Hello, my name is Jake Taylor. I am in my final year of the Master of Architecture course at the University of Melbourne and was given the opportunity this summer to attend a travelling studio to Pretoria, South Africa. The subject was coordinated by Elena Bondareva and Dominique Hes from Melbourne, together with Chrisna du Plessis of the University of Pretoria. It had a multi-disciplinary approach that included a mix of students from architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture and research backgrounds, all taking part in a two week overseas charrette on steroids. Our aim was to generate context-appropriate sustainability interventions in an a city experiencing dynamic social and environmental transition through a fusion of multimedia, design, foresight and venture development.
The studio started in November and initially consisted of discussion on an online blog where everyone was required to contribute extensively to break the ice and get ideas and dialogue flowing within the group. This impersonal method was complimented with organised social interactions, namely an evening at Joost Silo and a VEIL eco-acupuncture workshop day.
The majority of the workload occurred overseas while in the midst of our case site, Pretoria’s central business district. Upon my arrival, it took me by surprise how stark, deserted and unsought after the CBD is. The area has struggled since the fall of apartheid, with property value plummeting and all wealth in the area shifting to gated communities in the eastern suburbs. These changes have left behind a highly developed but abandoned region, with significant issues of crime and security. On our first night in Pretoria, I was to hear that most of the local students participating in the studio had never before been into the CBD at night.
After touching down in Pretoria the first two days were a massive blur. There was so much valuable information, so many new faces, so much activity that bombarded us all at once. This hectic ethos was a continual part of whole trip. It was frantic but enjoyable from day one to day thirteen. After these first two days, we had developed a base knowledge of the area, an idea of the needs of the site and an understanding of our colleagues.
We then split into small groups of three to five students to complete the project. The group selection was left up to us to allocate, which was one of the more nerve-wracking aspects of the whole trip. We were required to quickly talk to ten different people and identify whom we felt linked in well with what we were hoping to do. I started this process, but soon realised that I wanted more than just a quick chat. I really wanted to know why people had come up with their concepts and what their way of thinking was, as I was about to spend a pretty intense ten days with them studying and wanted to get it right. In the end, I only really spoke with two people. Both eventually formed a crucial part of my group of four Melbourne and one Pretoria students, so I felt it was time well spent.
Within our group we had an amazing array of backgrounds and skills that helped us immensely: from architecture, to industrial design to students with construction and commerce credentials, and a touch of agriculture to round the group out. This diversity wasn’t limited to just my group: the whole studio benefited from a great blend of interests coming from every food group. The four research students, who were conducting their own research projects in Pretoria, mingled with all the groups and contributed invaluable insight. I had never experienced such a mix of disciplines in my university work before, which made me a little envious and saddened that it had take four years of study to be exposed to this kind of collaboration. I think architecture students and the professional in general would greatly benefit from the introduction of more cross-department subjects as they really open up other world views that improves everyone involved.
Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the studio, each group possessed different skill sets lead to a diverse range of projects. These included a project that focussed on the revitalisation of the waterways and water quality of Pretoria; one that attempted to prompt spontaneous conversation within the city to dismantle barriers to social cohesiveness; another that looked at ways in which local skills and crafts might be reinvigorated for economic and social benefit; and one that activated the roof spaces within the CBD through a modular plant and occupation system. My group’s project looked to improve the street quality and retail opportunity along Paul Kruger Street by establishing a formalised market environment.
The studio ran flawlessly apart from the occasional memorable incident such as our van breaking down (where the headlights of the twelve-seater van were accidentally left on at one of our stops and we were required to push start it to continue with our tour). I feel the success of the studio was due to its balance of people, interests and activities. For instance, half of our time was spent in fast-paced Pretoria and half in the serenity of the Tlholego Ecovillage, while the hustle of work during the days was complimented by the fun of social events at night. It was these balances that kept us poised, refreshed and most importantly optimistic and happy, allowing us to have a fantastic time and produce high quality work.
The middle week in Tlholego resulted in vast levels of work being achieved, with each group presenting every day on different aspects of the project forcing us to work intensively and holistically. This week quickly passed us by and before we knew it we were standing in front of the final jury in Pretoria with dreary eyes after several sequential late nights. I’m happy to say that our project, Share the Glow, was completed and received very positively by the jury!
Share the Glow was chosen to be a part of the upcoming 2014 Pretoria Cool Capital Biennale and will be published in an upcoming issue of Earth Works Magazine, both very exciting rewards for our hard work. A video recording of our presentation can be viewed here.
Doing this travelling studio was one of the best opportunities I have ever been offered. The amount of first times was ridiculous (ox tongue, snails, flying overseas, meeting lion cubs, white bee stings) and I am very appreciative for having been involved. Overall the studio was really well executed and I think all the credit goes to the studio leaders, for their organisational work, and the invaluable contributions of the Pretorians who allowed us to seamlessly fit into their lives.