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Design Indaba 2017

How To Design An Equal World

The spaces in which we live and work have an inexorable influence on us. And so it should be mindfully designed, says Craig Dykers of architecture firm Snøhetta. Speaking at Design Indaba 2017 in Cape Town, Dykers made an impassioned argument for the role of empathy and equality in the design process.

That mindset begins with your own space. “Architects tend to be left-leaning and conscious of social issue, but if you walk into their studio or office, they are the most hierarchical structures you’ve ever seen,” says Dykers. Snøhetta have steered way from this in their offices, ditching the reception area so that visitors enter directly into the kitchen, the beating heart of any space, where workers eat and laugh together. A diverse and equal staff is one of the guiding principles of the firm, and their employment figures back it up, with an almost 50/50 gender split, 14 languages, and 28 per cent minorities in leadership roles.

With a career spanning 30 years, Dykers has been behind some of the most awe-inspiring and significant buildings of the new millennium, including the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero in New York. At just 28, he took on one of the biggest projects of his career; the new Library of Alexandria in Egypt, a 13 year, $380 million contract. “It was our naivety that gave us strength,” he says, “anyone smarter would have walked away!” The Library encompasses all of Snøhetta’s architectural principles; it’s designed for easy use by people with disabilities, and is the first building in the region to allow equal access to men and women, with a 50 per cent female workforce.

“As designers, we can’t be removed from the equation,” says Dykers “If we design things that don’t allow people to feel natural in their own skin, to make them feel that they belong in this space, that they deserve to be here and own their future, then we will create habitats that promote polarisation and anxiety.”

He likens it to how zoo structures are created. If a bear is living in a small enclosure, it will pace and be restless, compared to a larger space where it can live more naturally. “If we don’t build it right, we’re going to start hurting ourselves and getting aggressive, just like any creature might,” he adds.

It’s not just about understanding human needs, says Dykers, but also the abiotic habitat; the inert things around us, from rocks to plazas, which we all interact with one way or another. Integrating the living and non-living has been at the core of a number of Snøhetta projects, for example building birds nests and bee hives into roofs and facades, so that wildlife populations which might have been displaced by urbanization can find a new home in these spaces, or reconstructing a waterfall in Oregon so that it flows through structures, rather than being redirected by them.

Snøhetta were at Design Indaba to unveil their latest project; a memorial arch created in honour of “The Arch,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. The structure comprises 14 interwoven “threads,” reflecting the 14 sections of the South African constitution. Once completed, it will be installed at the ‘Company’s Garden’ in Cape Town, between the National Parliament and St George’s Cathedral, where Tutu served as Archbishop.

“This will be a daily reminder that the struggle for freedom was not in vain,” says Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille. The keynote concluded with an appearance by Tutu himself, who thanked everybody in attendance, and summed up the spirit of the entire event with these simple words: “You are not second hand. You are not a feeble copy. You are a glorious original.”

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