by Shannon Manual

Achieving architectural balance

Kate Otten is one of the country’s foremost Architects who is known for designing South African buildings that embody the relationship between people and place


For Otten, her journey into architecture was one that was entirely coincidental, and it was only much later on that it became a passion. A classical guitarist initially, when her music teacher went to Durban University, so did she. Here, she happened to study architecture. After her first year of studying, she began to fall in love with it and it became much easier to sign up for the same thing the following year than to change courses and go to music school. However, when her music teacher returned to Johannesburg, so did she.

“It was during my fourth year of study—the practical year—that it became a passion and I was very inspired by it. I worked in the office of Muhammad Mayet, one of the few people of colour who had a practice, given that it was around the mid-80s, within the Apartheid years. He was engaged in creating these community mosques in Malawi. It’s quite interesting because he was interested in a far more stylish kind of architecture and I was in love with doing a far more rural, traditional mud-baked brick style of architecture. I went to Malawi with an entire crew of Muslim men building mosques in Malawi. It was fantastic. That became a turning point for me and quite an inspiration. And then architecture just took over,” Otten recalls.

She graduated from Wits University in 1988 with a Degree in Architecture and worked for a number of practices to earn enough money to start her own company. She started her practice in 1989, just one year out of university.

Her practice’s work has won awards from several bodies and has been exhibited and published locally and internationally. Philosophically, the work is mindful of place and people—they work within the African tradition of spaces being emotional carriers of meaning.

“For me, the idea that a building or a structure is placed in an environment is critical to my understanding and to my design process. There are some very important things that influence how I approach architecture—the location of the building and the surrounding landscape, what is the community within which the building will be placed, who is the building for, what have we got to make the building work—all of these things influence how the building is designed,” says Otten.

“If the surrounding landscape is a natural one, I will seek to conceptualise the building or aspects of it as part of the language of the natural landscape. If working within a very urban environment, there will be a need to connect to nature and have it be a central part of the building. And this connects to the human factor—how a building responds to the emotional needs of the user and how it influences and impacts their experience of the building. If you have incorporated nature, such as through using natural materials, it’s going to make people feel more at ease or more connected to the environment, which is important,” she elaborates.

For Otten, sustainability is a key theme but it is best described as a resourcefulness—the greening of the environment is the consequential outcome of addressing a variety of other issues like social fabric, economics and ingenuity, rather than merely being an end in itself.

For her, there is an emotional connection to creating a space or a place.

“My approach is deeply personal as I engage with the client, the builder, the people in my office and those on site,” she says.

This is clear in her buildings. Otten was involved in the restoration of the Old Fort on Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill where Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were imprisoned, an intensive and slow process that involved carefully scraping away layers of history as she preserved the country’s heritage. Her practice restored, rebuilt and added on to the historic Women’s Jail, also on Constitution Hill, an accomplishment she takes intense pride in.

Built around 1909, the Women’s Jail was considered a ‘fine example of English prison architecture’, however, it is better known as a place where women anti-Apartheid activists were unjustly imprisoned. Through this project, the jail was transformed from a place of oppression and brutality to a symbol of freedom and a place where human dignity is restored.

Otten explains that later additions to the jail were demolished to restore the significance of the original buildings and courtyards and two new office buildings were inserted to house the human rights commissions notably, the Commission on Gender Equality. History is revealed through the juxtaposing of modern elements with the old—the historic buildings activated by the new interventions. Prisoners had to obsessively clean the central atrium but were never allowed to walk through the centre of it. Now, access to the new offices is via this space, past commemorative exhibitions that describe the past and interface between a public museum and a private office space.

“The new architectural language respects the scale and proportion of the historic fabric but simultaneously seeks to expose and transform the prison. The new buildings, for example, quite literally ‘jump over’ the existing perimeter wall—a gesture symbolising the transformation from a place of confinement to a new expression of freedom and democracy. Architecture, rather than being a passive heritage artefact, becomes a prompt for renewal without compromising the respect, which is owed to the past,” explains Otten.

Kate Otten Architects has created more than 150 buildings in the past two decades. Otten has transformed a number of homes in 4th Avenue, Parkhurst, Johannesburg, into shops, running a canopy along the length of the street. Its dynamic, folded shapes reflect the rhythm of life passing beneath it. She has designed community libraries, a waterfront development in Tzaneen and an art therapy centre in Soweto.

Notable work that exemplifies the principles of Otten’s architect firm includes Gabriel’s Garden, a 1930s heritage home which is now a National Monument; Lulu Kati Kati, a house owned by Otten and best described as ‘an urban treehouse’, and Wits Rural community. This campus provides an internationally recognised, alternative teaching platform for in-situ research into indigenous fauna and flora, conservation and socio-economic policy and practice for rural communities.

It was recently announced that Kate Otten Architects has been shortlisted for the prestigious World Architecture Festival Award for outstanding design in various categories. Otten’s building ‘Law on Keyes’ in Rosebank, Johannesburg, has been nominated in the Office Category of the 2018 awards.

“The making of this building was a journey that challenged assumptions of what corporate and commercial architecture should be. It was also a journey that stretched our very enthusiastic client’s vision of what he wanted. He has become our greatest praise singer,” says Otten.

“Legal practices need to reflect certain powers at play—clients need to be impressed, opposing counsel needs to be intimidated—while maintaining a level of physical and spiritual comfort conducive to long working hours for the staff. Through a careful three-dimensional manipulation of spatial relationships, the design of this boutique office creates a spatially integrated working environment while still maintaining the functional requirements of privacy, security and hierarchy.

“We’re very excited to be shortlisted for such a prestigious international awards programme and to be representing great design from South Africa. There are not many participants from the African continent of Africa but this is on the increase. This year, there are, I think, five of us who are South African who are finalists in one category or another. And it’s fantastic because it puts us on an international platform and showcases the strength of our ability, which is really important, as one of the things we tend to suffer from is thinking that other nations are better than us,” explains Otten.

“I was recently at this African Union of Architecture Congress and one of the things that was very exciting was how there’s a great sense that Africa is like the new future. There is definitely a shift happening, from a Eurocentric to a more Afrocentric view. People are looking more towards Africa, as opposed to Europe for inspiration,” she adds.

“If you go back quite a number of years, Tuscan or Georgian style buildings were all the rage in the architectural sphere. We were taking from established Eurocentric things and trying to make them our own because it made us look and feel important. That is shifting enormously here and also in the world at large.

“In China and Vietnam, there’s some amazing work going on that is both traditional and contemporary. Traditional ways and locally appropriate ways of creating buildings are receiving renewed value and energy, and those projects are doing really well. They feature in this World Architecture Festival, which, for me, is fantastic as it represents a kind of an acknowledgement of the value of tradition,” says Otten.

Asked whether South African architecture has a unique identity that we are fully utilising whilst still being modern and contemporary, she says tradition is something that develops over time, growing and changing according to a need and what is available.

“South Africa has a very young democracy and there’s still a lot of unrest taking place but part of that mix is also that we will find our own strengths in our values and our traditions. In architecture, they call it critical regionalism—when you seek to provide architecture rooted in the modern tradition but which is still connected to a geographical and cultural context. I have often been described as a critical regionalist. It’s a mediation between the global and local languages of architecture, and I think that’s what tradition is about as well—a combination of the new and old,” she says.

As a woman architect, Otten believes that while women architects should be celebrated, it should be done without undermining the fact that they are architects first and women second.

“I fully support shining the spotlight on women in architecture and in other fields, however, you don’t want to undercut the fact that we are architects by saying that we’re a very special breed, due to being female. People building each other up, especially women building up other women, is very important. There are many women who worked in my practice who came from some really difficult situations and I valued them and the role they could play in the office, which enabled them to have the strength and self-belief—I think it’s very important,” says Otten.

She further states that giving exposure to successful women allows those younger to view them as role models and be a source of inspiration and motivation in achieving their own goals.

“I know that my practice has been very important to a lot of young architects, particularly women, and I am aware of the role that I’ve filled. I think it is valuable and I think it is important.

“I started my practice in a time when work was scarce and architecture was largely the domain of white men. What gave me the courage, or reckless will, if you like, to start my own practice at this time in South Africa?Perhaps it was the very reason that I was an architect, that I didn’t fit into the mainstream and that I was young and ambitious,” says Otten.

“I wanted to build, make fantastic architecture and be famous. In a way, it was a survival strategy but, ultimately, it was an empowering choice and one that has allowed me to have my own voice and enabled me to create a safe place to pursue architecture for myself and other women and men who are feminists. But do not fear feminism—it is really only the desire for equal rights and equal opportunities for both men and women. Chimamanda Adichie says ‘we should all be feminists’. We can empower ourselves by embracing this ‘other’. I have built my practice on these terms and in so doing, my practice has a very a different sensibility to most. With the work that we have done, I hope to leave a legacy of inspiration that will help young architects do the same,” she concludes.

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