Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Who Built a Crooked House?

(I wrote this piece 7 Years ago today for the Urban Circle Blog - but I can see now  how its relevant this site as well)

Architects are living through fantastic times in this city and South Africa generally. Not only is there an abundance of work, but a heightened awareness of the value that Architects are able to add to the built environment. There is such a lot of “cool” stuff to do, that I am worried that we try to do too much and loose out on the enjoyment of doing one thing well. I believe though that it is better to take action than to worry! 

…So I have taken action. 

I love beautiful buildings. Big buildings, small buildings. I love being inside them. The light, the sound, the way people use them. The way they sit in the city or landscape. I love the way these buildings are put together. 

There is magic in that; and I am starting to reconnect with this magic.. What surprises me is that I have felt that reconnection not in the billion rand, high visibility, world beating projects running through our office, but rather in something a little more modest….

You see,.. my semi- retired father and I are building a wooden cottage in the Outeniqua indigenous forest. It is a very modest cottage built for family needs; rectangular in plan, with a double pitch corrugated iron roof. When I say we are building the house I don’t mean it as a metaphor for designing and drawing plans for, or a metaphor for sitting around watching the contractor’s progress. No; I mean we are physically, digging, measuring, cutting and fitting (and sometimes knocking down) 

It has been great on two significant levels. Let me list them:


When physically building you are compelled to focus on one task. You are compelled to be present. Not to think about the next meeting or the previous phone call. How often do we get a chance to be focussed on the present? Especially those of us in management positions can lead a very fragmented and frantic existence. Many of us have powerful and creative minds but have created a reality for ourselves where we spread our input (and out impact) so thin as not to add the value that we could.


Building in the forest has helped me see the potential of my own hands and energy. I can actually build a house. WOW!
The real truth is that Murray and Roberts could probably build it a little neater. (OK,… a lot neater.) But it is not a competition. We are building the house because that is what we need to do to meet our needs and aspirations right now. We are not building the house to try to compete with Murray and Roberts! But what I am talking about here is something more widespread! A phenomenon that spreads across our lives and effectively limits what we believe we are able to do. We are intimidated by the corporate and media dominated world through which we move every day. We slowly begin to believe that we are not good enough to take action.

We cannot sing as well as Mariah Carey, so we will never dare to sing at a family dinner or in the pub.

We cannot tell stories as well as Stephen King, so why even bother trying.

Mom cannot make clothes as neatly as Edgars, so we’ll rather stay at home than be seen dressed in her homemade tracksuits.

We cannot build as well as Murray and Roberts, so lets not let people laugh at our crooked house!

The net result is that we become intimidated into inaction allowing big corporate and media giants to do for us what we used to do for ourselves, and it only takes a little time before we have lost our skills and our dignity forever.

I have in the forest found the joy and freedom of taking back that which I thought I had been robbed of. Cutting planks, laying boards, nailing trusses.

There is magic in that!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

"Fullness of Health", for me, my family and for the Land.

I am quite sure I have more people popping in to the farm over the weekend "just driving past" that I have at my house in Walmer. I think its fantastic. I think its curious. Its definitely something about the rural setting that reminds us about being civilised, about being friendly, about being helpful, about being neighbourly. This interests me.

I spent this morning with the chainsaw again. This time working along the stream, from the dam wall toward the Oak tree. Most of what I was cutting though was Ink Berry. I cuts very easily. The Idea is to cut a path so that I can run the temporary electric fence through as I have done elsewhere. Slowly, slowly, I am beginning to make the land accessible. Beginning to make it manageable, beginning to put myself into a position where I am able to help the land achieve the "fullness of it health".

I have set myself the objective of achieving the "fullest possible health" for this land. What does that even mean? Perhaps my objective for the land is the same as my objective for me and for my family. The fullest possible personal health. The fullest possible family health. "Health" is the correct term to use when setting an "Holistic Goal" for the land (as Alan Savory would suggest we do). "Health" instead of efficiency, or productivity, instead of profitability. "Health" because the land is a living system. It's an organism, really, and if it healthy it is much more likely to be to us, efficient, profitable and productive.

I did some work on the dam yesterday. Introducing a "collar"
I have posted a video here:

The basic idea is to draw the water into the overflow from a little bit below the surface so as not to drain the dam of its most oxegenated, warmed water. (or its duckweed) This simple device will make the dam healthier!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Time to knuckle down to work and have a braai.

(This column first appeared in the Weekend Post on 24 May 2014 - the thinking comes from Pebblespring though, so I thought I should post it here as well)

I was planning to write this column on Workers Day, but I was too busy working. Make no mistake, I took the public holiday. Like everybody else, I was out of the office, but I was physically working with my gumboots and my chainsaw, clearing alien vegetation that has come to clog up the dam and the stream. Call me crazy, but I love to do physical work. I love the feeling of using my muscles, my arms and my legs. I love the rhythm of thinking and doing. I love the feeling of physical exhaustion in the evening.  I love the supper time retelling of the achievements of the day and I Iove the deep satisfied sleep that follows it. ( especially remember the very satisfying time working with my late father on his wooden house in the forest)

 It seems strange to me therefore, that I have put so much time and effort in my life to ensure that I don’t have to do any physical work at all. My twelve years of schooling in maths, literature, history and science required no “doing”, no lifting or pushing. It did though; prepare me for another five years of study at University which would eventually deliver to me the degrees I required to become an Architect and be guaranteed of never having to push a wheel barrow, thrust a spade into the ground or cut firewood.
On leaving University, life as a young professional was clear, nobody ever handed out a rulebook, but the understanding was that we must put in time at the office to earn our money, but if we put in too much time we will break down, so we must take some of that money to buy “leisure”. That leisure must not involve doing anything productive or meaningful.  We may choose from a vast array on mindless sporting or cultural pursuits. We may participate or spectate. If the mindlessness of the leisure becomes unbearable, we may numb ourselves with alcohol, sugar or nicotine. This is just how it is.
I can see how in the headlong rush to get to the ‘top of my game” I have moved further and further in my career, away from actually doing any work. Like lifting a pencil, to sketch a chimney detail or calculating the fall and cover of a drainage installation. All of that is “outsourced”, because that is the law of competition and the law of competition says that, if I am an expert at running an architectural practice, I can’t be “wasting” my time actually being an Architect. I must spend my time delegating , checking what others have done, motivating, admonishing, fighting with debtors, apologising to creditors because that’s what we do when we get to the top of our game.
Does any of this ring true for you in your life? Perhaps, what each of us needs to do is sit back and look at the route we have walked to get where we are in our careers. Each of us needs to get down and do the dirty work of thinking through how we have been conditioned to look down on anyone doing physical work. Even in our homes, when we can’t resist the instinct to get our hands in the soil that we are married to, we make every attempt to dress up our gardening activities as “leisure”. We call gardening a “hobby”; we don’t call it “work”. When we can absolutely not resist the instinct to grow fruit and vegetables, a productive pursuit, we hide these away in the back yard. 
So, what I am doing in my life about my dysfunctional relationship with work? I suppose, I am slowly beginning to participate, wherever I can, in actually doing stuff. I am also looking for family traditions and practices that involve real work, even if it just taking the time to cook the mother’s day meal.  Some families in our region are fortunate to belong to a tradition where work is still honoured. If you drive through the streets of New Brighton or NU 7, on any given Saturday you will find clan groups participating in “Imisibenzi” (literally translated as “works”). These traditional functions mark a range of special occasions, but what is interesting, is that everybody attending the function, works. From the slaughtering of the beast, to the processing of the meat to the brewing of the beer and the peeling of the carrots. Hosts and guests work together. Honouring tradition and honouring the idea of work and how it is in fact not separate from leisure. To a lesser degree, but not entirely dissimilar, on any given Sunday in the suburban backyards of Summerstrand and Sherwood we find  family groups around the braai, spicing the meat, turning it on the flames. The hosts and the guests working together, some in the kitchen with the potato salad and toasted sandwiches and others outside with the chops and the wors. These are important traditions to hold onto, where the tendency is toward the American situation where 43% of all meals are no longer prepared at home and where work is generally regarded as something you sell in exchange for cash.
So more and more I come to see that any activity that helps me understand that work is not separate from leisure and that work is more than just a commodity for sale, is where I want to be spending my time.
In fact, I think I am going to braai tonight. It’s the least I can do!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Margins

The Dam is settling down nicely after removing silt a few weeks ago.
I spent a great day out at Pebblespring. The morning was really beautiful after the rain yesterday. The skies were clear and there was a kind of silence that sounds different to there just being no noise. I did some work preparing pasture on the road side of the stream. The grazing is good there, but in order to run the temporary electric fence there, some work needed doing in clearing a new path through the forest. I am careful when cutting a new path to only cut alien invasive trees. In fact most of the bush in that area is Port Jackson, with a bit of Poplar thrown in, but there is a surprising amount of indigenous stuff fighting its way through. My objective is to help get this indigenous bush back on its feet.

In the afternoon the whole family came out. We made a braai. It was great. But now I am back home. Had my shower, now drinking my coffee, also great.

I was reading Wendell Berry's "Unsettling of America" this morning. The chapter spoke of marginal land and how much marginal land is abandoned in the US because it is just not profitable for big "Agribusiness" to work it property.

Pebblespring is like that. Abandoned, when we found it, not farmed for so many years because, its marginal. The slopes are too steep and the marsh to wet for big equipment. And its too small to make sense as a significant " Agri Investment', But perhaps, if I am running an experiment here, one of the things I am looking for an answer to is:

Is there something useful, beneficial and sustainable that can be done with Marginal land like this?

But there are other questions:

  • Can I support my family on a piece of land like Pebblespring?
  • Can I carry on my career as an architect and make a success of Pebblespring?
  • Is there enough time for both?
  • Can I really make my family comfortable off the grid?
  • Can I support and enhance bi-diversity while still making the landscape productive?

These questions float through my mind as I wield the chainsaw in the forest or drag branches to the heap. I think about many things. I think about what the land must have looked like long ago. Before the Dutch came. Was it all forest or what there some grassland? My neighbours speak about elephant bones they have dug up on their land. It must have been vibrant and diverse. What did the Dutch farmers (and the Irish after them) do? Did they cut the  forest for timber, did they just burn it for pasture? How did the Khoi Khoi pastoralists use the land? How did they interact with the forest? Did they burn for pasture? I am interested in all of this, because I am still trying to formulate the picture in my mind of what I am trying to direct, to steward Pebblespring to become. Like the artist of a giant landscape painting or a landscape sculpture, except this is  a living sculpture, an edible landscape, a practical beneficial landscape, but a landscape which holds and captures the mystery of beauty.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The real pleasure of physical work

It was my first day back at work today after a four day long weekend which started with "Workers day on Thursday 1 May. I spent much of my worker's day weekend working. Physical work, cutting trees, hauling branches, digging, holes, building fences and fixing quad bikes. Physical work is for me a kind of meditation. I am sure that's not the right term, but its something that is good for me. It makes me feel alive and somehow "in touch". Working outside, with the land and the forest has a very different feeling to "working" at my desk in the office, where I am invariably, writing or designing, or delegating or managing or strategising or cajoling or apologising or berating. In fact I am no longer sure that "working" is the correct term for what I do in the office, or for what millions of white collar workers do around the world in offices just like mine every day. There is such a disconnectedness between my actions in my office and anything actually getting done physically in the real world. So much of the office energy goes toward complying with government and bureaucracy. So much energy goes into delegating what I have been tasked with to someone who will delegate to still someone else who will delegate to someone else. So much energy we put in to avoid doing any real work. Years and years of study and building our careers to be sure that we are as far as possible away from being called upon to do any physical work, and for what? Because when I am there, on the ground, wrestling the chainsaw or hammering the nail or straining the wire, it is glorious, it is satisfying
and I am in a place that I want to be.

Is it just me?

160 cc Susuki Quadrunner helping out with some fence poles.

The right tools obviously make things a little easier.