On a recent trip to Durban, we visited the Florida Road studio space of multi award-winning architecture and design company, designworkshop : sa. We took a look around, and chatted to them about their converted studio space, and about space in general…
What about the location and space of your studio appeals to you?
It’s on one of the few real streets on the edge of the CBD core. That means we can walk to get something to eat, groceries, the bank, an ice cream, the pharmacy, a great DVD shop and a few other amenities that go with day-to-day life. It’s also pretty close to where most of us live. And it’s in a mixed-use building with some retail at street level, offices and 3 apartments on the roof. The space is completely open so we’re all together, it’s raw and real so we don’t feel like we’re in a designer show-room, and it’s a fairly narrow space with glass on 3 sides so there’s lots of natural light.
Is there a story behind how you came to occupy it?
Two of the partners of DWS bought the building a few years ago and converted it from a wholly residential apartment building into it’s current form. Allowable area was maxed out by adding the three 3-level apartments into the upper levels and onto the old roof, parking was squeezed in everywhere to achieve the regulations without the building feeling like it was a blob in a parking lot, the existing internal stair was moved outside to make more useable space and visually activate the street façade, green glazed tiles that covered the outside of the building were painted over with huge graphics, and all internal finishes were removed to leave only raw concrete, white paint, and rough timber screens around a meeting space.
In what ways does the city inspire the designworkshop:sa’s philosophy and approach?
We are most specifically interested in projects that enable people and their activities to connect to one another. Rather than purity, singularity, separateness, we’re into diversity, connectivity and exploring potential. This is what Cities are, what we love about them and what we try and building more of.
Can you explain the thinking behind the design principle of “Converting minimum resources to maximum performance”…
It’s a characteristic of nature that the waste of one thing is always, and without exception, the food of something else. Construction consumes a lot of financial, energy, time and natural resources. Since we’re a part of this reality, our aim is to make sure that we convert these resources into more ‘value’ than they had in their original form, or else we’re wasting; producing waste that is not food…
Your strategy towards designing spaces appears to be an inherently holistic one in which mixed-use spaces create an almost utopian environment. Can you tell us a little more about this, as well as how this specifically relate to the South African context…
South Africa is aware that we have some very serious and fundamental problems to resolve if we’re going to deliver on the promise of 1994. Some of these can be addressed at an institutional level, like healthcare, education and the delivery of some other services. But one of the most fundamentally retarding things we inherited from apartheid is that our settlement pattern is fundamentally inefficient: we live and work too far from each other.
Simplistically, this physical distance is key to our inability to reduce poverty, create work, and deliver services. This is because the compact, connected, diverse and shared City is the only self-generating settlement pattern for economic, social and cultural production. Sprawled ‘development’ with separately zoned activities is the opposite and, rather than incorrect economic and political policy, is the main obstacle between what we are and what we can be.
Many of your projects cite the creation of meaningful public open space as part of their objective. In South Africa, access to and use of public space is a somewhat problematic topic. How do your design strategies negotiate this and endeavour to create new solutions?
We don’t need new solutions. Applicable examples of the solutions exist and their lessons are ready to be learned. But because we don’t have a history of real city living, we are not familiar with them, often looking in the wrong places, and have difficulty understanding their significance and value. The ‘space’ part of ‘public space’ implies that it is a void within general density; it’s an oxymoron to talk about space being made within space. Therefore before there can be public space, in it’s forms of streets, squares and parks, there first needs to be density, which we don’t have. So we are focussed on making density wherever we can.
Functional, sustainable, experiential and symbolic – these four words crop up in many of your project’s rationales, can you unpack what each one means in relation to the structures themselves…
Functional means that the project really works. The client needs to know exactly what they want the project to do. Our job is to work out what it needs to be to do that and, if at all possible, more.
Sustainable has, almost exclusively, come to mean something to do with energy.
For us it means that also, but more than that it’s to make projects that can effectively serve a much needed purpose for a very long time, sustaining changes in use, ownership, fluctuations in the economy, social and cultural evolution, taste preference and so on. Mostly it’s about looking for ways in which each individual project can be a part of and help to build a more effective and productive whole.
How much does physical place (setting, landscape, etc) influence the designing of a space?
Achieving a clear understanding of the fundamentals of a place is a big step to knowing what to do with it. Together with the brief, place is the major raw material we have to work with. It’s the opposite of imposing a product of a preconceived approach onto the site and hoping for the best.
The Durban beachfront has been transformed in recent years. Can you tell us about your involvement in the changes that have taken place, and what your vision for the promenade was/is…
We were responsible for only the Mini-Town end of the beachfront, extending from the parking north of Mini-Town, to the fast-food outlets some distance to the south. The brief from the City was to take a defined budget and convert it into public amenity to support the idea that the promenade [designed by others] would transform the beachfront into a real shared linear public space for the full diversity of the city’s people.
A restaurant, lifesavers’ facility, public ablutions, a small retail opportunity directly connecting to an expanded and upgraded skate-park, has done this. Our view is that the success of this node is because of its favourable location, accessibility, fully active external building edge – no blank walls, everything being at promenade level, everything facing the sea which is why people are there in the first place, and providing a courtyard as a part of the restaurant as respite from the intensity of the sea-side heat and wind. In the design process, emphasis was firstly on what the project would do, and then what if would need to be in order to do that.
Can you explain some of designworkshop:sa’s distinct design aesthetics – choice of materials, colour palettes, lines and shapes, spaces etc…
Our aesthetic derives from using as little as we can; just the essentials in their most direct deployment. This applies equally to space, geometry, form, materials, finishes, colour, texture, and light. Our thought is that if we need to dress things up to be successful, then we’ve probably missed something fundamental and should go back to the roots.
Do these translate into the product design you do too?
The products are the application of the smallest scale of this approach. As clear an understanding of the functional requirement as we can achieve through relentless interrogation; as direct a design to achieve that; only one material, one manufacturing process, and one finishing process; with the least logistics between them; and a pricing and ‘channel to market’ strategy to deliver the product into the marketplace to achieve defied traction.
What will a desingworkshop:sa space never see?
Made-up add-on’s that represent something rather than being something.
What new exciting projects of yours should we look out for?
The new Sol Plaatje university in Kimberly, together with 4 other architectural teams; the transformation of Pixley Ka Seme St [West Street] into a linear park; a new Civic Centre for Claremont outside of Durban; a new Spiga restaurant in Durban North; a range of private houses and apartment buildings; and more amenities at LIV Village for 1000 orphans in Canefields, Verulum.
Anything else you would like to add…
We are very happy.
designworkshop : sa studio photographs by Luca Barausse.