The meanings of empowerment? Alternative architectural education and the launch of "Open Architecture" in Cape Town

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager
Cape Town, 2 February 2015

Over the last two decades, many changes have taken place in South African higher education, addressing the twin challenges of intellectual and developmental agendas in the post-apartheid context of societal transformation. In 1993, for example, numerous 'Technikons' were afforded the power to award certain technology degrees and, beginning in 2004, have also merged with traditional Universities or have become Universities of Technology (though the latter has not yet acquired all of the traditional rights and privileges of a University, such as the ability to confer a wide range of degrees).

For the spatial disciplines (architecture, planning, urban design), due to the lasting socio-spatial consequences of apartheid these fields hold particular importance. But while this poses a particular intellectual challenge in finding new ways of democratically reshaping South African cities, at the same time architectural education itself is also part of the broader national imperative to improve the equity of access skewed by social inequalities for adult learners disadvantaged by the former apartheid system.

Current statistics reveal that the educational level of persons practicing in the field of architecture still reflects the legacies of apartheid, whereby the bulk of previously disadvantaged persons are still registered at only draughtsperson or technologist levels and not as fully qualified professionals, and thus are constrained in their ability to better engage their contexts and empower their communities. In many cases it is affordability that precludes advancement of qualifications, with students unable to give up their employment to continue their studies. In some cases there is little recognition of previous architectural qualifications when seeking access to post-graduate education, while accredited Schools of Architecture also have limited enrollment capacities forcing potential students to remain in practice.

In response to such limitations, a new and alternative mode of education known as "Open Architecture" (OA) looks to respond much more directly to the national developmental agenda and the socio-economic context of potential students. Formed in 2005 from the merger of two local Technikons, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town was the first university to partner with OA in 2014, as part of its Btech programme. OA offers a part-time route to obtaining architectural qualifications whilst remaining in practice, and optimising practice-based learning under the guidance of a registered architect. Together with this it utilizes online learning, providing access to some of the best lecturers in the country, and broadening access for those situated away from the major centres. Access to higher qualifications is further facilitated through recognising past experience for student entry requirements.

The OA approach is a socially relevant and bold innovation. Perhaps most significantly, in highlighting a lacuna at higher level architectural education it serves to focus our attention on the need for empowering those from previously disadvantaged communities to be able to engage with their own communities (rather than relying on others to do so), and raises imperative questions of greater social responsiveness. However, the qualitative results of opening this new terrain of architectural education at variance with the collective learning of the traditional studio-intensive model is uncertain and not without some controversy, with concerns that it moves nearer to a developmental agenda than providing adequate intellectual training, raising questions of the meanings of empowerment. Fully aware of this potential dichotomy, the founders of OA argue for a "blend," a "mix," and a "synthesis" between the two. Whether OA will achieve all of this will remain to be seen (though an international student competition winner marks one early success story), and results should be critically monitored. But it is a question worth asking.

Photo credits: OA online, contact and presentation sessions, via Facebook

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