In conversation: Mphethi Morojele and Jefa Greenaway

The Indigenous Design – Past | Present | Future symposium in July brought together local and international design practitioners to explore the role of Indigenous design. Mphethi Morojele, owner and founder of MMA Design Studio in South Africa, presented the signature keynote lecture.

While at the University, he caught up with symposium convenor and University of Melbourne lecturer Jefa Greenaway, to discuss his journey as an architect in South Africa, architecture’s role in inclusion and exclusion, and why he designs “baggy space”.

This is an edited extract of the conversation. For more, please listen to the podcast ‘5 Things About… Indigenous architecture’.

Jefa Greenaway and Mphethi Morojele in front of the Indigenize Montreal exhibition in the Atrium at Melbourne School of Design

Jefa Greenaway and Mphethi Morojele with the Indigenize Montreal exhibition, Melbourne School of Design.

Jefa Greenaway (JG): Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came to architecture as a means of cultural expression?

Mphethi Morojele (MM): My origins are in Lesotho, which is that tiny country in the heart of South Africa. I trace my roots through the whole region of southern Africa.

I grew up mostly being an artist, until I got to the age where I had to make a decision about a career. I was pushed in the direction of architecture by my parents, who were building a house at the time. I got a scholarship to go to University of Cape Town, and after that I did a post-professional degree at The Bartlett in London. Then I went on to teach at Wits University in Johannesburg, in the School of Architecture. During that period I started my own practice, which has been going now for about 20 years.

JG: Have you found any challenges along this journey in order to become an architect?

MM: There have been a lot of challenges. When I started studying in South Africa we were still under the system of apartheid, which means black people were very restricted in where they could go, what they could do. Therefore one had to almost be resourceful in terms of finding things that could inspire you, that was outside of the cultural hegemony of coming from an oppressed people.

Even practicing as an architect under apartheid, is very difficult because architecture is so close to power. And if you are excluded from that power then you almost can’t really practice the way that architecture is supposed to be practiced. But fortunately ‘94 happened and we could find a new space of expression.

JG: Do you feel that the industry within South Africa engages with this notion of connection to Indigenous knowledge systems and the value that Indigenous perspectives can actually bring to the built environment?

MM: I think in very few instances. I guess there's two types of practice. One is a self-conscious practice, where the state is trying to re-present itself in a way that talks to the Indigenous knowledge systems, so these are very few instances of projects that are around culture and heritage.

But I think in a way, a lot of architects have been grappling with transforming our cities to take into account people who have a rural background – who have migrated into the cities, and come with their own Indigenous cultures – and how do you adapt parts of your city to accommodate those kind of practices which were not accommodated before. So I think there are glimpses of where that is happening, but I don’t think it’s enough.

JG: Do you feel there is a capacity through, particularly architecture, to infuse a sense of identity within the mechanisms of how we practice and how we express ourselves within the mechanism of architecture, and how it projects within the public realm?

MM: I think there is. I think part of it is how you arrive at your solutions. In South Africa at some point it was legislated that you have to go through a consultative process with all the stakeholders identified for a particular project, and a lot of the early projects there was a lot of intense consultation. I think that’s almost as important as the final product, in that, that process means that people get a sense of ownership of what’s being developed.

Then of course the final product is really battling with how you infuse an identity into a space, that makes people feel that they belong, and that they’re not being excluded – because a lot of architecture is about exclusion rather than inclusion. So, I think you can, especially the public space. It’s an urgent requirement for us I think.

JG: I think you raised a really important point about the methodology, the process of how you get to the built form outcome, is very much infused by a connection to a conversation with people, with the key contributors and stakeholders – in a way through a sort of co-design process, rather than necessarily the designer as the main author of the outcome.

MM: Yes, that’s absolutely correct. My particular method is also to design what I call ‘baggy space’, which is space that allows for unintended consequences, so in that way you’re allowing institutions to develop and not restricting them spatially in the way that you design. Because these are new institutions, new times, so there’s a lot of things that we don’t anticipate happening that will happen, and those should be seen as a positive outcome rather than as something you want to restrict.

Freedom Park, South Africa. MMA Design Studio

JG: Within the education experience and your learning journey towards architecture, did you experience a connection to your culture in that process of learning? Or was that essentially sidelined in favour of, I guess, a western construct of how we might teach architecture?

MM: Definitely at the time it was totally repressed. Obviously the bigger narrative was that Indigenous practices were not recognised as having any validity. So you almost had to seek out your own resources to be able to research some of the Indigenous practices, or vernacular architecture, whatever you call it, because as I say the bigger narrative of apartheid at the time was that these practices have no value.

JG: So do you see architecture as being complicit in the colonial project that is illustrated by things like the apartheid?

MM: Absolutely. I think apartheid was a classical example of the use of architecture to do social engineering. People were literally designed separately. The natural environment, natural barriers were used to kind of suggest that these are almost God-ordained barriers. The way that cities were designed, the way that buildings were designed, all public institutions had separate entrances for people of different colours. Hospitals, for example, had either separate hospitals, or separate entrances. And what was interesting in that example is that all the hospital functions were generally mixed, except anything that had to do with blood. With bones, you could go and get your bones fixed in mixed areas, but anything to do with blood they had to separate people by kind of race. So it teaches you an understanding of how the philosophy was then embedded into the design of buildings.

JG: So the spatial organisation of places was configured to reinforce that mindset.

MM: Absolutely, absolutely. At every level, from the level of city planning, right down to separation of toilets and benches that you sat on.

JG: As apartheid has now crumbled, there’s a process I guess around reconstructing new narratives, new opportunities, and in a way disentangling some of those inhibitors to a sense of inclusion – how is that unfolding now?

MM: Well as you know, buildings are almost the most enduring legacy of apartheid, because these are structures that stand forever. The way that people were separated into ghettos and suburbs, that is enduring. And the challenge has always been how do you break those patterns, because they are not only enduring physically but I think also mentally as a result. People still feel that they belong to these separate places, and to get people to move away from thinking that they are restricted is part of the challenge.

I think because of a lot of in-migration from rural areas, that has been the most important intervention to have happened in our cities: how do we accommodate these new practices? A lot of it has been around mobility, because we’re like a commuter society; people move between the rural areas and the urban ones quite a lot. So the taxi ranks, the bus ranks, the stations have become the new cultural centres, if you like.

In some instances you find that some of the real estate companies and the real estate industry tries to push back against integration, because the way that cities were developed exclusively have now become less race-exclusive but more class-exclusive. So there’s always a struggle between inclusion and exclusion, between wanting to keep a piece of the city for a certain class and in other attempts trying to integrate.

JG: With the movement pattern of people through a country where you have people coming from further afield, or from rural or regional centres coming into the cities, is there an opportunity there to talk to those connections to Country and landscape and other areas; to infuse cities with a vibrancy or a connection to landscape?

MM: I think there are opportunities. What’s very interesting is when you look at a lot of the cultural practices, or even religious practices, of people coming from rural areas, and how they’ve adopted parts of the cities. Whether it’s creating a church in a parking basement over the weekend, or using the plaza of a train station as a temporary church, these for me are very interesting ways in which rural culture is beginning to find places within the city to continue its practice. I think if we paid more attention to that we would create much more identity in terms of how our cities should accommodate its Indigenous population.

JG: It reinforces an innovation; a sophisticated reappropriating of space.

MM: Exactly. And obviously you know with our cultures which were interrupted in their natural development, that reappropriation has become quite an important way – being able to adopt, as you say, and appropriate spaces – has become part of the culture in a very central way.

Freedom Park, South Africa. MMA Design Studio

JG: And as a practitioner, what sort of current or recent projects inspire you? Or are there other influences external to South Africa which have inspired you in terms of your own trajectory?

MM: Inspiration comes from all over the world. A lot of the work we have been doing has been related to urban regeneration, so looking at examples from Latin America – the conditions are very similar to ours – and how they’ve adopted particular views towards the informal sector, the informal housing. Asia as well. The whole question of informality and how you deal with it in architecture: whether you seek to formalise, or you value it in the way that it’s been developed. I think those new ways of working, what we call undisciplined practices, and learning from those, for me are quite interesting and have always been part of practice on the one hand.

On the other hand has been working more through the agency of the state in trying to build the nation, what they call nation building, and creating social cohesion. So these are the more self-conscious projects, which really memorialise who we are as a people and where we’ve come from. And that we are attempting to build that idea of a new nation.

JG: MMA Design Studio has really been a pioneer in South Africa as a practice, which is led by a key practitioner who’s drawing on connections to your own history and culture. So what projects are you excited about in your own practice which are starting to really interrogate some of these ideas?

MM: We’re doing some work for the university in Kimberley, which is in the Northern Cape of the country, which is where a lot of First Nations people have been. We’re beginning to have interesting conversations about how people who come from that kind of tradition experience these university buildings. You know, right down to small things like how you treat acoustics, for people who are used to wide open spaces. Therefore, when they speak to each other, you project your voice and are very loud because you come from open spaces, and now all of a sudden, you’re too loud for the university building – small things like that, which are very interesting. Things like how do you design a threshold, that allows people to be able to move in and out of a building without a formal entrance that says now you’re allowed in or you’re not allowed in. Are there ways that we can achieve that, that encourage people to feel at home in the building? That conversation is beginning to happen.

JG: There seems to be an acute interest here in Australia around how we can start to amplify opportunities to express Indigenous identity. So what do you say to the non-Indigenous practitioners of what can be learned, or how one can connect to Indigenous cultures, as part of design inspiration or as part of our way of knowing, or broadening the frame of reference of how we understand architecture?

MM: Well I think Indigenous practice, basically if you look at the research, is quite close to what currently the interest around neuroscience and architecture is finding. It’s just that they have a more scientific method of explaining what they call ‘embodied practices’, where we are not looking purely from a rational thought process into architecture, but understanding architecture as an embodied practice. So you’re not only looking through your eyes, but you’re looking through your skin, you’re looking through your feelings. This is what Indigenous knowledge has always been about. It’s a practice that, although it goes way back, it’s part of the future now.

So I think, what I would say to people who feel that they’re non-Indigenous, is you're going back to the essentials of architecture. Which we all, because we are all embodied people, we all have access to, it’s just that we need to re-learn how we connect with place in that different way.