Stepping up to the future with bold designs

Full text of the article that appeared in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 28 May 2011.


Together  these are usually descriptors of places rather than people. But when you’re Mokena Makeka, young Cape Town-based architect with an exciting project portfolio, a long list of  accolades, and an increasing influence on thinking on urbanism and architecture locally and globally, the description applies.

From his design of the upgrading of the Cape Town Station to a community centre in Khayelitsha and the Shared Services Centre in Athlone, Makeka’s work has a major impact on public life in Cape Town.

His first public project was the upgrading of a police station in Retreat on a limited budget. His design challenged stereotypical state architecture and honoured the dignity of the people working and having to visit the facility, and the neighborhood in which it is located,  For this project Makeka won the  Cape Institute for Architecture (CIFA) 2007 Award for cutting edge design to add to his South African Council for the Architectural Profession (SACAP) medal for the best work over six years of academic study while he was an architectural student at the University of Cape Town. He has twice received a Cape Institute of Architects Award of Merit, won the Johnnie Walker Celebrating Strides Awards in Design in 2010 and has been selected among 100 architects globally to be a part of the Ordos 100, an ambitious project to develop 100 houses in Ordos in China, designed by 100 acclaimed architects from 27 different countries.

He does not shy away from controversy in reflecting on the state of design in Cape Town.

“I think that design has become popular  quickly, but the public is still not educated about what design is, why it is necessary and that the best designs emerge when the designer has been given real trust and responsibility to design.

Explaining that design is a discipline that responds to people’s needs and to the context and culture in which it happens, Makeka elaborates, “Design is a considered way of thinking and acting in the world, and the designed product is an outcome of that thinking. “People think that first they have to define the desired solution and then hire or tell the designer to make it work, when in fact they need to define the need (or problem) and then hire the designer to ask the right questions in order to identify the most appropriate, effective solutions. Real designers are leaders and drivers of change, not passive consultants waiting for, and uncritical of, the brief or client instruction.

“Cape Town design,” he states, “Could be more aggressive about showing us all how we can become better human beings through design. We  do not celebrate our designers enough as a society or appreciate  their impact on the economy. Designers shape tastes and influence consumer habits.

‘I hate it when Cape Town designers let non-designers  drive the design agenda far too much and speak on their behalf . I also hate it when designers are treated as commodities to be used at others’ disposal. Designers are very skilled creatives who can transform our lives through their ingenuity and insight.  Designers are pioneers and sometimes need to rock the boat to get the fleet moving,” he says.

But designers can also be their own worst enemies, he points out, “Many designers in Cape Town do not understand that constructive criticism is what helps produce better designs and designers. Because we live in a small city with limited resources, competition amongst designers can be more acrimonious and territorial than is necessary.  Fragile egos see critique as personal affronts. This is unhelpful. We as a design community are still developing the understanding that a sense of generosity and  excellence is what we should be pursuing.”

“Design in this city is often confused and presented as if it is solely about products, the image of a building, or the lamp.  So when we showcase design, more effort should be placed on the process and the thinking which precedes the product. ”

Makeka sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council for Design, is an external examiner at the Columbia University School of architecture and lectures at the University of Cape Town.

And it is his visionary insights on design issues ranging from sustainability to socially-responsive design and culture and public spaces, that are inspiring designers, as evinced in a recent talk at graduation day at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Faculty of Design and Informatics in which he spoke on Design in the City and its potential for good.

In conversation with Mokena.

I LIVE …  in a loft apartment in Long Street in the Cape Town CBD. I think Long Street is the most progressive  model of  cosmopolitan urban living and street life in the country. Although it’s imperfect in many ways, there are many clues about how to make South African cities work in a resilient and sustainable manner in Long street.

In my your home I love my collection of model fighter jets and Star Wars memorabilia…and my horror novel collection….and my bonsai tree.

On the walls I have black and white photographs  of Manhattan in the 1950s  and mid-1930s.  The optimism of a society expressed in the making of civic buildings is powerful and outlives the egos that often are required to make these buildings possible.   I admire the boldness of these bygone eras, and sometimes wish that we could find our own language of boldness and optimism in the way that we make our cities and imagine ourselves. Progress and fear often cancel each other out and nobody wins if pessimism drives our social imagination.

I GET AROUND … I walk whenever I can and drive a black BMW Z3.

I WORK … I run and own my own atelier,  Makekadesignlab. My office is off St George’s Mall. It’s a compact double volume creative space in a building that struggles to be mixed use..a bit messy at times…always interesting…never too relaxed. I like the fact that  the city life is on our doorstep, but I can also escape the city in a few quick steps… never too far from the action with the station a two-minute walk away…proximity to stimulation is an important feature of my creative process and that of my staff.

A DESIGN OF MY OWN THAT I LIKE BEST … It’s the community centre in Khayelitsha.  It’s an optimistic building, it anticipates a better future will emerge. But what was built was not exactly what I intended. It was meant to be one of four civic buildings that would work of a common public realm and create a new public square for culture.

DESIGN IS … Design has the capacity to address people’s needs effectively and appropriately. Access to good design should be a human right.

I LOVE DESIGN …  which is bold and takes us a step further from what we already know.  I hate timid designs which are one-dimensional and fail to  build knowledge and inspire people.

MY FAVOURITE DESIGN … It’s actually a bicycle called the Ciclotte. Also I like Mies van de Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion

LOCAL DESIGNERS I LOVE … Design Champion Ravi Naidoo, Byron Qually industrial designer and Heath Nash lighting designer.

FOR FUN  … I love to read and make music, sketch buildings for which the client has not yet emerged. I love playing with my baby, teaching her to swim, grilling succulent meats, hanging out with the wife, watching fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and popular culture comedy. I find  so called ‘low-brow’ cultural production conceptually interesting and insightful.

I like  Andiamo, Pepenero, Origins for coffee …but I will never travel for coffee. I will travel for friends and coffee.

I watch movies at  Canal Walk – the selection is simply the widest, and the seating ergonomics are the best.

And eat out at Chef Pons, Caveau, any Thai place, Balduccis, Bukhara and l love ordering in from Colcachio and Da Vinci.

I chill out wherever there is a wifi spot a mojito and a buzz.  I love  90’s hip hop and classical ( Beethoven) and 1980’s rock, 1960’s soul and any music with attitude and lyrics…songs must tell a story to music for me…so mindless dance repels me. I meet friends at their homes…

I also like Pepperclub,Cape Quarter, Long Street, Deer Park Cafe, friends’ homes…

My favorite place to people-watch is Long street – no question…Long Street Cafe.