Developing a Post Colonial Architecture

By Margeaux Adams

At Rebel Base as young architectural professionals of colour we share a discerning appreciation for architectural heritage and simultaneously have a desire to define for ourselves a post colonial architecture. So often and so unfortunately african architecture is reduced to organic forms and weak metaphors of reeds and rocks which are not only patronizing but uninspired. In both our  theses we attempted to use post colonial theory as a tool to recontextualize and rewrite our spatial landscapes. 

My architectural thesis Onder Hemel Bo Aarde: A study on Spatial and Identity Erasure in the Western Cape, intended to memorialize a former slave community in the Western Cape. The proposal sought to answer the following; what does architecture for a community who has had their identity purposefully erased look like, and what type of building could appropriately memorialize this community of colour.

Employing post colonial theories used in the typographic arts; the hypothesis was that what was erased could be made visible and is evident by its absence. In the literary arts ‘Erasure’ has been used as a tool to accurately re-represent written documentation. The art form seeks to highlight areas in text where concepts are self-undermining (Derrida, 1967). It does not remove inaccuracies but rather recontextualizes them, noting that these terms are “inadequate yet necessary” (Sarup, 1988). The research intended to investigate whether this deconstructivist typographic tool could be used in an architectural medium to achieve the same result.

The site, a former anglican mission settlement, situated in the wheat producing Swartland region, was embedded with religious and pastoral symbolism. The community was one that had experienced a double erasure; erasure of identity through slavery and colonialism, and erasure of the identity of their town through the collapse of their church. In the 1980’s the original church (believed to have been designed by Sophia Gray)  fell into disrepair and was replaced by a piece of ersatz architecture. In addition mismanagement by the diocese led to land once held by the church and used by the townspeople being sold and none of the substantial profit reinvested into the community. As such people lost their faith in the anglicanism they held onto for nearly a century as well as an attachment to a place they had called home for generations. The traces of all that has been lost have been etched onto the psychological landscape of the community and the remnants scattered in the physical landscape. 

Adapting the typology of monastic architecture and through the study and re-use of anglican church typologies and motifs the design attempted to elevate prosaic spaces of everyday rituals of the townspeople. Thereby acknowledging and giving value to the community’s heritage and history. Playing on the anglican sacrament of the eucharist (the sharing of bread and wine) and the site’s placement in the Swartland Region the design proposal became a cultural centre for the production of wheat and bread. 

After extensive field based research and engagement with the community; the proposal expanded to accommodate the remaining remnants of the rituals of the town and community. This took physical form in the reinterpretation of the spatial and social role once played by the church in a mission settlement. The program was a complex which included an archive, an agricultural school, a new church, an event space, a community-based market and artisanal mill. 

The complex’s design was based on a grid type arrangement, drawing on the legacy of dutch city building, interspersed with cloisters where wheat is farmed. There is a deliberate processional movement from learning, farming, processing and eating, visitors are forced to move through the site in a sequential way. Elements of 19th century anglican churches, such as tracery windows, buttresses, decorative wooden trusses and vaulted ceilings, have been repurposed and used in spaces such as the mill, the archive and places of instruction. In this way architecturally reinterpreting the typographic tool of erasure, dissecting, recontextualizing and reusing the language of the colonial.

At Rebel Base it is our hope that through our work we force the continuous questioning of our art form and the post colonial narrative, that we seek to create a sincere approach to african architecture that respects our communities and values people who for so long have not had spatial autonomy. We endeavour to serve communities by not simply regurgitating metaphors of reeds or reducing african architecture to circular forms but rather through engagement with communities and theory and the continuous interrogation of our spatial surroundings and fellow practitioners.