by Shirley Williams

Redefining our urban spaces

Millennials are not only the most tech-savvy generation but they have new perspectives on complex issues

Renee_Amelia_Minnaar_(UP)_-_29.png

Millennials are not only the most tech-savvy generation but they have new perspectives on complex issues, new approaches to solving age-old dilemmas and they provide innovative solutions to problems that have stymied previous generations
In this annual competition, the country’s best architectural students from eight major universities were identified based on their final theses and presented with awards throughout 2017. The winners of each of the regional competitions competed for the national title and a prize of R50 000.

This year’s winner of the Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Award, Renée Minnaar from the University of Pretoria, is one such game changer. Her thesis, entitled, ‘Remediator—Restoring the dichotomous relationship between industry and nature through an urban eco-textile mill and dye house’ impressed the judges with its insightful way of tackling quintessentially South African issues that span generations and present compelling reasons to rethink the local built environment in South Africa.

Judges for this year’s Architectural Student of the Year Award were Maryke Cronje from Project Worx in Pretoria, Luyanda Mpahlwa from Design Space Africa in Cape Town and Tanzeem Razak from Lemon Pebble Architects in Johannesburg.

Today’s young professionals were not only looking at rapid and meaningful solutions backed by superior technology and connectivity but were also demanding a degree of authenticity that was often missing in the past.

“This year’s theme is technology and the ever-changing landscape. This is an exciting time for clay brick, which is essentially a technology that has stood both the test of time and change. A technology that drove the original industrial revolution is today addressing pressing issues such as environmental degradation and sustainability. Now, more than ever, the fact that clay brick is durable, non-toxic, reusable, energy efficient and low maintenance will be key,” he said.

Speaking at the awards event, the Principal of 26’10 South Architects, Thorsten Deckler, highlighted current brick trends, drawing attention to the Barnato Hall project. This a five-floor extension to an existing, prominently located residence on the University of the Witwatersrand’s West Campus and includes the innovative use of exposed brick facades employing a range of face bricks produced by Corobrik. It addresses the urgent need for student accommodation during a difficult evolution in the history of tertiary institutions in South Africa.

Minnaar, who currently lives in Newlands with her husband, grew up in Pretoria. “I believe in always giving 110% when it comes to my work, to prevent feeling like I could have done more at the end of a project. When I am not aspiring to become an architect, I enjoy cooking, hiking and staying busy with various creative projects,” she explains.

Her dissertation investigates the potential of redundant industrial sites like the old Johannesburg Gasworks to mitigate the environmental and social issues resulting from the past to reintegrate the site back into the surrounding urban fabric.

She says that industrialisation brought about dramatic changes in many major cities around the world, including Johannesburg. However, rapid technological advancements have resulted in the abandonment of many industrial sites, often within the confines of expanding cities, as is the case with the old Johannesburg Gasworks.

The repercussions of the hazardous industrial processes of the past are still present on the site in the form of pollution. This, together with South Africa’s lack of protection of our industrial heritage, has awoken the fear that these post-industrial artefacts might be in danger of becoming extinct if their value is not recognised.

“Through the understanding and application of environmental and heritage theories, this dissertation hopes to find a means of using architecture as a tool to mediate the dichotomous relationship between industry and nature, resulting from an exploitative worldview, and inspire a new archetype for industrial architecture that is able to inspire mutually beneficial relationships between industry and nature, whilst creating a didactic and dialectical relationship between the existing industrial heritage of the past and the envisioned contemporary architecture of the future,” Minnaar explains.

Prof. Arthur Barker, MProf Coordinator, Research, Archive Coordinator and Heritage and Cultural Landscapes Research Coordinator, noted that, over the years, the university’s Department of Architecture had developed research directions that focused specifically on environment potential, heritage and cultural landscapes and human settlements and urbanism.

“It is with this frame of reference that Reneé Minnaar chose to focus on adaptive reuse principles in the historic gas works precinct in Johannesburg.

“She has successfully synthesised often conflicting, architectural approaches to industrial heritage through her revisions of the principles of philological restoration and regenerative architectural theory. Over and above these approaches, she has created a rich, sensitive, social and economic environment through the revival of lost manufacturing processes in the City of Gold. Through these approaches, she has repaired broken urban fabric, healed a polluted site, breathed new life into important historical relics and provided much-needed educational and economic opportunities for the local inhabitants,” he said.

Pointing out that Minnaar was focused, driven and passionate about South Africa’s historic architectural legacy, he said she would make significant contributions to architectural design approaches through her ability to sensitively interpret and then respond in a critical manner to the cultural and historic architectural heritage.

“Her well-honed analytical skills will foster new approaches to the making of our built environment by building on important preceding knowledge and critically extending those approaches to existing environments that are under threat.

“But, more importantly, her haptic understanding of architecture will provide places and spaces of great enjoyment while her appreciation of current economic circumstances will provide architecture that will improve the livelihoods of local inhabitants,” Prof. Arthur Barker concluded. 

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