Convinced that she can improve the social situation in her country through architecture, Carin Smuts founded CS Studio in 1989 in Cape Town, South Africa. Enjoying internationally acclaim thanks to her awards, she works mainly for the general public, and privileges the human dimension in her projects. In a country that is still suffering from great social inequality, the architect explains to us at her South African office how she wants to “impact” the lives of the least well-off.
Her rainbow office is visible from a long distance, and stands out from the luxury homes that overlook the costa along Ocean View Drive on the hills of Seapoint. Behind these colourful facades, Carin Smuts has installed her industrial-style open space where six people work together. Direct and bubbling with energy, this fifty-year-old has made herself noticed in France, where she has won a number of awards and an honorary title – she has been a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres since 2015 – and is frequently invited to give lectures and attend conferences. “I teach at Confluences, Odile Decq’s new school in Lyon, and also occasionally in Toulouse, Nantes and Montpellier. I also work with Christophe Hutin in Bordeaux. He’s incredible”, she tells us. Despite winning an initial award at the Global Awards for Sustainable Architecture in 2008, her project at Follainville-Dennemont has not seen the light of day, and although Carin Smuts does not suffer from a lack of media attention abroad, she does not have the same aura in her native country. “I have never won a single award in South Africa”, she reveals, with a look full of undertones.
People at the heart of the project
Born in Pretoria in 1960 during the time of Apartheid, Carin Smuts turned to studying architecture based on a decision by her father. “He applied for me because I had registered to study dramatic arts”, she says with a laugh. An encounter in 1982 changed her plans for ever. “I was a university student when a group of domestic workers came looking for an architect. I was intrigued, and started to help them. They wanted to build a training workshop for young people in Cradock”, she remembers. It was impossible for Africans to own land during Apartheid. This first experience of contact with people shaped her approach. “Architectural students learn to design, think and work in a western way. For my part, I decided to listen to people. This is fundamental in our work. I’m more interested in the process and how people are involved. In our architecture, we have learned that the more questions you ask and the more you listen the better your final product is”, the architect says. To illustrate her words, she cites the submarine simulator project in Simon’s Town, which was completed in 2010, to which a number of changes were made after people had taken possession of the premises. “If they had been involved from the start, and not just a naval architect, we would have been more successful”, Carin Smuts assures us.
The example of Guga S’thebe
The greatest source of pride for the architect remains Guga S’thebe, a building constructed in the Langa district of Cape Town in 1999. “It’s an artistic and cultural village. We created a large number of workshops where different generations mingle. The location brings the vernacular and contemporary together. Thousands of people visit it every day, and it attracts a lot of publicity, which means that its users make an enormous amount of money from an 860sqm building!”, She explains with a smile on her lips. “I recently took a group of French people there”, she continues, “and when they left a ceramic artist’s workshop, the artist said to me « Thanks to you, I earned 30,000 Rand (Editor’s note: 2,000 euros) this afternoon selling my cups and plates ». You see how you have an impact on someone’s life”. It is for these moments that she works in this profession. When the country’s politics became involved, Carin Smuts stood up for what she believed in. “In 2004, I was forced to start a company in order to comply with the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) criteria. The company was called Equity. It’s closed now, and it nearly killed me. The idea was to have access to public contracts, which are the heart of my business. To obtain offers to tender, you had to offer a lot of discounts. It was the biggest mistake I ever made”, she admits. With regard to criticisms about closing the company, Carin Smuts responds point blank: “I helped build this country. I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. If the fact that I’m white bothers anyone, it’s not my problem. I have worked and helped real people. In the townships, they know me better than they know the President. I don’t want to produce buildings; I want to empower people”.
Public before private work
In her work, she believes that longevity has three components: social, environmental and economic. Carin Smuts puts this principle into practice. She is currently working on securing land in the Six District of Cape Town so that she can build a cultural centre dedicated to apprenticeship on it and fight criminality. Although she does not do private work, she made an exception to the rule in 1997 for a “unique” idea. It was for the residence of the South African artist Willie Bester in Kuilsriver. “It’s not a house – it’s a sculpture. His studio is in the middle and all the rooms are around it”, she comments. In her everyday life, the architect begins her days relatively early, and loves mornings that favour creativity. “I try not to work on weekends unless I’m working on a competition and have a deadline, like for Helsinki (Editor’s note: a 2013 competition for a library). We build a lot of models. I also spend time in the townships meeting various important actors. My profession is very diversified and stimulating, and I don’t lead a boring life”, she acknowledges. If her architectural products sometimes leave Carin Smuts a little free time, she takes advantage of it to fill up her diary. In fact, she has just spent a month on La Réunion, where she lent her experience to a group of lucky students.
Ce blog accompagne les expérimentations de l'Atelier Learning From depuis 2010 à l'ENSA Toulouse.
L'atelier Learning From est un enseignement de master créé en 2010 à l’ENSA de Toulouse par Daniel Estevez et Christophe Hutin. Cet atelier vise l’apprentissage de la conception architecturale par l'action expérimentale. On y aborde le projet d'architecture dans des contextes populaires, ruraux ou critiques. On y soutient la collaboration interculturelle et l'hétérogénéité dans la production de la ville contemporaine. Ici, apprendre et faire représentent deux versants d'une même attitude de concepteur par laquelle l’architecte se définit comme praticien réflexif. Dans la logique de l'enseignement d'émancipation, l'atelier Learning From affirme que ce qui est fait se discute, se partage, se pense : «Ne disons rien que nous n’ayons fait !». Le fait est la chose commune qui place toutes les intelligences à égalité. L'architecture qui intéresse l’atelier est celle qui résulte des constellations de pratiques, plutôt que celle qui provient des planifications en surplomb. C'est pourquoi l'attention au 'déjà-là' est présente au départ de chaque projet-action. Elle entraîne les étudiants vers la nécessité de s'informer du monde par l'observation, la relation et l'expérience. De cette façon on espère que tout projet d’architecture mené par chaque étudiant repose sur ce travail : élargir sa propre perception de la réalité.
Fondateurs et encadrants de l'atelier : Christophe Hutin et Daniel Estevez Equipe actuelle depuis 2015 : Tiphaine Abenia, doctorante LRA-ENSA Toulouse, Daniel Bonnal artiste enseignant-chercheur LRA, Marion Howa, doctorante LRA-ENSA Toulouse, Sébastien Martinez-Barrat architecte chercheur associé LRA