Building For The Future

The philosophy behind Mokena’s creative & resilient buildings.

 

Government buildings are not known to have an architectural edge that factors aesthetics and functionality. This is, even more, the case in township environments. When Makeka Designs was selected to build a government building in a township they strived to change the face of government buildings. The brief was simple yet significant. According to Mokena Makeka, the founder of Makeka Designs, it was meant to connect communities that were previously divided. It was meant to connect Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. South African townships were built to separate people by race and by location. In Cape Town places like Khayelitsha were built for the African people and places like Mitchells Plain were built for the so-called coloured communities. The new government, which was led by President Thabo Mbeki at the time, was on a mission to redesign South African urban design.

How could this be achieved through architecture? According to Makeka, even architecture could be an instrument that embraces the ugly past. Buildings in townships were not meant to be beautiful and had no sense of permanence. When designing the Thusong centre for Khayelitsha, Makeka understood that the Thusong Centre building in Khayelitsha had to embrace the spirit of Batho Pele. It had to respect the community for which it is built. The Thusong Centre building would become the symbol of a caring government in Khayelitsha. It was meant to bring the government to the people. Makeka delivered what is now known as one of the most beautiful and functional buildings ever built in Khayelitsha by the government. He delivered a multipurpose centre with a sense of permanence. A double-height hall for basketball and netball, with a single bank of seating. A hall surrounded on three sides by secondary spaces – changing areas, offices, conference rooms, and roof terraces – which are pulled outwards to articulate and animate the facades. The building had an oversailing sawtooth roof, translucent polycarbonate walls and timber pergolas shading generous roof terraces. The architecture is essentially lightweight and functional. Yet this lightness is also grounded by a gabion wall filled with local Table Mountain sandstone (separating the foyer from the sports court) and a series of more muscular concrete elements that bind the building together.

Why would an architect design such a structure in a township? Mokena’s philosophy, which drew inspiration from African leaders such as Moshoeshoe and Steve Biko, is behind his approach of taking a long-term view even for a township. This approach proved useful considering what came years after this building was designed. The Thusong Centre in Khayelitsha was built years before Covid-19 yet it was a perfect environment to serve as a Covid-19 centre. This, according to Makeka, is an important lesson going forward as society post-Covid-19. He emphasises the need to build for resilience. To build structures that are agile with the ability to align to the changing needs of society. His creative approach to architecture is something worthy of emulation by many who are building now for the future.

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