Buildings That Have A Unique Sense of Place

South African architect has explored indigenous village architecture and the way it fits the landscape

'ARCHITECTURE is space modulated with matter, engendering dreams out of human desires," writes Stanley Saitowitz. There's a poetic quality to his buildings as well. The expatriate South African's work forms the subject of a traveling exhibition called Geological Architecture.The exhibit is now in San Francisco, after its start at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and a stint at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside. Visitors in Riverside had the rare opportunity of viewing the Saitowitz exhibition in a Saitowitz building. It was an ideal context in which to contemplate the finely carved wooden models, both as artworks and as buildings. The intersection of aesthetic and functional considerations is the quality that makes architecture unique among art forms. The museum, which opened last year, was refashioned from an old Kress and Company department store. In his design, Mr. Saitowitz sought to produce a gallery space that acknowledged the unique qualities of the photographic image. He saw a correlation between the original building, with its elongated interior, and the lens of a camera. This prompted the concept that won him the contract: A gallery where "people are the film, the receivers of images and light." The result was a darkened interior where incoming light is carefully channeled. The renovation showed sympathy for the original building, but alluded to the history of the photograph. Installed in the facade is a camera obscura that captures an image of the streetscape. This integration of technology and image was a delight. The centrality of the relationship between site and structure is cogently expressed. Saitowitz's buildings offer a point of departure from the gestural pomposity that characterized the postmodernism of the 1980s. While postmodernism involves stylistic man- ipulation, Saitowitz seeks formal harmony in his designs. 'I'm from a tradition that started with modernism," he said when we spoke recently in his San Francisco office. "I think of architecture much more in terms of framework, in terms of a kind of stage for a performance rather than the actual performance itself." [Two weeks ago, Saitowitz won a design competition for a Holocaust memorial in Boston, beating out more than 500 competing plans. Funds are still being raised for construction on the downtown site.] Saitowitz claims influence from Frank Lloyd Wright and from thinkers such as Gaston Bachelard, author of "Poetics of Space." But his upbringing in South Africa, where he explored and documented indigenous village architecture, plays a role. He studied at the relatively liberal University of Witwatersrand during the early 1970s. The school was generally critical of apartheid, and architecture students were encouraged to design urban renewal projects. Despite this innovative climate, it was unusual for any architect to seriously consider the vernacular African architecture. This changed for Saitowitz with a visit by Pancho Guedes, a visionary architect from Mozambique. "Pancho's influence was huge," Saitowitz recalls. "I remember him saying that the work he saw at our school was about some sort of grand future. But just in case the future didn't come off, we should look in our backyards and in the countryside, and perhaps we could learn something about a world that you could make out of tin cans and the throwaway things from the society that we were trying to glorify." He started touring the countryside on his motorbike, meeting villagers, and discovering the African traditions that had seemed so remote during his upbringing in Johannesburg. "Just 20 minutes from the city with its high-rise buildings there was the most spectacular architecture you could imagine. I visited these painted huts done by the Ndebele people. The houses were almost like beaded dresses that were full of flickering geometric patterns. "They were made of mud, so every year the decorations were washed away and they would repaint them. I found that in every valley I visited, there was a different architecture that responded differently to the qualities of that place." After graduating, he practiced in South Africa for several years, attempting to develop a design process that would synthesize African and Western traditions. "At that time, I really believed my art had a political role because the actual political process was impossible," he said. "I felt that through this cultural merging I was presenting an alternative culture for South Africa." After the 1976 Soweto riots, he left for San Francisco. He studied at Berkeley, taught, designed houses, and worked on a series of private drawings and paintings. In 1982, he made pilgrimages to a number of the great structures of antiquity: Stonehenge, the Pantheon, and ruins in Mexico. These trips became a basis for subsequent experimentation. One of these projects was the Sundial House, a circular building that celebrated sunlight as a symbol of life. "That house was like a clock," said Saitowitz. "The activities in the house spun around in relation to the movement of the sun." The bedrooms were warmed during the day, the breakfast room took full advantage of the morning light, while the dining room provided vistas of the setting sun. He sees his current work as being less rhetorical, but in each project he attempts to deliver a sensitive and organic response to the environmental conditions of the site. In a recent project, a weekend house at Stinson Beach north of San Francisco, the dwelling became "an amplification of the nearby ocean." The roof is shaped like the crest of a wave and the weathered redwood walls are suggestive of driftwood. "I thought of the house as like something that had been washed up from the ocean, almost like a shell with a very crusty exterior and a soft lining which is very iridescent and full of all these different moments of light. The floor of the house is treated almost like a beach," he explained. Saitowitz sees himself as confronting the ethnocentric values that permeate American society. "I believe that art can transform experience and in a way create change instantly without having to go through the incredible bureaucracy.... I'm hoping that my work has a social role by changing people's consciousness in the way that art does," he said.

"Geological Architecture: The Work of Stanley Saitowitz" can be seen at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art until Sept. 29.

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