Ethics in Architecture: Chapter Four


by Arthur Barker

In this, the fourth and final chapter on ethics in architecture, I will comment on the ethics of architectural education through a reflection on the work of final year architecture students who recently completed their exams at the Department of Architecture, at the University of Pretoria.

An ethical education

Jo Noero1 once remarked that departments of architecture should not be in the business of training architects, but rather educating them. All architects have to undertake a two year work internship and write a practice examination before they can register as architects as professionals. The five years before this (at a recognised tertiary institution) is where the fundamentals of architecture are inculcated. The final year program at the Department of Architecture in the University of Pretoria allows a personal exploration of architecture and is intended to bring together the concepts of the previous four years. The students are expected to frame their dissertations by dealing with local architectural issues by using theory, sites and programs as vehicles. This year, the focus2 fell on "infill" spaces within our cities. I will describe some of the projects through the lenses I have written about this year namely identity, legacy, memory and ethics to show how the students have used these approaches to make architecture that is not just guided by economics, the client or prevailing formal trends.


Much architectural production of late is caught up in the formalism of internationalism. In our country, post 1994, many architects have attempted to create a new South African architectural identity - a fruitless aesthetic exercise I would argue. But architectural identity can be sought by dealing quite directly with local issues to find an "internal" language. Mark de Veredicis’ Language Repository reinterprets the architecture of the State Theatre in Pretoria. He uses the forms of the dominant Brutalist architecture to define new architectural form. Arthur Lehloenya investigates political architecture through the creation of “third space” as a new public forum in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria. A new “school of politics” is inserted under the existing courtyard aligned on a new axis cutting under the Union Buildings. The new architecture represents the earth through the use of "earth" walls that frame the sky through a light steel and glass roof. Kira Bester critiqued the formal and functional failings of the new Women’s’ Memorial on Lilian Ngoyi Square through a Women’s Centre. Here an Architecture of the Feminine is investigated to decode ways that women understand and occupy space. The resultant architecture in a city void, is protected and layered with interstitial spaces that provide opportunities for negotiation.

From left: Arthur Lehloenya's Negotiating Third Space at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Mark de Veredicis' Inner City Sanctum - a language understanding centre at Lilian Ngoyi Square. Kira Bester's Occupying the Void - A women's forum near the Lilian Ngoyi Square © Arthur Barker, 2015


The spatial legacy of Apartheid defines much of our built environment and is mostly visible through dormitory suburbs and uninhabited buffer zones. It is possibly at the edges of these enclaves that solutions can be found to increase physical connection, while a deeper understanding of the needs of the inhabitants can provide more appropriate functions. Msizi Mkhize’s Youth Enterprise Hub in Mamelodi, positioned directly along and between dangerous railway crossings provides training and work opportunities supported by the operations of a new and adjacent waste mining facility. The architecture literally bridges the conflicting urban conditions and provides flexibility of function over time through its innovative tectonic. Ursula Kotzé investigated the needs of the forgotten children of Phumolong in Mamelodi East. Her bamboo framed crèche was inspired by the daily rituals of the community providing an urban catalyst in a no man’s land near existing railway station. A secure yet connected internal environment is created through a series of courtyards. Dominique Peel’s Me(a)ting the Beef Bar in Marabstad drew on existing informal retail energies in this disconnected sector of Pretoria. The project allows for self-organisation through the provision of services such as fireplaces, water and storage with flexible trading spaces in-between formally connected spaces, through a sculpted ground plane. 

From Left: Msizi Mkhize’s Youth Enterprise Hub in Mamelodi. Ursula Kotzé crèche in Mamelodi East. Bottom: Domique Peel’s meat market in Marabastad. © Arthur Barker, 2015


No architecture will ever be truly new as it exists as part of a continuum of thought and development over time. The recent unveiling of a newly discovered species, Homo Naledi extends our knowledge of humankind and highlights the importance of our heritage. It also reminds us that we need to respect and conserve our cultural heritage for the generations to come as it is a record of our achievements and contributions. It is my contention that architecture that clearly recognises its position in this continuum, produces deeply rooted solutions. Marlette Burger’s device for urban cohesion reacts against the megalomania of Pretoria's architecture, recognising the memory through of the 1956 women’s march led by Lilian Ngoyi, the 1903 Sammy Marks commercial building and the presence of underground water furrows that were so much part of the founding of Pretoria. The linear architecture feeds off and supports existing functions while providing an improved and more controlled urban space partially submerged to connect to the State Theatre. The architecture is a series of screens that relate to varying edges while containing new space within. Gillian van der Klashorst’s Urban Observatory in Johannesburg is a device for observation and measurement. Its layout and tectonic are conceptually informed by the processes used by archaeologists. The architecture responds directly to existing heritage buildings on site through its contrasting forms, but its sensitive location improves the spatial layout of the precinct. More importantly the building allows new readings to be made of the traces and narratives of society that are visible in the surrounding landscape.

From Left Marlette Burger's Spatial Insurgency at the Sammy Marks Square precinct. Gillian van der Klashorst's Urban Observatory at the Johannesburg Observatory in Yeoville (Departments' Corobrik 1st prize winner) © Arthur Barker, 2015


The impact and consequences of the built environment on the earth and its inhabitants is well known to all of us. Terms like sustainability have, lately, been replaced with others such as regenerative and resilient. At the heart of these approaches is the mantra that we need to use less resources (and reuse as far as possible) while fostering development that will be of long-term benefit to future generations. Buckley Thompson’s Urban (Infra)structure project in the crime ridden Brown Street, in the north-eastern quadrant of Pretoria, addresses the very topical issue of water shortages and the possibilities of infrastructure facilitating architecture. Through a catalytic insertion, which is a model for other locations, water treatment processes create a new urban core with recreational, entrepreneurial and commercial functions. Johan Boonzaaier’s Educational Entomology Research Centre at the Pretoria Zoo focuses on repairing the damaged link between architecture and nature. The architecture, conceptualised as a habitat for humans and insects, is created through a number of building skins that facilitate these relationships. 


Buckley Thompson's Urban (Infra)structure project in a crime ridden section of Brown Street Pretoria. The student used latent energies on the site and solutions to the city's pressing water scarcity to generate pockets of infrastructure to foster other architectural programs (Departments' Corobrik 2nd prize winner) © Arthur Barker, 2015

Architectural design approaches

The vagaries and pressures of everyday practice do not make design easy. I hope that the approaches that I have highlighted over the last nine months have provided some food for thought and, possibly, inspiration. If we are conscious about identity in architecture then we can forge unique local approaches. If we are sensitive to our spatial legacy then we can improve our urban condition and uplift the lives of our poorer communities. If we understand architecture as a continuum and our responsibility as designers in terms of architectural history then our contributions can be so much richer and forward looking. If we act ethically towards our clients, each other and the environment then our buildings will have a long-lasting and positive impact for future generations. Let us think more deeply and critically about architecture. The future can only benefit.



  1. 1. Jo Noero is a practising architect in Cape Town, and was the head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Cape Town
  2. 2. The thematic approach was not a given but slowly developed out of urban investigations undertaken by groups of students