What I did instead of my summer vacation

By Russell A. Davidson FAIA posted 08-07-2014 11:22


I did not expect to be able to see the sun rise over the ocean this summer, especially the Indian Ocean.  As newly elected AIA President-elect-elect, I am attending the International Union of Architects (UIA) Congress and Assembly in Durban, South Africa.  In the short five weeks since the Chicago convention and election a number of new calendar entries have popped up for me, but this is a big one that quickly replaced my summer vacation.

Similar to our own convention, but in reverse, there is a three day conference followed by a business meeting.  The range and volume of programs is staggering like our own convention but the diversity of the attendees is a true eye-opener.  The variety of dress and the range of languages remind you each moment that this is a truly international gathering of Architects.  While the political and geographic challenges of each delegation are not always so easily disguised, each discussion quickly converges on the issues common to our profession.

In the welcome reception our South African hosts referenced the Architect’s obligation to accommodate the soul of the users of the building through design.  This morning’s plenary session was especially inspirational as we heard from three Architects with some unique and innovative approaches to practice.

The first presenter, Diebedo Francis Kere (Francis), Hon. FAIA, grew up in a small West African Village and as the oldest son was afforded the opportunity of an education.  Years later after attending Architectural school in Germany he maintains a practice in Berlin that allows him time and (some) money to design and build community schools and structures in his native village of Gando in Burkina Faso.  Inspired by Mies van der Rohe he mobilizes local labor to build his designs with clay and native stone.  The structural language is classical arches, vaults with elegant proportions, sensible daylight strategies and very clever passive ventilation.  Even found objects like large clay water pots are cut into rings and cast into clay walls and vaults to provide light and ventilation that is no less poetic than the openings at Corbusier’s Ronchamp.  Like many Architects across the globe, Francis works on paid commissions to afford the time and money to provide his talents to those who need it the most.

The second presenter is both an Architect and Landscape Architect, Susannah Drake, from Brooklyn, New York.  Her innovative practice makes its own projects by writing grants that fund the design and often the construction of the project.  She leads interdisciplinary teams to reclaim land in industrial zones through innovative landscape design and storm water practices.  She is proactively designing imaginative, beautiful, passive and natural approaches to redesign of the water’s edge to mitigate the effects of the rising sea levels.

The third presenter, Kjetil Traedal Thorsen, cofounder of the firm Snohetta revealed not only fantastic projects but also the process by which they are created.  By fully exploiting the dialogue between the analog and digital forms of drawing and production, the studio is able to develop each design to be the best it can be.  It was refreshing to hear of the rapid prototyping that takes place in the office, essentially model-building, with some new tools that tests designs quickly as they are developing.  At one point in his talk, he cautiously worried that there might be some clients in the room when he said his most important project is Snohetta itself.  They work in a “social-democratic” model or a truly non-hierarchical collaborative model. It is evident from his passion and the firm’s growing portfolio of fantastic work that whatever they are doing, it is working.

That was just the morning session, the day went on with many more seminars and panel discussions.  It is winter here so the sun set early over the African continent.  Even though there are different backgrounds, or maybe even because of them, there is no disagreement here on the high degree of relevance and value of what Architects do around the globe.