Good Architecture: a basic human right

GQ [Siphiwe Mpye] & Mokena Makeka

At Dion Chang’s recent Flux Trend Review, the stand out speaker was a thoughtful, eloquent University of Cape Town Architecture graduate with an ego-crushing list of accolades from his student days to the work he does through his company Makeka Design Lab (MDL).  Mokena Makeka’s more high profile projects include the new-look Cape Town station and the mammoth feat that is the Green Point Stadium. We had to get a closer look at a man who while being first and foremost a hip-hop head, loves his Tchaikovsky and in his search for a South African aesthetic, looks to more dead Russians for inspiration. 
GQ: You have been quoted saying that good architecture is a basic human right. Explain?
MM: Architecture has always been seen as the preserve of the elite, but excellence is not for the few, poor people are just as deserving. It doesn’t need to be the same costs but spatial considerations need to be made, especially for public spaces, there must be better thought behind it. South Africa has a history where we haven’t really cared for our environment, ourselves and good design is something we can’t live without, it is intrinsically linked to our dignity. 
GQ: Why would lay people not see it like that?
MM: There were deliberate reasons why townships were under designed. People were dehumanized, with streets with no names; it was all part of a plan along with the taking of people’s dignity and not providing health, education and decent work opportunities. We have been cheated by history, by those who were in power and those who didn’t want to share. Understandably, coming from 300 years of mere survival, people are more worried about having something in their stomachs than they are with architecture
GQ: What are you most proud of about the Cape Town station project?
MM: One can spend a few million for a house for 4 people, but R100m on a structure that has sixty thousand people moving through it everyday is special. I am intrigued by how I can touch the most number of humans, hundreds of thousands of buildings.
GQ: Any learnings from the project?
MM: Design is an act of transformation by definition. Some people enjoy visual transformation but don’t understand the responsibility that comes with it. The challenge is trying to ensure that the client engages with the responsibility of a transformative agenda, maintenance strategies, cleaning and so on. All these come together. We have a strong culture of deferred leadership, people do not want to take decisions and defer, so things slow down. Society wants to consult ad nauseam, when it is more powerful to make a decision, even if you are wrong.
GQ: What kind of a leader do you think you are?
MM: I Hope I inspire them (his team), they see me as passionate and by being with me they become better people.
GQ: Where do you draw your inspiration?
Everything, movies, horror books, people. Architects are continually bombarded by architecture and the absence of it all the time. I can see how people behave and don’t even know it is because of the environment they are in.
GQ: Any people or books that have had an effect on you?
MM: The Russian constructivist movement really informed my thinking. I saw a lot of similarities in their search for what it meant to be Russian and finding a unique aesthetic. El Lissitzky and Ivan Leonidov were very influential in this movement.  
GQ: What is the South African aesthetic if there is such a thing?
MM: I don’t think we have it at this point. There is the Africana thing like having horns on the wall and skins on the floor. Nothing wrong with that, you will find it at game lodges and that is the expectation. Then you have Cape Dutch thing and so on. There is not just one continuum and it would be dangerous to limit ourselves, it would prevent us from being creative about what we can achieve. 
GQ: What would architecture to say about you when dead
He was believed in humanity, buildings hope, buildings reflected the best in us
GQ: What gives you hope?
People are beginning to reject mediocrity, they see that they deserve good architecture, that we do have the skills and in time we will become a real movement. People are beginning to get over self-loathing and believe that they deserve good architecture as much any other nation.
GQ: Is it tough being a black architect in Cape Town?
MM: Of course is challenging. You still get questions about a black practitioner being good enough, able to deliver. There are also softer issues of branding, people like to say certain practitioners designed their houses. The Western Cape is complicated culturally and I am still nowhere near where I want to be, but I really enjoy
GQ: Where do you buy shirts in CT?
Well, it depends. I like buying t-shirts with smart phrases, but beyond that, my wife buys the (dress) shirts.
GQ: What kind of music do you listen to?
Hip-hop and Tchaikovsky! These two are not as dissimilar as they might seem. I am not into jazz though, its ambling music with no end and no beginning.
GQ: You have been married for two years now, do you hate marriage as much a many married people do?
(laughs) No no, I love it!

This interview was conducted by Siphiwe Mpye on his andnowforlife blog. The orginal article can be viewed at