Assembling an armature for Ubuntu: an architecture for “the people”, by Nic Coetzer

Culturally significant architecture in post‐apartheid South Africa is neither radical nor groundbreaking. Nor is it, apart from occasional nods toward Norberg‐Schulz and phenomenology, particularly theoretically driven. It certainly does not have ‘space’ or ‘form’ as its ambition. Rather than being concerned with the discipline and history of architecture itself, its focus is, quite simply, people. This is hardly surprising. Apartheid, as a policy and an ideology, was primarily focused on dehumanising its subjects – which the post‐apartheid policy of ubuntu aims to put right. Since the highly politicised 1980s, architects have been trying to use their designs to reconstruct broken people and broken environments, to provide ‘dignified places’ – to solve the problems of apartheid through the very physicality of architecture. It is an architecture of restitution, an armature for ubuntu, and it locates itself in the tradition of ‘soft modernism’, from Aalto through Alexander to Van Eyck.

Is it possible, 20 years since the ‘end’ of apartheid, to be critical of this mode of cultural production? Is it fair to question why a land of radicals has not produced a radical architecture? Certainly, at the theoretical level, we need to be aware of the homology between apartheid’s use of modernism in instrumentalising its policy of a ‘separate development’ and the use of ‘soft‐modernism’ in an attempt to ameliorate the devastating effects of that policy – effective or not, they are both examples of social‐spatial engineering. But can a sharper critique be made through analysis of particular ‘against apartheid’ buildings?

Taking the idea of ‘armature’ as its starting point, this paper will examine recurring models, types and systems in recent South African architecture that, in serving ‘the people’, place limits on architecture and its possibilities. The predominance of ergonomics as the starting point of design – of understanding people as generic models rather than unique individuals – has unsettling resonances with apartheid policies. The idea of ‘armature’ will also illustrate how a moral voice limits the use of architecture’s resources and establishes the tectonic rather than the spatial as the default mode of architectural production. Again, this understanding of architecture as the deployment of a system of ready‐made structural components has disturbing resonances with the totalising system of apartheid itself. In the ‘bare bones’ method of the tectonic approach – where architecture is the armature that people ‘round off’ and ‘thicken out’ through their bodies – architecture becomes strangely self‐effacing and at times wholly absent, its leading exponents actively championing the erasure of its unique value. By assembling architecture through the components of the generic, the model, the modular, the ergonomic – another iteration of the tectonic strategy – rather than the particular, the unusual, the unique, we lose sight of the libidinal potential of architecture for both its subjects and its objects and limit architecture’s potential to transcend the known and the now.

Nic Coetzer, University of Cape Town, ZA

Harvard Citation Guide: Coetzer, N. (2012) Assembling an armature for Ubuntu: an architecture for “the people”, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 13 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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