the poetry, not just the making.” He continues, “I still want to do so much. Furniture and lighting. Bags. Shoes. A sneaker collaboration would be awesome. A new house of parliament for South Africa. A proper cemetery for Maseru, Lesotho; there are no layouts and no logic. I would love to convert Greenpoint Park into an 18-hour facility. Create urban lakes. Bring food production back into cities.”
Architecture is about humanity and human beings. It is about the way we live and the way we love. And it is about us being bold, brave and unafraid to follow a vision that we may not understand but are excited to see unveiled. No meaningful design has ever emerged without trust and it is about us empowering and trusting those who create that design. With that, the world and the spaces we inhabit will be better for it.
I was illiterate in a manner of speaking until I began to understand architecture. Much like listening to classical music or jazz for the first time, it takes time for the body, mind, and soul to appreciate the art. ...Architecture is endless like music.