Interview: Peter Rich

Peter Rich is one of the most significant architects based in South Africa. He has extensively documented the indigenous African settlements during the Apartheid in the 1970s and this is very much the influence on his work. His work came into international focus when his documentation and analytical sketches were made public, which he deeply feels is an integral part of architectural inquiry.

He has been affiliated as the Professor of Architecture at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for 30 years and he was recently a keynote speaker at 361 degrees conference in held in Mumbai. WAN’s Mumbai correspondent Pallavi Shrivastava had an opportunity to speak to him. Excerpts from the interview are presented below:

Do you believe architects can be or should be geography specific with their distinct inquiry, process and solutions?

Yes, I believe geographical physical, climatic and cultural context, provide the clues to, if responded to in an intelligent way, an enriching architecture. The challenge in a globalising world is to not be creating synonymous environments, which could be anywhere.

When did realize you wanted to be an architect? What other architects/ thinkers have greatly inspired you in your journey of architectural inquiry?

I was born an architect – my parents saw me as the successor or re-incarnate of my mother’s brother whose architect life was cut short at 29 years old – there was something mythically heroic and wonderful about being an architect.

Where do you derive inspiration in your architecture work? You mentioned in your talk at the 361 degrees conference about engaging with a local community and listening to them carefully and thus moving towards to solve it architecturally. Can you elaborate a little more on it?

I derive inspiration from observing and through drawing trying to gain deeper understanding, be it from how ordinary people live, or good examples of architecture or from my heroes. There is much to learn, from the ordinary people who we are designing for- from the delight ordinary people experience using our creations.

Globalization is being seen as a one of the disruption just like wars were previously looked at. Disruption can be a great time for re-invention of people and a nation as well. You mentioned that the world is looking at India to come up with unique architectural philosophy to respond to solve some of the challenges. Can you talk a little bit about it?

India is in a unique position in the world. It is benefiting from the infrastructure and institutional structures put in place by the British and a really good educational system at all levels of learning. India some 70 years after Independence NOW has the confidence to discover itself – its Indianness – and be proud of just that. It is the place of the fresh and the new. It has its Masters in Doshi, Correa, Neelkanth Chhaya and the late architect Raje. It has its emerging masters in Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai, Rajeev Kathpalia and Rahul Mehrotra, to name a few. In other words it has more depth of good architects who are alive than the USA.

What is your advice to young architects and designers? And which young architects you are looking up to from recent times?

Know who you are. Respect your circumstance culturally and climatically. Learn from your masters; learn from your ancient culture and from what peasant cultures attuned to their circumstance.

Young architects I am looking up to Alberto Kallash of Mexico, M3 of Australia, Bijoy Jain, Sanjay Mohe of India, Palinda Kannangara of Sri Lanka, Li Xianodong of China, Arturo Franco of Spain, Estudio Barozzi Veiga of Italy/Spain.

Hand-drawn sketches from your travels seem to be a large part of your practice. To what extent do you use digital technology (e.g. AutoCAD and BIM) in the design process and do you think that a careful balance between the two is important in the education of the next generation of architects?

Use the computer intelligently as a tool. Draw your way freehand into your ideas as it gives you access to the library of your autobiography, which is not in your computer.

What do you think of 3D printing?

It is a very useful tool.

Any particular project that you would like to talk about in brief and why is it dear to you?

The Amazwi Project – the first Womens Museum in Africa – to be built in the Valley of a thousand hills, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The project has evolved into a centre, which is representative of both the feminine principle and its logical extension as a centre of the Environment. It is at a stage where the stakeholder dialogue is giving rise to potential built form and a dialogue between the making of the Women’s Center and the Center of the Environment.

Images: Peter Rich, Iwan Baan and 361 Degrees

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