An architect inspired by life and the landscape has an interesting viewpoint on the profession and society in general.
Sarah Calburn is well known for designing buildings that integrate the landscape into the structure of the building. This is clearly visible at her offices in Parktown North, where the outside landscape blends with the architectural design.
Calburn attended Roedean girls’ school from grade one to matric. “The buildings and gardens at the school have indelibly affected my attitudes to space and consciousness,” she says.
After matriculating she went to the University of the Witwatersrand and studied town planning for two days before dropping it and making architecture her major. In her fourth year of study she went to Paris to do an internship. She became immersed in the techniques of drawing highly technical details at Leverd + Merz, the structural advisers on the famous Pompidou Centre.
Working for a living
Calburn completed her degree with 100% for her thesis and started work at Julian Michaels Architects where she became an associate, before she decided at the age of 27 to take a working trip. After working in Hong Kong for two years she received a scholarship to do a Masters at Royal Melbourne Institute of technology (RMIT) in Australia. She says that these two years changed her architectural thinking and opened her up to critical and conceptual thinking.
In 1996 she moved back to South Africa and started her own business in Troyeville, Johannesburg.
Wish for the industry
Calburn is frustrated by the lack of experimenting she sees in South Africa. “We are surrounded by serious challenges and serious potential, both of which have the power to galvanise architectural work and thinking into a truly inimitable ‘world-class’ bracket. It seems, however, that we are not far away enough from ourselves yet to exploit our difficulties, to realise our eccentricities and to re-imagine ourselves – essentially, with a fully creative vision.
She believes one of our easiest strategies would entail a simple response to landscape. “If one considers building and landscape simultaneously, we immediately escape into a creatively richer and more responsible space that critically considers the effect of buildings on the environment.
This approach instigates care for the wellbeing of the city and therefore the wellbeing of the society that makes and is made by the urban environment.”Calburn is able to situate this criticism immediately. “Just look at the lack of creative thinking that produces the RDP matchbox landscapes. These areas are devoid of hope, of any urban quality, of any aspiration. There is no will to experiment with high-density urban living. Instead, people are forced into areas where there are no amenities. The wealthy on the other hand retreat into their fortified spaces, with the tight line between private and public enforced ever more forcefully day by day.”
“Johannesburg cannot claim to be a world-class city until it is able to house its societal mix creatively in shared space. We need to tackle our own very peculiar problems and think up creative scenarios that can reform the defensive and strangling line between private and public.”
Calburn believes architects need to function in creative relationship with their clients and all the members of the professional team they engage with daily. She talks about the “loneliness” of many architects who seem to practice in isolation. “Discourse is something lacking in South Africa, both in daily life and in terms of the so-called architectural media. Much of what we see in the architectural press is thinly disguised advertorial – mutual back-slapping effectively.
Alternatively architecture is presented as sofas and cushions. I think architecture needs to effect a revolution in this country.”
Calburn is also worried about falling standards in architectural education. She wonders whether architecture schools should consider the specialisation of architectural training, as not all students are either destined or equipped with the skills to be designers. “Many architects in corporate employment don’t specialise or even practice design, but this is the main emphasis at universities, with technical know-how and serious hands-on learning de-emphasised.”
Another problem architects face in South Africa is the lack of quality builders. “Unfortunately, being a builder is not something that is aspired to in South Africa. Building skills seems to be dying, as people aspire to Word and Excel skills instead.
“If we forget how to build our world, we’re in serious trouble,” says Calburn. TiA&D