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Scary house designs

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06 Apr 2009

I had the unfortunate experience of driving around various housing estates over the weekend. I hadn't been invited by anyone - I just went to have a look.

You see, over the past few weeks, I've received a number of complaints about shoddy building work – it's perennial in the building industry – from people buying new properties directly from developers. Some of them say the houses are rubbish. Others say that, when they move in, there are so many snags the builders may as well start again.

One cry keeps on recurring: the houses are simply not worth buying.

The estates I looked at varied considerably – from Cosmo City, north of Randburg, to The Wilds in the east of Pretoria – and what astounded me most was not the building work, but the architecture.

Let's be fair, if there are building faults no one's likely to spot them as they drive past. It's necessary to get out of the car, go inside, find out what's wrong and then understand the complaint. You might notice if a roof's collapsed or a window's fallen out, but that's about all.

Why, you might ask, was I driving around over a weekend when I should be playing golf, watching cricket or preparing some fine foods?

You see, I've had a rising suspicion that most architects in South Africa had given up designing new homes and were now just slapping a couple of pre-drawn sketches into a computer and calling this a new development.

Wherever I look the same repetitive picture emerged: rows and rows and rows of little boxes, on a hillside, made of 'tickey-tackey' that look just the same as the one next door.

While building little boxes one forgets that the architectural professions have made magnificent technological advances over the years. There are new materials, new building methods, new finishes, new fittings and fixtures. There are concrete mixtures that float, inexpensive roofing materials that are energy efficient, paints that will last for millennia, colour-impregnated plasters that are there forever…

And what do our architects give us? Grotty little boxes made of 'tickey-tackey'.

While driving around Johannesburg, Benoni and Pretoria I wondered why the architectural enterprise had evaporated. I wondered where the designers had gone, where the new technologies were, where the creative flair had been buried.

Our new suburbs are mostly a very sad sight.

Many architects will leap to that well-worn defence (particularly for awful Tuscan houses) by saying that "it's what the market wants". They'll tell you that people don't like flair, enterprise or imagination. They'll say that the buying public wants little boxes.

What utter nonsense.

I'm sure many people remember the apartheid boxes referred to bureaucratically as the "51/9 Type B" designs that were built in Soweto to house those displaced folk from Sophiatown who were forcibly removed from their suburbs by jackbooted thugs.

Well even those houses have a lot more character and a lot more flair than the horrid little things you see on the western side or Pretoria as you drive towards Hartbeestpoort.

One other thing: those 51/9 Type B houses have stood for fifty years or more and are still standing. The developments at Gateway are already falling down.

If you take an exploratory trip around the suburbs, looking at the new developments mushrooming everywhere, you find a range of despicable estates priced at what's allegedly an 'affordable' price of a million rand or more.

You'll find them throughout the eastern and northern suburbs of Pretoria, on the hillside above Rietvlei Dam, on the western side of the R21 in Ekhuruleni, on Fisher's Hill or in those horrid parts of Edenvale where ghettos in grey are disguised as investment opportunities.

I'm sure if you start looking you'll reach much the same conclusion. We don't have architects anymore, we have draughtsmen with computers.

Perhaps it's a legacy of this computer-aided-design that allows almost anyone with a computer, mouse and keyboard to design a home. What we see developing around us is a result of these 'desktop architects' (akin to desktop publishers) who control our urban environment and determine what our houses should look like and what they should comprise.

I suppose, too, that the developers are partly to blame. They don't want to pay decent fees to architects and they don't want fresh new designs that might take some skill and craftsmanship to build. Developers want easy-to-build packages that are repetitive in nature and design. That way they don't need skills.

They can slap up a little box and sell it at a price that's off the scale.

You can see these gross developments flanking our highways as they run through Midrand, Randburg, along the N2 outside Cape Town or on the roadside outside Kempton Park.

And, worst of all, I think these building blots are a commentary on the state of our architectural profession that has become complacent, lazy and imaginatively disabled.

Most of our architects are no longer fighting to defend their designs, to use and develop new materials or to find solutions to our energy shortages. No, most of our architects sit back and day-dream as they complacently wait for yet another developer to knock on the door looking for a Tuscan-style suite of boxes.

Instead of leading the way, our architects are like sheep, walking towards a cliff and eventual self-destruction in the seas below.

I can't believe that it's a lack of training that gives us the housing designs that litter our roads. I can't believe that there is no skill or ability loitering inside the designers that we have. And I can't believe that our architects – with their training and ability – can continue to pollute our environment by designing and building third-rate ghettos.

Africa does not need more ghettos – it has more than enough of its own.

So let's stop letting our architects keep giving them to us. Let's stop buying or accepting another lazy piece of work from an architect who is simply not applying his or her skills.

Please, architects, give us some of your ingenuity to enliven and brighten our urban space.

And you'll feel wonderful when you see the results.

*Hartdegen writes a regular column for Property24.com. The content of his columns constitutes his personal opinion and doesn't pretend to be facts or advice. Contact him at paddyhar@telkomsa.net.

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