Tristan McLaren/Courtesy of Lemon Pebble Architects
The early childhood development center in Vosloorus, a township near Johannesburg, was designed by Lemon Pebble Architects, one of a small number of architecture firms in South Africa owned by Black women.

In South African architecture, women build on social justice

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In South Africa, the gap between who designs buildings and who actually lives in them is one of the widest in the world. About 4 in 5 architects are white, though white South Africans are only about 9% of the population. Less than one-third of architects are women, and just 4% women of color. 

The push to change that is part of the country’s overall transformation since the end of apartheid. But it also ties into an international conversation about who gets to design the spaces we move through every day. From Austria to India, city planners have wrestled with how to better accommodate people traditionally left out of design. That can mean anything from widened sidewalks to better accommodate strollers to women-only train cars meant to deter harassment.

Why We Wrote This

Architecture springs from more than imagination. Each building is shaped by the lives of the people who designed it – one reason that Black female architects are determined to blaze a trail for the next generation.

Althea Peacock and Tanzeem Razak, co-founders of Lemon Pebble Architects in Johannesburg, were part of the first generation of Black female architects here. At the time, South Africa was on the cusp of enormous change, and young architects saw potential to quite literally rebuild the country.

“We grew up in spaces that were cheap and often ugly by design – just sand and concrete,” says Ms. Razak. “We wanted to say, these places can also be beautiful too. There is dignity in that.”

When Ngillan Faal was growing up in Gambia, in West Africa, it was clear to her that her family’s colonial bungalow had not been designed by or for people like them.  

It had a kitchen with a stove, but since the family preferred to prepare most meals over a fire, they had to do that outside. The rooms in the house, meanwhile, turned stuffy and hot in the tropical sun, and so the family spent most of their time socializing outdoors, in the shade of the trees.

“I remember being intrigued by how everything that happened in that house happened in opposition to the building itself,” she says. “That was when I first realized that spaces fundamentally affect the quality of our lives.”

Why We Wrote This

Architecture springs from more than imagination. Each building is shaped by the lives of the people who designed it – one reason that Black female architects are determined to blaze a trail for the next generation.

Today, Ms. Faal is a practicing architect in South Africa, where the gap she observed in her childhood – between who designed buildings and who actually lived in them – is one of the widest in the world. About 4 in 5 architects here are white, although white South Africans make up only 9% of the population. Less than a third are women, and just 4% women of color, according to unpublished data from the South African Council for the Architectural Profession, obtained by the Monitor.

Since the end of apartheid, legislation, social pressure, and affirmative action programs have propelled massive change in many industries here. Black female journalists, for instance, lead a third of the country’s major publications, up from 6% in 2006. For many here, this kind of transformation is seen as a moral imperative – a way of rebuilding a society built to exclude people of color.  

But for architecture and urban design in particular, diversity is also part of a wider international conversation about who gets to design the spaces we all move through every day. From Austria to India, city planners in recent years have wrestled with how to build spaces that better accommodate women and other people traditionally left out of design. That can mean anything from widened sidewalks to better accommodate strollers as Vienna did, to India’s women-only train cars, meant to deter harassment, and movements around the world to add more women’s bathrooms to public buildings and spaces.

Buildings are an important part of the equation as well, says Althea Peacock, co-founder of Lemon Pebble Architects in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s only architecture firms fully run by women of color. For instance, female architects tend to design buildings that are “more empathetic to the ways in which women are vulnerable,” she says. That can mean including more lights for safety, more bathrooms, and more places to breastfeed or change a diaper. In countries like South Africa, it can also include things like more space on streets and sidewalks for hawkers – many of whom are women – to sell goods. “There are many small ways you can shift design to accommodate women and the ways women move through the world differently than men,” she says.

Tristan McLaren/Courtesy of Lemon Pebble Architects
"One of our philosophies is that people with low resources can still aspire to beautiful, functional spaces," says Tanzeem Razak, one of the co-founders of Lemon Pebble Architects, which designed this early childhood development center in Vosloorus, near Johannesburg.

Blazing a trail

Ms. Peacock and her co-founder, Tanzeem Razak, were part of the first generation of Black female architects in South Africa, who trained and began work during the country’s transition to democracy in the early 1990s. They were breaking a thick glass ceiling: Universities that trained architects during apartheid were almost exclusively reserved for white students, and most were men.

Karuni Naidoo, who comes from South Africa’s Indian community, remembers going to the Department of Indian Affairs in Durban, the coastal city where she grew up, to formally request permission to enroll in an architecture program at a white university there in the 1980s.

“You had to make a case for why it was worth letting you have a spot” that could have gone to a white student, says Ms. Naidoo, who now runs the transformation committee at the South African Institute of Architects – which works on questions of diversity – and CNN Architects, the practice she co-founded in Durban.

Once she enrolled, it felt like she straddled two worlds. Each morning, she woke up in the Indian township on the fringes of the city where her family had been confined by apartheid city planning, where most public buildings were drab and cheaply made. Then she took a bus across town to the white part of the city, with its art deco office blocks and ornate Edwardian houses, where she spent hours listening to lectures exclusively on European styles of architecture, before heading back out into apartheid South Africa.

“When I looked up in the profession, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” she says.

Form and function

But at the same time, South Africa was on the cusp of enormous change. And young Black architects saw potential in their own careers to quite literally rebuild the country.

“One of our philosophies is that people with low resources can still aspire to beautiful, functional spaces,” says Ms. Razak, Ms. Peacock’s co-founder at Lemon Pebble. “We grew up in spaces that were cheap and often ugly by design – just sand and concrete. We wanted to say, these places can also be beautiful too. There is dignity in that.”

She points to a preschool that the firm designed in Vosloorus, a township near Johannesburg. It’s filled with light-drenched courtyards and vivid colors, with maps of the township painted on the walls to help kids “be proud of where they come from,” Ms. Razak says.

Ms. Faal, the Gambian architect, recently worked on a Johannesburg law firm for Kate Otten Architects, South Africa’s most prominent woman-owned firm. The architects drew in part on advice from women working at the practice to create a space full of “places to sit and stop and chat, where life could happen.” That included a window seat designed specifically for pregnant women to rest in.

In South Africa, firms owned by Black female architects benefit from a government program called Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (or BEE, as it’s known to most South Africans), which scores companies on diversity, particularly when it comes to the race and gender of their leadership. High BEE ratings help companies win government contracts.

But within the profession itself, many say not nearly enough has been done to either recruit or retain Black female architects (or architects who are either one or the other).

“Here you are sitting in classes where your professors are telling you that they’re decolonizing the curriculum and decolonizing built spaces, and then they assign you projects that rely on expensive supplies, and if you don’t have them, you don’t succeed,” says Chinenye Chukwuka, a recent graduate of the University of Cape Town’s architecture school. “At a point I had to ask myself, who are the people ending up at the top of architecture school? Is it the people who are smarter, who will be better architects, or is it just the people who have more resources? And is it a coincidence that the people with the least resources tend to be Black?”

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