SOUND SPACE DESIGN (2010) Monograph Book Review
by Mokena Makeka, Architect.
There is a body of opinion in architecture, that monographs are the products of silver haired sages, and that a book should be the epitaph to an expansive career. There is an idea that books must represent the best of realised work and must express an aloof sobriety that somehow implies architectural maturity and by extension authority.
SOUND SPACE DESIGN is iconoclastic in that it is anchored in realisation and speculation in near equal measure, with the notion of idea being as significant as the physical consequence of idea. The dexterity of the realised works demonstrates a total commitment to the craft of architecture and urbanism and underscores the compelling potential of more than a few ‘unbuilt’ works. This publication speaks to the necessity to have cycles of reflectivity and production in practice, design and design thinking, where there are reiterative loops of consolidation, production, and interrogation. That this moment comes in the early-to-mid career of Don Albert is both instructive and purposeful, for this book is clearly seminal but not necessarily definitive - nor should it be.
I am sure we can expect many more of these moments in the years to come and that in so doing this liberates us all from the fear of sharing our work and ideas.
In 2010, despite the vast achievements of the FIFA World Cup and other forms of infrastructure investment in South Africa, architecture is in the morbid grip of the dark ages, where developers are the book burners of the modern age, and the market is the unkempt keening mob demanding instant satisfaction and the quickest fix. For architecture to remain relevant it continues to make a number of uncomfortable choices, a retreat into passive technocracy, a refuge into the safety of post-modern stylistic pastiches and their embedded currency with the illiterate, or rarer still; attempts at the spectacular that are not given enough attention to achieve their full potential.
Notwithstanding the somewhat stifling context in which the architecture of Don Albert comes to light, the publication stands as a particular and spectacular example of the symbiotic potential that is possible between enquiry, reflectivity, praxis and agency. Don’s work, expressed in part by various interventions, his writings, this book and his custodianship of the arts-focused social network Pythagoras-TV is emblematic of a mode of practice that engages with the world through the gaze of alchemy, curiosity and a steadfast belief in the potential of architecture. A bold engagement with the vocabulary of context, be it, spatial, technological, local and global locates his body of work in a unique synthesis of imagination and practice.
This is not to say that all of his speculations are without controversy, or ‘problematic,’ but that an indisputable intellectual rigour to the nature of Don Albert & Partners’ architecture compels us to engage with the suppositions, what appears whimsical upon inspection reveals itself to be lyrical, what appears ordinary unveils the extraordinary. The ability to bring narrative, metaphor and delight to architecture is one that we can all hone, especially if we are to reclaim architecture as the physical expression of societal aspiration; so that architecture has a dialogue with itself and its sacred epistemologies, but equally resonates with the emerging.
Don Albert surfs the wave of uncertainty with aplomb and daring, and this requires self-confidence, and yet in equal measure; a humility and openness to alternative and critique that is the hallmark of the authentic, thoughtful creative. Where some architects seek self-validation through a rigid self-imposed vocabulary of what constitutes architecture, Don Albert & Partner’s work speaks to conjecture, exploration, and, experimentation without sacrificing the technocratic concerns of architecture and the rigour of material certainty. This sense of inventiveness stemming out of an intellectual engagement with ‘Not Knowing’ – the principal essay in the book - speaks to a mode of practice that is ascendant and increasingly relevant and entirely appropriate to our time.
With Don Albert & Partners, architecture that is contingent and shaped by purpose becomes greater than the sum of its parts, but evolves beyond narrow definitions of purpose and becomes transcendent when imbued with HOPE. If conformity is the refuge of the insecure scoundrel, Don Albert & Partners are the confident high priests of the conscientious and brazen.
The work of Don Albert & Partners as represented in SOUND SPACE DESIGN brings truth to the words of Gropius, who stated, “architecture begins where engineering ends.”
Mokena Makeka, Architect,
Makeka Design Lab