De­signed for greater things

SA ar­chi­tec­tural leader and in­no­va­tor to share his in­cred­i­ble jour­ney in EL

Daily Dispatch - - Weekend - By MIKE LOEWE

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.


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...

Picture: SUP­PLIED

PURE ARTISTRY Al Strat­ford’s cre­ative eye and love of hands-on ex­plo­ration are ev­i­dent

Picture: SUP­PLIED

GRAND SIM­PLIC­ITY: The ar­chi­tect’s amaz­ing found in fur­ni­ture, build­ings, and sculp­tures de­signs are

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