Urban Indigenous Architecture

Urban Indigenous Architecture

Luyanda Mphahlwa is the creative force behind MMA Architects, a firm on the vanguard of a new wave of designers that is reshaping and reenvisioning South Africa’s post-apartheid architectural landscape. As one of the few black-owned architecture firms in the country, MMA is pioneering is a new style of architecture that integrates and elevates African-inspired design in both rural and urban settings.

Luyanda Mphahlwa is the creative force behind MMA Architects, a firm on the vanguard of a new wave of designers that is reshaping and reenvisioning South Africa’s post-apartheid architectural landscape. As one of the few black-owned architecture firms in the country, MMA is pioneering is a new style of architecture that integrates and elevates African-inspired design in both rural and urban settings.

Among MMA’s innovations is its ingenious design for low-cost homes commissioned in 2007 by Design Indaba, South Africa’s premier expo for local designers. The project paired 10 local and international architects with 10 families in the township of Freedom Park, a poor shantytown on the outskirts of Cape Town, to build experimental homes on the government subsidy budget of 50,000 South African rand, or $6,900.

Mphalwa, the creative director for the project, made the decision to replace traditional brick and mortar foundations with a less costly two-story structural frame made from timber combined with sandbag construction as fill for the walls. The design borrows from indigenous, mud-and-wattle building techniques that keep homes cool in summer and warm in winter. In addition to its thermal and sound-absorbing properties, the sandbag construction also requires little to no electricity or skilled labor to erect. Building of the house turned into a community project, with local women pitching in. The Jonker family now lives in their new two-story home with a built-in terrace and private garden – a major step up from their old one-room tin shack.

Mpahlwa hopes the project will attract the attention of government housing officials, who face the challenge of building 350,000 new homes for Cape Town’s swelling population, yet so far have relied on developers to the exclusion of architects and urban planners, who Mpahlwa believes play a critical role in identifying and addressing residents’ quality of life concerns.

Mpahlwa hopes that the Jonker house will help advance the discussion about what design is capable of — even with limited materials. “I am hopeful that, because we have been able to build this project, other architects will take on the challenge and maybe even improve on what we’ve done by making an even broader contribution.”

In addition to the sandbag houses, MMA is working on a cultural heritage project to commemorate the victims of apartheid in Freedom Park, Pretoria as part of the new democratic government’s National Legacy Project. MMA is also providing urban design consulting to revitalize South Africa’s inner-cities in Johannesburg and in Cape Town’s townships; building schools; and an affordable housing complex for low- to middle-income earners using sustainable design principles for a top South African financial services company.

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