The first person in her family to study in the field, Ilze Wolff graduated from the UCT School of Architecture in 2004. Three years later she co-founded Open House Architecture; a platform that actively researches and documents local architecture through guided Open House tours. Parallel to OHA, Ilze runs the design studio Wolff alongside her husband Heinrich. Their idea is to develop a practice that includes other outputs – writing, making, publishing and advocating – within the traditional disciplinary architectural practise of design and construction.
As part of this year’s Creative Women series we spoke to Ilze about understanding South African architecture and the social conditions it has emerged from and her boundary-breaking approach to developing an architectural practice of consequence.
Your work seems to be grounded in the idea that architecture is connected to social conditions and the politics of being human. When did you first become aware of this perspective?
During my undergrad studies I was confronted for the first time to look at space differently. No one in my family had studied architecture and up to then, the design of buildings and cities were not things that I was consciously aware of. I come from the northern suburbs of Cape Town, a modern and very suburbanised part of the city. When I got to UCT architecture school, the severe office buildings, the car orientated urban realms and the themed shopping malls were my reference points. I was told to dismiss this as invalid architectural and urban responses, to pretend that it does not exist. Today I remain fascinated by the irony and directness of the architecture beyond Jip De Jager, but I have learned to engage with it in a way in which not to attach value and judgement. I now try and understand the social conditions – i.e. modernity, apartheid, labour, consumption – from which this, and other kinds of architecture, emerged.
Did you ever consider becoming something other than an architect?
I’ve always known that I wanted to do something creative and visual but when I applied to study at UCT, I had no fixed idea of what I wanted to pursue. In fact, before I first opened the handbook which listed all the courses, I had not even considered UCT as an option for place of study. The courses were listed alphabetically and my finger hovered at the top, between archaeology and architecture. I chose architecture but I still think that what I do is in a grey area in between the two: on the one hand digging around in the archive and often in and amongst ruins, searching for new insights on old buildings, on the other, giving a creative expression through design to these insights.
You completed your Masters in African Studies at UCT, with a focus on heritage, architectural history and public culture. How have these learnings/insights impacted your approach to architecture?
The process of studying architecture within the African studies department enriched my architectural thinking. My training up to then focussed on architecture as an object of design. What the buildings looked like, its technical performance, how it performed functionally and contextually were singularly promoted as important markers of a good architectural design. African studies promoted interdisciplinary research, and through this I discovered the social lives of buildings. How do buildings participate in the construction of societal structures of power, race and gender? Within the context of South Africa, where architectural space is so embedded in the designation of power and the disempowering of people, buildings become highly politicised. Within the realm of African Studies, I was able to explore architectural space as sites of power, sites of identity formation and sites of memory.
Leading Wolff Architects alongside your partner Heinrich Wolff, how do you go about developing an “architectural practice of consequence” through the mediums of design, advocacy, research and documentation?
We believe that there are different ways of being an architect. We both have extremely wide interests, but all with the focus on space and the design of space. Our curiosity about our built environment compels us to engage actively in our world, be it through documenting forgotten spaces, advocating for the retention of buildings that are under threat of demolition, or researching unfamiliar realms of practice. These kinds of ways of practicing then begin to set up a particular public culture around architecture and conversations with others beyond the profession. We asked ourselves: do we limit ourselves with the traditional disciplinary architectural practices – drawing plans, delivering to clients, building structures – or do we extend our practice to reach beyond and include writing, making, publishing, advocating and documenting? Ultimately we do this to extend our knowledge of architecture and to enrich the creative work that we produce and to keep ourselves, and hopefully our collaborators, stimulated.
What have been some of your most memorable projects to work on so far?
I have developed a long term engagement with the Rex Trueform factories in Salt River and the project has had various outcomes. I wrote a biography of the buildings documenting narratives of the workers, the architects and its future development. At the end of last year I organised a tour of these sites, which are in various states of inhabitation and abandonment, and curated an on-site exhibition of some of the archival material of the factories. For me the spaces hold a particular potency now that they are empty and awaiting development. They become a point of reflection on its past, once a place of intense urban industry, as well as a point of entry into the ways modern architecture played a role in shaping our societies and our identities.
This is an image of the Rex Trueform factory in Salt River from 1967.
The white cross marks the spot where Denise Darvall, the world’s first heart transplant donor was killed by a speeding vehicle. When Dr Chris Barnard was alerted to the possibility of Denise as a potential donor, he immediately asked: Is she coloured? This archival image, together with this story became an entry point for me to ask how the modern factory participated in the genderising and racialising of people and society.
In 2007 you co-founded Open House Architecture as an organisation responsible for researching and documenting South African architecture through Open House tours. Why is this important right now, and from a future-looking point of view?
We often forget the wealth of architectural knowledge that exists in South Africa because the impulse is always to look beyond our borders in search of ideas. Our cities are shaped by the legacy of apartheid planning and are currently further segregated by capitalist visions and global aspirations. But within this dire urban environment exist moments of extreme architectural creativity and innovation. Often these moments are overlooked or taken for granted. I started organising these tours because I am curious about South African architecture and the particularities of our design culture. Through the medium of the tours I was able to reveal these particularities to myself and I began to understand what these buildings represent. Of course, the act of visiting a building or a site with a group of people is a start of a conversation, often multi-directional and unexpected.
What are some of the most interesting or vital things this research has brought to light?
Often the tours would centre around a particular body of work. One Open House was an overview of the houses by Pius Pahl, a German architect who studied at the Bauhaus under Mies van Der Rohe in the 1930s who then immigrated to South Africa. In Stellenbosch, where he set up his practice, we found and visited about a dozen of these homes and had a firsthand experience of the Bauhaus design ethos. The sense of scale, the modesty of living and the movement of space from inside to outside was all explicitly available for us to experience. A different kind of domesticity was accessible for us to learn from through the visiting of these houses. We also did a tour of Max Policansky’s industrial buildings. After seeing this collection I realised that in Cape Town there is a specific kind of architectural modernism where buildings are more direct and immediate objects of labour and commerce rather than objects of high art or culture.
Could you talk to us a bit about your fascination with the social history of buildings?
People inhabit buildings and therefore people develop narratives and imaginaries about buildings. Often these narratives depict a particular time in the life of the city and people’s experiences are central to these narratives. I think that through buildings we could begin to document subjectivities. Buildings evoke certain stories and details of life that would otherwise remain unspoken. For instance what memories emerge for an ex-factory worker when he wanders through the empty, vacant factory? Or how would a domestic worker describe the Bauhaus inspired home that she cleans every day? And what insight could a security guard have on the brutalist style, bureaucracy of the high-rise modern office building that he protects? I am interested in the stories and the moments of inhabitation of buildings. I am interested in the traces of human occupation, the residue of memory that is tangible in the architecture and the space. I am fascinated about what it could tell us about contemporary life.
In an opinion piece for Design Indaba you shared some thoughts about different ways of being an architect. What are these and what is the value of pursuing these dispersed ways of practicing?
The education that you gain from studying architecture develops conceptual thinking and critical thinking. Together with a deep understanding of space, the application of this training becomes vast and endless. For instance I know of architects who have dedicated their lives to publishing and writing about architecture, there are some who develop careers around designing micro architecture like furniture and jewellery, others who organise events and curate public discussions. There are many who document through the medium of photography and film. The boundaries of architectural practice blur between sculpture and industrial design. For me there is no pure way of practicing architecture, it is not relevant to work in that mode. In order to remain innovative one must keep exploring other means of architectural production.
What are you currently working on, or working towards?
A multiple array of things: research on a harbour building, a documentary film about Rex Trueform, the design and renovation of a modernist apartment, advocacy work on modern buildings for Docomomo SA, an architecture publication project as an extension of the Open House Tours. Our practice is currently preparing for participation in the inaugural Chicago Biennale where we will be showing a conceptual public art project. We have also been continuing our engagement with the V&A Waterfront, work that came as a consequence of the Watershed project that completed last year.
Ultimately, what would you like to be known for?
An architect that knew no boundaries.
Photographs of Ilze by Anke Loots.