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Reflections on architecture

South Africa: Part II / Cape Town

April 10th, 2013


In Johannesburg we’d been told that Cape Town was more like a European city than an African one. As it turned out this was true. It had a much slower pace and was pretty to look at, with a big rock in the middle - a bit like Edinburgh then…

11/ Porky Hefer, Animal Farm

Our first visit was to Animal Farm, established in 2007 with an aim to show what the power of creative collaborations can achieve.

Porky Hefer is a conceptual designer who works with things around us that we often don’t appreciate to create works ranging from public sculptures to product and furniture design.

(Crate Fan, Nest & Pendant Images  courtesy of Animal Farm)

He’s probably best known for CrateFan who became an icon at the 2010 World Cup. Originally conceived as a temporary structure, it’s still standing today due to its continued popularity. Other work included a series of raised hideaways woven like bird’s nests and spun solid timber light pendants (Swarm)– his homage to Eames.

He raised concerns over the lack of iconic South African designers - that they don’t recognise or celebrate them enough with an over-reliance on importing things (both ideas & materials).

I loved his, “Skill don’t Kill” idea which would see a national South African skills camp replace military service.

12/ James Mudge

James Mudge Furniture Studio are specialists in the design and manufacture of high end, contemporary timber. James has a background in architecture and comes from a family of cabinet makers. The workshop is in the front of house with an office and gallery to the rear. As with others above his products are beautifully crafted with the materials mainly imported, with little if any use of native South African timber. I was distracted by the huge sander!

13/ Willow Lamp

The next studio & workshop visit was to Willow Lamp, who are industrial designers and specialise in the design and manufacture of pendant lights. Somehow they’ve managed to patent a simple method of attaching ball chain to bespoke laser cut steel frames and they seemed to be doing very well.

I was also interested in their use of the Rebul packaging system which is incredibly strong, cheap and sustainable.

14/ Heath Nash

Then we went to Heath Nash’s studio who designs and manufactures sculptural pieces by combining recycled plastic materials with traditional techniques, eg. basket weaving. He is self taught and collaborates with remote African communities who inspire his work.  As with the most of the above, he is a member of Southern Guild which is a forum for South African designers to support and challenge each other.

15/ Southern Guild, The Woodstock Foundry

(Image by Southern Guild)

(Image by

That evening we attended the Southern Guild annual exhibition opening, Heavy Metal at the Woodstock Foundry which showcased the best work from local designers. Established in 2008, SG is a platform to promote new top-end design work showcasing collectively at an international level and has reputation for innovation and a fresh perspective.

16 / Grand Cafe & Beach

(Image from

Afterwards, at dinner we met Daisy Ginsberg, David Adjaye, Oscar Diaz and Zahira Asmal. I’ve included some information about Daisy in the Design Indaba section and most of you will already know the work of contemporary architect David Adjaye and product designer Oscar Diaz but perhaps less so that of Zahira. She has recently edited the book, Reflections and Opportunities, published by Designing_SouthAfrica which is the first formal South African gesture towards sharing the experience and learnings from hosting the World Cup with Brazil.

17/ Woodstock Exchange


Next up we met one of the developers behind the Woodstock Exchange - Nick Ferguson. The WE is a hub of workshops, studios and retail units in one building.

The shops often collaborate, share ideas and make their products on site. At approx £200 pm for a standard unit, it is affordable and the companies benefit from each other’s diversity and success.

There is everything from illustrators, painters and photographers to furniture, bag & shoe makers and barber shops, artisan chocoloatiers, with fish-mongers in-between. There is even a Google Incubator office (88mph/Umbono) on the top floor with great views of the city.

Each company is carefully selected to maintain the vision for the building and help it become a central hub for fresh creative industries. It provides a platform which encourages young designers to believe in their ability and successfully run their own business. This reflected a more collective approach to entrepreneurship seen earlier in the trip.

18/ Fringe Design District

We then met with local town planner, Yehuda Raff who took us on a tour round the Fringe Design District of CT. He’s clearly been instrumental in the district’s recent transformation.

He believes in open streets, pedestrianisation, cycle lanes and the city as outdoor art. These elements would undoubtedly benefit both cities and in particular Johannesburg with it’s reliance on the vehicle.

19/ Fablab at Cape Craft Design Institute

Within the district is the CCDI Fablab - a 3D modelling workshop similar to Maklab in Glasgow. It caters for craft producers in the Western Cape who want to develop products, and need machines which are otherwise unavailable to them. Users are fully trained by the technicians and through programmes designed for each project. The support encourages young designers to see a project through to completion rather start something and then loose interest.

20/ Mokena Makeka

(Image courtesy of

Our meeting with Mokena was in his offices, Makeka Design Lab in city centre. There he explained his ideas behind MoDila – a concept for a Museum of Design, Innovation, Leadership and Art which he conceived using funds from winning the Johnnie Walker Celebrating Strides Award. He wants to challenge how museums are traditionally perceived in SA which was particularly interesting after our trip to Museum Africa.

He has a very strong social agenda and using MoDila plans to get children from different economic backgrounds into higher education by organising weekend workshops.


There is no doubt the two cities are very different, both in terms of their aesthetic and experience. You can almost tell Johannesburg is purpose built (for the extraction of gold) whilst Cape Town definitely feels like it developed more organically.  Both cities have thriving creative industries just under the surface and the people whilst being very friendly are eager to succeed.

The Design Indaba was next....

South Africa: Part I / Johannesburg

April 5th, 2013

As you may have noticed it’s taken some time to post anything about the trip to South Africa. To the credit of the British Council and Creative Scotland - we squeezed so much into a very short timescale that it’s taken me a while to digest it all. If you missed what this is  about - see my last post.

So, to keep you from falling asleep I'll post lots of pictures and split into three sections, First up - Johannesburg.

1 / Intro

All I knew of Johannesburg was what I'd seen on Sky One’s, Extreme World and on arrival, you can understand where the reputation comes from. Clearly security is a big issue. However I was determined not to be influenced by preconceptions and quickly learnt that Johannesburg is the largest city in the world not situated by the sea, a lake or on a river. Moreover, it has only existed since the late 1800’s, largely it seems due to gold and diamonds.

(Internal Image of Ponte Tower provided by

2/ Dokter & Misses


Our first visit was to the studio and showroom of Dokter & Misses at CO-OP in Braamfontein in central Johannesburg. They design and make furniture, lighting and other objects predominantly using steel and timber.

The set up is very impressive, with a contemporary gallery/shop on ground level and basement workshop underneath. The joiners & welders were happy to answer our questions and discuss their work and processes –surprisingly, almost all of their timber is imported.


3/ Gavin Rooke

(Image by Lottie Gerrard)

We then headed to the Maboneng District and lunch with Gavin Rooke – an inspiring entrepreneur with plenty of energy and a very enthusiastic, “just do it” attitude towards his work and Johannesburg. So to cut a very interesting long story short, here’s a summary of what he does:

(screenshot taken from

With a background in advertising and photography, he’s also curator and owns the Rooke Gallery which formed a collaboration with the “experimental” magazine IJusi.

He recently designed and built a house for about £15k! which was part of  an experiment called Stand 47 in how to build sustainably under restrictive means (image above).

He is also involved in Dutchmann,which is an informal guild of master craftsmen collaborating with contemporary artists and designers.

Further discussion focussed on the differences between Johannesburg and Cape Town and whilst I’m not going into it any further it did remind me a little of our own Scottish city divide.

4/ Jonathan Liebmann

Next stop was a meeting with Jonathan Liebmann at Arts on Main in the Maboneng Precinct - the first of his 35 odd developments (predominantly live/work units) in the local area. It’s a bold and vibrant regeneration of a post-industrial factory space which houses; studios, galleries and creative offices for approximately 100 residents.

You can’t help but admire his ambition and achievements at such a young age. He firmly believes in the role that a creative community can play in transforming an area which reminded me of the area where our old office was in James Morrison Street, Glasgow. Incredibly, he’s managed to regenerate an entire district of Johannesburg with little, if any government funding. Already we’d seen another example of the determined attitude of young entrepreneurs in SA with interests spanning the design sector. Perhaps worryingly though he also has to employ his own police.

5/ Trinity Session


We then met Marcus Neustetter, in his to studio in Maboneng and went on a tour to local townships. He’s a cultural artist who’s primarily interested how art can help local underprivileged communities.

Amongst other projects, he presented Hillbrow/Dakar/Hillbrow – a project which involved navigating Dakar using memory maps drawn by the local Senegalese community in Hillbrow. Amazingly, he was not welcomed in the area during the project and treated like a tourist even though he was born 5 minutes away.

(Image above by Lottie Gerrard)

We then visited a Muti market (shown above)  in Faraday where you could literally buy anything. The market is where you go for spiritual healing and had a cautious but generally friendly atmosphere. It was regenerated through a successful collaboration with artists (including Trinity Session), architects and other designers.

6/ David Krut

On the ground floor of Arts on Main, David Krut is a gallery and printworks located in Arts on Main (see above). There we met David who introduced us to a young local artist who’d escaped trouble through his art. David also works in New York but is committed to promoting young artists in Johannesburg.

7/ Parts & Labour

(Image courtesy of Parts & Labour)

Still in Arts on Main, Parts & Labour is a small scale 3D printers owned and run by Brendan Copestake. He develops the ideas of printers, architects and artists to make something tangible. The studio is still at an exploratory stage but had been involved in some very large public art in the city which plays on visual perception. It was encouraging to see yet another relatively small scale company doing big things.

8/ Museum Africa

Our next visit was to Museum Africa which began as a fruit and veg market. The tour guide explained, Johannesburg is a young city and missed the movement towards establishing the importance of museums. As a result there is a general lack of knowledge and education about the museum, characterised by the overpowering smell of bleach and lack of visitors – it was early though. This disinterest was further emphasised by the fact that the gable dome was removed from the building to make way for the motorway extension. The car in Johannesburg is definitely king!

The highlight was the camera obscura which only makes use of mirrors, lenses and natural light but projects a far clearer image than any digital output I’ve ever seen.

9/ 26’10 South Architects.

Our first visit an architect’s office was 26’10 South Architects. Formed by Anne Graupner & Thorsten Deckler and located in their home in Brixton, a historic suburb of Johannesburg.

(Internal image by 26’10 South Architects)

We were shown a vast array of very interesting projects, from football pitches made of beer-crates for the 2010 World Cup to the regeneration of entire communities,  most if not all had clear social agendas looked at to solving various problems in or around the townships.  As seen elsewhere, there was a keen interest in collaboration and willingness to share expertise and resources. What a great house/office it was too!

10/ The Smarteez & Chris Saunders

(Image by Lottie Gerrard)

Without doubt, the most animated group me met were the Smarteez - a DIY fashion collective who design and make their own “street couture”. Predictably this meeting was the most eventful and included a walk through the fashion district of the CBD. Let’s just say this was not for the faint-hearted. They were keen to show us how they worked and were very proud of their background in Soweto (a township of Johannesburg). They have an infectious passion for their work, are very serious about their beliefs, often staging gorilla events at fashion shows. They are unpredictable, edgy and reject the media and marketing which of course contributes to reason they are fashionable.

(Image by Dazed Digital)

Chris Saunders is a photographer and yet another creative with genuine optimism about design in SA. He’s been documenting the Smarteez for three years and is recognised as one of Johannesburg’s best.


As mentioned, the built environment is designed around the car and it’s the only city I’ve been to where as a tourist you can’t get a taxi. To me the system was unusual, with each only serving a specific township. This combined with the over-reliance on the car and the desire to live out with the city may have contributed to a lack of pedestrian amenity and interest in public space within the town centre.

Johannesburg is certainly complex however there is a strong sense of place and optimism about the future. Everyone we met was friendly, happy to talk about their work and took a keen interest in collaborating with us.

Their love of  their city and townships and all the cars and the fly-overs reminded me of my home city of Glasgow ...... only bigger and busier and more proud.

Next up - Cape Town

Design Indaba

February 22nd, 2013


I’m excited to announce that GRAS have been asked by The British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland to go on a research trip to South Africa and attend Design Indaba. So I thought I’d write a post about the project before I go and will share my experiences on my return. After flying to Johannesburg - where we stay for 2 days,  we then head south to Capetown and the expo for 3 days before returning to Johannesburg and heading home.

Here’s some further information about the trip:


The British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland have established a 3 year partnership to deepen cultural engagement between Scotland, Brazil, India, and South Africa. The priority is to build long-term relationships between artists and arts organisations so that ambitious creative projects can be developed and supported over time,

The partnership is based on a shared belief that working together and integrating the complementary activity of both organisations will enhance opportunities to place the arts and the culture of Scotland on a world stage, and for Scotland to become a great platform to showcase the arts and culture of others.

The programme in South Africa has a major focus during 2014 when the country celebrates 20 years of its democracy.  To prepare the ground for activity during that year the partners have established a need for some R&D and initial scoping work.  The trip to the Design Indaba, led by Daniel Charny, focussed on ‘Design and Making’. Delegates enjoyed a full schedule visiting both Johannesburg and Cape Town.



Pop Ups 7, 8 & 9 / Glasgow

February 18th, 2013


Not blogged much recently so thought I'd get back to it and let everyone know that Critical Dialogues, Scotland’s contribution to the Venice Biennale will be coming to Glasgow.

We will be popping up our Transient Gallery in three locations around Glasgow this coming Saturday, 16th February so if anyone is interested in having a look or even helping out you're more than welcome.

The schedule will go something like this:


Location 1: 11am   // The corner of Shamrock St & New City Rd diagonally opposite Stow College


Location 2: 1pm     // Opposite The Citizens Theatre on Gorbals St


Location 3: 3pm     // Behind the arch at the Saltmarket entrance to Glasgow Green


The Transient Gallery will be part of a new exhibition, organised by Architecture and Design Scotland, opening at The Lighthouse on February 22 nd, exploring what happened when four young Scottish architectural practices went to the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012 to showcase a new type of architecture to an international audience.

The architecture practices – DO Architecture, GRAS, Pidgin Perfect and Stone Opera – responded to the Biennale’s theme ‘Common Ground’ by organising a week-long sequence of activities that engaged with marginalised places and social organisations.

The exhibition is supported by Scottish Government, British Council and Creative Scotland, and was originally curated by Jonathan Charley, Strathclyde University. It is open to the public from February 22nd and runs until April 10th in Gallery 2, Level 2, The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow. Admission free. For more information click here.


WWII Radar Buildings_Sumburgh Head Lighthouse

December 14th, 2012


At a recent site visit to Sumburgh Head Lighthouse we took some photos of the interiors of the WWII radar buildings on site.  We have always found these inspiring buildings, even if the textures created were an unintentional by-product of defensive requirements.

These small huts are thought to have housed transmitting and receiving equipment and were originally constructed in timber, with roofs formed in corrugated iron sheeting.  To protect them from German machine guns the buildings were later enclosed in a no fines concrete outer shell, shuttered and poured in situ.  Over several decades the harsh marine environment has eroded much of the original timber and iron structures, leaving only their inverted impression on the interior faces of the concrete shell, akin to a Rachel Whiteread sculpture.

The concrete and textures found in these and similar buildings have been a significant influence on the form and construction techniques used in the new Education Room, currently on site.

For more information on the Sumburgh Head regeneration project visit their website.