Victoria Solan | DesignIndaba

Learning from South Africa

Architects have long travelled to inspect the artifacts of other cultures.  But does it matter what we learn or how we learn it? Ashley Mendelsohn, a recent graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s MDes program, used her thesis project to probe precisely this question. Mendelsohn took on Cape Town’s District Six as her Roman Forum.

But unlike the center of Rome, District Six, which had once been a lively and heterogeneous neighborhood, is now a vast, desolate area, largely avoided by many Capetonians. Although some revitalization has been attempted, the roughly two-hundred-acre site is still scarred by the history of apartheid: it remains a place where some 66,000 people were forcibly cleared from their homes in the 1960s and '70s. (The name "District Six" dates from 1867, though the area had been settled by freed slaves, immigrants and port workers earlier in the nineteenth century).    

Much of District Six still bears witness to the devastation of apartheid. Recent resettlement has not erased the impact of the bulldozers. When Mendelsohn visited, she noticed that locals spoke of the area with fear, and young people deliberately avoided thinking about District Six as part of the future of Cape Town. Yet it is difficult, dangerous sites like District Six which hold the key to reinvigorating our cities. Mendelsohn was intrigued by the possibility of opening a new conversation about a place which many seemed determined to ignore. 

At first, Mendelsohn, who holds an undergraduate degree in architecture, assumed that she would design a structure for the site. But the further she plunged into the realities of District Six, the more this assumption terrified her. Rather than leaning away, Mendelsohn channeled her fear into a productive rethinking of the thesis assignment: a new framework for learning, rather than a material installation, was what District Six needed. Learning from District Six challenges the idea that architectural education consists of a site visit followed by rapid-fire execution of sections and elevations. Designers, Mendelsohn proposes, need to learn to listen as much as they need to learn to draw.  A “framework of trust,” she proposes, is as important as any structural framing, especially in culturally-contested spaces like Cape Town.  

Mendelsohn’s thesis project ultimately took shape as a book with a landscape viewer built into the back cover. Reading the text and holding the viewer, the visitor becomes an active participant in Mendelsohn’s “platforms for discourse.” The ensuing conversation is not just about District Six, but about how we construct the role of the designer: a lesson from Cape Town that is applicable around the world. 


The DesignIndaba conference runs February 25–27 in Cape Town. Design Observer is a Media Partner for DesignIndaba 2015.

Victoria Solan Victoria Solan is a communications consultant at the World Bank Group. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University, and has taught the history of cities and parks at the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, and Tufts University. She has consulted on public art projects in Boston and Ottawa, and has been a contributor to Design Observer since 2014.

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