The 2019/2020 AfriSam-SAIA Award through a photographer’s lens

The standard of entries in the AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture + Innovation is always impressive, and 2019/2020 was no different. The only challenge was COVID-19 and lockdown, which resulted in the adjudication process being delayed by four months, and presented other obstacles. To do justice to the project entries, the Afrisam-SAIA judging panel had to find a unique way to view each project in situ, while still observing COVID-19 protocols. We observe this journey through the eyes of photographer and tour guide, Kirsten Keun, from Kirfara Tours.

Kirsten Keun

AfriSam is the sponsor of the AfriSam-SAIA Award for Sustainable Architecture + Innovation, which was established in 2009 with the primary aim of creating public awareness and debate around sustainability in the built environment and beyond, and of course, to honour outstanding achievements in sustainable architecture.

The Award comprises four categories, namely Sustainable Architecture, Research in Sustainability, Sustainable Products and Technology, and Sustainable Social Programmes which recognise contributions that bring sustainable innovation to human living environments through an integrated approach to communities, planning, design, architecture, building practice, natural systems and technology.

This year, the Award panel was challenged to find a new way of judging the entries, due to the COVID-19 protocols of social distancing and limiting inter-provincial travel. The panel’s solution was to commission a professional tour guide from to walk a small film crew and one or two of the local adjudicators through each site. This took place over six weekends and each video was then made available for adjudication.

Kirsten Keun explains, “We drove from airports to specific sites and attended meetings with architects and other role players in six general regions around South Africa. We met with the adjudicators, as well as architectural gurus, academics, doctors and freedom fighters. I saw first-hand that architects not only have a firm understanding of how humans relate to the world around us but that their art is also to plan and create the spaces we live, work and play in. Every project we visited spoke to the delicate nature of life on earth. Those who come after us will wonder how we lived, and how we impacted the niches of our neighbours, both within our species and without.”

Keun says the AfriSam-SAIA Award brings attention to projects that uplift communities and promote sustainable environmental practices. “For example, children in the schools we visited now have access to clean and safe bathrooms as well as inviting learning environments. Hospitals and clinics now serve their communities more effectively and take better care of their healthcare workers. So much of this is due to the skilled and committed architects who design these exceptional spaces.”

The unique plan to view and judge the Award entries proved to be highly successful. Keun says, “Our visits to the sites were effective and to the point. The adjudicators, as well as our scribe and videographer, were super-efficient at getting the true stories of each site, and capitalising on our time there. The interviews were conducted in a way that made our hosts feel comfortable and open to sharing the details of their life’s work with us.”

In KwaZulu-Natal, the team drove through the Valley of a Thousand Hills. According to Keun, the project site was a breath-taking indication of the commitment to sustainability at Thanda Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC). “Thanda ECDC is refreshing and surprising – high roofs against rolling hills; colourful classrooms in a holistic educational set-up. All of the school entries were inspirational, and I realised how much architecture affects the lives of scholars and teachers at our schools,” says Keun.

Vredenburg Hospital – Wolff Architects

The site settings in the Western Cape ranged from township to urban, farmland, biosphere, and a regional small-town hospital. “Vredenburg Hospital was designed to improve the lives of the healthcare professionals,” says Keun. “Constructed around natural assets such as the wind and sun of the dry West Coast, the architecture there shows mature market leadership with sustainable reuse and repurposing, all adding up to a substantial improvement within given resources and other parameters.”

Limpopo and the Waterberg were next on the team’s list of design sites and their stories. There, they viewed the House of the Big Arch. Keun explained, “This house is more a structured arboreal encampment with direct access to the branches of the bushveld. The project blended uniquely into the bushveld around it, with the architecture serving as the pathway for a family’s dream to blend into nature, and flourish there.”

The sub-tropical Lowveld is where conservation meets adventure, and the bushveld gifts visitors with a unique safari experience. “I spent my formative years on the Great Escarpment overlooking the Kruger National Park,” said Keun. “Visiting the Lowveld is always like ‘going home’ to me. In a typical year, I would visit often for work, but of course, nothing was typical about 2020. Our visit to Skukuza was a wonderful adventure. The team braved the 45°C safari temperatures – and enjoyed it! For me, the visit was one of nostalgia and couldn’t have been more special.”

In Gauteng, the crew visited a private school, a public university and an art gallery, before heading south to the Free State. Then it was on to the ancient geological setting of the Vredefort Dome – the remains of a two-billion-year-old impact crater, the largest verified impact crater on earth. “It felt as though we were on holy ground, and it was refreshing to experience a low-impact lodge in this vulnerable area,” said Keun. “Our final weekend was a traverse through the Klein- and proper-Karoo, where we could check in on nature and learn how we can turn the tide through conservation,” he added.

Architecture and design are now more about people and the environment than ever before. “The adjudicators spoke about sustainability from a holistic point of view,” says Keun. “This true sustainability is not whitewashed or superficial. Today’s architect and designer look at how we live – or sometimes just survive – in a world of climate emergencies and pandemics. The art of the architect may not always stand out or be obviously expressed, but can be more subtly functional, environmentally supportive, and cognisant of the true natural capital around us. We must now look critically at what we take from Earth, and what we leave behind and give back.

“Observing through my camera is a special moment for me,” says Keun. “I mostly use a lens that requires me to take a few steps back. This quiet step-out from the action during this assignment gave me the perfect opportunity to focus on the less-obvious elements of the site (and the light). Many of my photographs are composed around reflections – the windows we look through, the doors we walkthrough, the people and places we pass by, and the clouds overhead. I feel nothing but gratitude for the opportunity to have participated in this journey, and I feel humbled and inspired by the incredible award entries and the skilled practitioners who made them come alive,” Keun concludes.

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