Designed for greater things
SA architectural leader and innovator to share his incredible journey in EL
ARCHITECT Al Stratford, acclaimed nationally for his brilliant innovations using indigenous materials and local space, is coming home to be acknowledged.
Now 67, Stratford has travelled far, starting out his creative life as a boy in a hut built from termite nests, mud sticks and ncaluka grass, to reach the top of the South African architectural profession, serving as president of the SA Institute of Architects (SAIC) and holding other top positions.
He says of his early life in Fort Jackson: “I grew up dirtpoor on a farm in the Eastern Cape.”
Stratford’s ultimate recognition came this year when he was asked to become the 28th South African architect to deliver the annual Sophia Gray Memorial Lecture to a 500-strong crowd of the who’s who of South African architecture at the Reservoir in Oliewenhuis, Bloemfontein, on August 26.
That exhibition, which contains 60 pieces of his work and images about his life, and his lecture, will be repeated next Friday in East London @The Showroom at the Beacon Bay Crossing at 6.30pm for 7pm.
Delivering the Sophia Grey lecture was a huge moment for the self-educated Stratford.
His creative eye and love of hands-on exploration led him to study technical drawing at the East London College, and his first job was building reinforced steel structures. It was his discovery of the art and architecture collection in the beautiful John Watsondesigned East London Library which ignited his nascent passion for architecture and saw him rushing out to build five houses in Gonubie in 1973 at the age of 23.
His life’s path was set, and would veer delightfully into furniture, products, and structures which would challenge, and provoke and be a cause to pause and consider life.
In an interview, Stratford said that throughout his industrious life, he had been moved by a concept of God which he first heard articulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“Tutu said God is not a Christian, God just wants us to be good human beings.
“God died because of empire. The state nailed him to the cross. I am not trying to go to heaven. I am trying to bring heaven down to earth.
“Life is about what is happening down here.”
The seed for the exhibition of Stratford’s life was planted by East London sculptor Dr John Steele, who was writing a story for the SA Journal of Art History on the life of Swiss-French artist and architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris.
Better known as Le Corbusier, he was regarded as the founder of modern architecture and urban planning.
Steel quickly twigged that Stratford’s story also needed telling and Stratford said: “That teed me up. I went down memory lane. Like looking back in the rearview mirror, it was painful.”
At a meeting of the SA Council for the Architectural Profession earlier this year, Stratford was chided by a prominent member, Jan Ras, about not reading his email. Stratford checked his mail and found an invite to deliver the prestigious lecture.
The resulting exhibition consisted of 38 posters about Stratford’s life, as well as exhibits of his products, graphics, furniture and a model of his revolutionary, green-inspired University of Fort Hare teaching building opened in 2011.
In his lecture, Stratford explains how he and architects Sindile Ngonyama and Alan Ter Morshuizen built the “living and breathing” six-floor R62-million UFH facility with its flexible “snakes and ladders” spaces and natural ventilation, which makes use of East London’s abundant wind. Planter boxes filled with creepers catch dust and oxygenate the space. The plants are irrigated by water harvested from the roof.
Energy from the sun is gathered from a ventilated north-facing facade.
Not satisfied with being part of the architectural team, Stratford resigned as an architect and had himself appointed the production manager charged with designing and building the floors and walls, which would harness natural energy. He ended up with a 33%-reduced carbon footprint, used 48% less cement, and through use of columns, the building was 41% lighter than normal.
While he was busy with the project, he was made president of the SA Institute of Architects’ Border Kei Region and in 2009 was inducted as president of the SAIA.
Stratford explains his mission to tread lightly and love local started out when he was moved out of a room he shared with his sister on the farm to a traditional hut that he shared with his brother.
As his own drawing progressed, he watched in fascination in the 1960s as thousands of 51/9 50m² homes were built by the apartheid government on top of hills where German farmers had been forced to settle.
This was Mdantsane under construction, and it was only later when he read an article in the Architectural Journal lauding the programme that he became “conscious of the growing apartheid situation”.
In 1975, while working for Zakrzewski Associates in Durban, a church design he was so proud of was rejected by the Baptist Union of SA who felt it “did not look like a church” and the 30-year-old Stratford learned a lifelong lesson “about context and understanding people and their aspirations”.
He took a job with the then-progressive Urban Foundation and set about designing an upgrade of the dull 51/9 apartheid matchbox houses for a competition. But again, his designs did not see the light of day.
He then returned to East London in 1979 and started to grapple with his own designs, which saw him building an environmentally savvy family home out of concrete window blocks (later patented as Winblok) at a cost of R475.
“Our bond was cancelled as I was apparently devaluing the property,” he wrote.
In building the home he discovered that without plaster, there was no need for paint, without wall paint, there is no need for skirting, because you can sweep against a brick wall.
“Without plaster a damp wall dries up so that cut out building cavity walls. From this cost-driven reductive innovation, I was reducing everything to the minimum.”
After the Edenvale Baptist Church in Johannesburg went up using Winblok, the phone did not stop ringing.
Stratford’s factory busily began to supply architects around the country.
It was only in 1997, when he decided to build his own innovative Stratford’s Guest House in East London, and had to get his architect friend Ter Morshuizen to submit the plans to council “because I was not an architect”, that he finally decided to “apply to to become an architect”.
The recognition of his prior learning and the thesis he wrote on the guesthouse won him an SAIA award for merit.
He wrote the SACAP professional practice exam in 2001 and taught his examiners a thing or two.
His time leading SAIA saw him arrive “from a very different point of reference”.
“I started to ask many questions which led to the development of a new policy and strategic plan which was sensitive to paradigm shifts in SA away from the apartheid regime through to the democracy, while speaking to globalisation and the future of the SAIA.”
Now proudly joined by his “formally educated” architect son Richard, the pair are still innovating. And he looks back on his life and understands his work as a gift from the “creative God whom I wish to serve”. — mikel@dispatch. co.za
LOCAL BRILLIANCE: Innovative home-grown East London architect Al Stratford, 67, of Wintec Innovation, was honoured by architects and teachers in South Africa when his lifework was exhibited and he delivered a lecture to 500 architects attending the...
PURE ARTISTRY Al Stratford’s creative eye and love of hands-on exploration are evident
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