Q&A: South African architect Kate Otten

by Dennis Lee on Oct 14, 2019 in Architecture
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South African architect Kate Otten speaks about her work and her efforts in promoting the role of women in the design industry in her home country

Ms Katherine OttenOne of South Africa's most recognised architects, Kate Otten is known for being an architect of place. After founding Kate Otten Architects in 1989, she has developed a varied body of work, including significant public buildings and places that seek to bring a contemporary African sensibility to the architectural landscape in South Africa, blending materials, skills, politics, light and landscape to create spaces with a strong emotional resonance. Otten is currently vice president of the South African Institute of Architects, through which she hopes to further engage the public and raise the status of architects in the country. She was also one of the judges of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects' (HKIA) recent Cross-strait Architectural Design Symposium and Awards 2019. She spoke to Perspective during the event.

Can you tell us about the architectural landscape in South Africa?
I think there's a great variety of work, some of it well-considered. It's beautiful and it's thoughtful. But one of the big challenges that we have is about transforming the landscape of architecture. And that is true in architecture where young people – black people and black women particularly – have really struggled to move into that. I was very excited that you have somebody here [in Hong Kong] from the government bodies. I think as architects, we've created this problem that architects are not respected as they should be.wits rural facility01_Graham De LacyWhy do you think architects are undervalued in South Africa?
I think a lot of people don't understand what architects do. When a tender goes out, it's often about money, more than it is about skill. I think it's just been a slow erosion over a time where we haven't participated in the kind of debate historically, when activity was very much dominated by white males. We've undermined ourselves or undervalued ourselves in a way. Like the developer is all powerful and the architect does what the developer wants. And then that goes on to having a relationship with government bodies, where we need to be as architects in the space that creates policy, that we are thought leaders. That also comes back to education, because it starts to get undermined from early on, with the kids coming out of university. I think one of the important things for us right now, in the institute particularly, is to connect to the young people so that they can bring all those energies to the fore.

There's usually a long time studying before you can start practising. What often happens is that people don't make it all the way because they can't afford to, they need to go to work. They need to be supported to be able to study and that's why the fees must fall. Otherwise, you will never break that cycle. The government needs to pay the fees. That's why I keep saying it's government policy that needs to be part of that change.

How is it going to work?
You need to create platforms that invite and enable those people, and inspire them to want to be part of that process. It's incredibly important that it comes from government policy. As an institute, we're trying to have closer relationships with government bodies and ensure that architects play an important role in that, and facilitate that change and be at the forefront of that. We can't be following; we need to be leading.

What's the role of women in relation to architects?
Throughout my practice, I have been very supportive of woman at large. The majority of my employees have been women. So, part of my policy has been about enabling people to have a life and be architects, and I think that's been very important to me and how I've worked.

There's also another thing I hear from more and more women these days, which is we want to be recognised as architects, not women architects. We are architects. Yes, we happen to be women. We want to be valued for the work we do and what we give to the profession, to the world.

How, through your role in the institute, do you try to make architecture more accessible?
In my personal capacity, we have something we called Conversations with Colleagues. We invite fellow architects to come and present some work they've done, or interesting place that they travelled to.

Also, through public forums, we're starting to have relationships with various government bodies in the built environment, which we've never done before. And we have a black president in our institute now – it's a change, it's a shift. So, it's to raise awareness of what we do as architects, we participate rather than just being the passive body. There are also public lectures that are very interesting.

Is heritage a major consideration in the context of rapid urban development?
The answer is yes. We have heritage laws and restrictions on how you need to work with heritage buildings. But I think what's also important is that heritage is not just about built form, it's not just about buildings. Heritage is also about something you might not be able to see. It can be about the space, it can be about a memory, it can be about a place. I think people are becoming more aware of that in South Africa. I was recently involved in a project that I did for a university in Johannesburg.

They have a rural campus, out in the bush; it's a very sensitive environment and very important from an ecological point of view. A lot of the work that we did there was to carefully place the building so we would not have to remove any of the trees, and then to restore the environment that had been eroded.

Gabriel's Garden, a sensitively placed home-office pavilion in the garden of a historic house in Westcliff, Johannesburg

Gabriel's Garden, a sensitively placed home-office pavilion in the garden of a historic house in Westcliff, Johannesburg

Are there any key trends in South African architecture?
I think one has to be aware of the kind of cultural context, for example, in an urban environment when you do architecture it would be quite different from a rural environment. South African cities are very cosmopolitan places, and people are aware of what's going on in the world at large.

You get the work that somebody like myself, or similar practices would do, where one of the important things for me is where people stand in the whole functioning of the building. For example, this office building we recently completed – it's a small office, not one of these giant ones. I've got more liberty where we considered how people experience that building, how their day within that space would be and how we create spaces that are inspiring, welcoming. We tried to create an architecture that is about human beings using that space, and then linking that into the environment, very closely linked to landscape and planting and how that affects the functioning of the building.

I think also that the social agenda in architecture is very important. Perhaps you might want to call that a cultural consideration. For example, if you are designing a school or a community building, how would the people experience that building? And what could this building mean to that community? One of my favourite artists was Hassan Fathy. He was from Egypt and he was a modernist. When building the Aswan Dam (in 1960s), they wiped out large communities of people. Fathy tried to recreate those communities through building houses, but through traditional building methods. And he did some really beautiful work. But the thing for me, what was amazing, was his thinking. He wrote a book called Architecture for the Poor. For me, it still remains relevant, considering that people are not just numbers and units.