Talking Point: Mokena Makeka

“A young, black [architect] who is supposed to learn from others and only do good buildings when he turns 55 – it’s a reality. I’m not naive about the subtext of relationships in South Africa. 

My first building was a station for the railway police. There was a police architect who had to overcome her prejudice about whether I was a competent architect or not. The moment you see a black architect the perception is that it’s a BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) appointment, there to fill a quota – ‘here we go again, another black professional whose hand we have to hold.’ It was particularly difficult in terms of my age – I’m 34 now but when I designed the building I was 29. 

The railway police were disbanded because it was believed the state police were using them to beat up and torture people, but after the end of apartheid in 1994 they were reinstated. The commissioner didn’t really know what he wanted, he just said, ‘We’ve had a bad reputation so can you help us transform it?’ But he was still talking about a face-brick building with slot windows and resistant to riot attacks. I said to them, ‘But that’s how you guys used to operate.’ 

I decided to make a delicate building, almost feminine. The way it presents itself, I see it more like a flower than an ominous space. Some people say that institutional buildings should express strength, but I thought it was important for the building to almost feel vulnerable so that it could speak to the vulnerability of the people in that area. 

I had to confront my own fears. Even now if I see a police vehicle coming down the road my heart jumps – even though I’ve done nothing wrong. Having grown up in a context where police do things to you whether you’ve done something wrong or not, it takes time to trust the police. I wanted to make a place were the police is a place of refuge. 

As part of the World Cup programme we’ve been redesigning Cape Town Railway Station. We wanted to deal with the apartheid legacy of the station. It was very much a building designed on Afrikaner nationalism. There’s a concourse that was historically for white people, and a concourse at the back traditionally for coloured people. So how do you dismantle that? How do you democratise a building that was not designed with democracy in mind? One of the things we did was to open it up. The idea is that when you come off the train you should be able to see the city, and likewise when you are coming in you should be able to see the trains. The sense of legibility, the sense of openness speaks much more to democracy than controlled access points. 

I don’t fit into many of the boxes that Cape Townians like to use and that means there can sometimes be a little bit of mistrust. Being a non-conformist has served me well in some instances, but it also means that sometimes I don’t win the stuff that I could be winning. I have had to learn how to put ideas across in a way that makes people feel included and not being lectured to. 

In terms of my peers, I actually relate more to an international group like the architects in the Ordos 100 housing project in China. They’re also young and they are inquisitive and pushing. We’re all nerds – we’re all misfits. 

In some respects I’ve had to take the crumbs off the table and make them into a pie. The railway police station was seen as a throwaway project and I really had to make something of it. Even with Cape Town Railway Station, at first people said that it was just a lick of paint, but then you transform it. I would like to have a project where from the outset the intentions are in sync – an art gallery or museum or something of cultural significance as its departure, rather than having to add the cultural significance. 

I would also like to expand the practice out of South Africa – I’m planning to enter a lot of competitions this year, and just see how it goes.” 

Interview by Justin McGuirk for icon’s Africa issue. For more about icon’s Africa issue, click here