Nontokozo Mhlungu wins Corobrik Architectural Student Award for 2012
University of the Witwatersrand student, Nontokozo Mhlungu has, clinched the prestigious national Corobrik Architectural Student Award for 2012, beating finalists from seven other universities around South Africa.
In her thesis titled “Hillside Sanctuary: Reception centre for the urban refugee”, Mhlungu explored a refugee’s survival strategies in Johannesburg.
She believes refugee camps are an example of ‘post crisis’ rehabilitative systems which vainly attempt to restore stability in a state of disaster. With so many refugees arriving in Johannesburg, she questioned whether the city had made sufficient provision for sheltering and protecting refugees particularly should there be further xenophobic turmoil in the townships. Her research took into account facilities offered by refugee aid and religious organisations and how this type of accommodation differed from typical rural and urban settlements.
“By understanding these fundamental parallels, a premise is formed for the development of a unique and prototypical urban refugee centre located in Hillbrow at the heart of Johannesburg’s eclectic foreign national communities,” she said.
The centre presented in her thesis comprises emergency relief facilities, rehabilitative programmes and transitional accommodation all encompassed within a spiritual, yet nondenominational Christian church establishment. This highlights the ‘curative’ relationship between spirituality, architecture and the user.
The panel of judges, architects Heather Dodd, Sindile Ngonyama and Peter Rich, said Mhlungu’s thesis is a scheme that explores the spiritual, existential and practical needs of the refugee in Johannesburg. As spokesperson for the judges, Peter Rich says, “it is a mature spatial exploration of a difficult site that is resolved with a very clean concept. As a final resolution it’s an architectural that is enabling, it has a pleasure of use and its opened to adaption.”
“Good research and a well prepared entry that was clearly presented explained how she arrived at the concept.”
As the judges felt two more entries deserved commendation, highly commended certificates were awarded to Jarryd Murray from the University of Johannesburg and Norbert Koch from the University of Pretoria.
Speaking after the event on Thursday, 18 April at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, Corobrik managing director, Dirk Meyer, said it had been particularly difficult to select a winner for the 26th Corobrik Student Awards due to the high standard or work that was entered. However, dominant issues that had emerged included environmental preservation, sustainability and cultural and social challenges which, together, indicated that the architects of tomorrow were rapidly moving towards embracing a whole new dynamic – responsible architecture.
“Sustainable and responsible architecture is the way forward and this is reflected in all the students’ entries this year. This project, in particular, showed an innate understanding of challenges that are faced in a complex contemporary urban environment and represents a courageous effort to take architecture beyond the present day discourse,” he said.
Meyer said that, throughout, students had echoed Corobrik’s commitment to addressingcultural, sustainability and environmental issues. Not only was the company developing products that could improve both the quality and functionality of entry level housing in South Africa but also adopting eco-friendly business practices in line with international best practice. SABS 14001 Environmental Management certification and investment in proven technologies would continue to drive the process as would progress in Corobrik’s mission to convert more of its facilities from coal to cleaner burning natural gas as a firing fuel.
Mhlungu’s supervisor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Architecture and Planning, Hilton Judin, described her thesis as “a poetic spiritual project that still takes account of a real context and community faced with complex hardships”. He pointed out that a landscape had been transformed into a building, park and platform to meet both daily and emergency needs of growing immigrant communities in the inner city.
“Nontokozo has shown both design and social sensitivity, exploring an extremely topical architectural issue that is under recognised. Her poetic spatial expression does not come at the expense of pressing social tasks faced currently by architects in the city,” he observed.
Mhlungu said that the idea for her thesis evolved from her interest in the fate of refugees following xenophobic attacks in early 2008. The Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg opened its doors to hundreds of desperate people, many of whom were Zimbabweans, and ultimately ended up embroiled in a law suit.
She said that she had initially gone to the church to investigate how it could be transformed into a refugee centre but had soon realised that the structure posed a number of problems. She had instead decided on another place in Hillbrow.
Mhlungu’s greatest challenge was collecting the data required for her thesis which entailed persuading people to talk to her. Suspicious that she was either a journalist or a government official looking to deport them, many were extremely defensive, she said.
From a design perspective, she said that she had chosen a site that was not level which required using terraces and locating some facilities underground. The overall objective was to make the centre both safe and accessible – characteristics which could seen to be contradictory. Nevertheless, she believes that she achieved a compromise that would enable refugees to have easy access to the centre whilst still feeling sheltered and secure.
Mhlungu was selected as the top architectural student at the University of the Witwatersrand at the end of 2012, receiving a R7 000 prize from Corobrik. Winning the national award means an additional prize of R50 000.
According to Mhlungu, winning the regional and national awards has been the highlight of a very positive and rewarding experience. “The publicity I have received has opened a lot of doors for me and helped me to see architecture in a whole new light. This was not just a project. I have also realised that people want to see architects doing things for their communities.”
Looking forward, Judin said that future challenges facing graduates such as Mhlungu included a shortage of public space, housing and resources as well as issues surrounding sustainability. “It will be difficult for them to gain support for their ideas and to practice with scarce resources that are mainly being fed into private not public projects,” he said.
Nevertheless, he is confident that once they have acquired the technical proficiencies and skills needed to juggle some of the conflicting forces after a few years of practical experience, the architects of the future will rise to the many challenges that they will inevitably face.