06 September 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Mpendulo Myeni
Lucien le Grange, architect and urbanist, delivered the 32nd Sophia Gray Lecture this year. The online event was hosted in the Oliewenhuis Art Museum, where an exhibition of his work was also on display.

The Department of Architecture at the University of the Free State (UFS) presented the 32nd Sophia Gray Memorial lecture at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum on 26 August 2021.

The speaker at this year’s event – presented online – was Lucien le Grange of Lucien le Grange Architects and Urban Planners. Some of his work includes the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island, the Prestwich Street Memorial, and the architecture and urbanism of District Six. 

Le Grange was part of the staff of the Cape Town School of Architecture from 1978 to 2011, where he taught Design and History and Theory of Architecture at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Most of his work was also conducted in the Western Cape.

Purposeful thinking and purposeful action

He believes a time such as this, marked by so many environmental and public health challenges, demands of us purposeful thinking and purposeful action. “The recent social disruption in our country specifically requires honest reflection of the kind of social system we seek to create for ourselves as a nation.”

“We are at a crossroads that gives us an opportunity to seriously and honestly confront our shortcomings as a society. We need to find ways to restore confidence in ourselves and to fashion a new national urban development strategy,” he continues.

Le Grange is of the opinion that the social unrest in July is important for architects and urban designers to reflect upon. He elaborates: “In different ways, the sight of unrest stretching from Phoenix to Soweto shows that the apartheid city format remains very much intact. There has in fact been very little reconstruction and development. Our cities remain unsustainable, inequitable, and inefficient. These spaces are still conglomerations where there is no choice, no sense of place, no sense of safety, and no sense of security.”

For him as an architect and urbanist, the images of freeway landscapes summarise much of the shortcomings of our South African cities. He feels that it demonstrates a dependency on the private motor vehicle at the expense of safe and secure public transport. “It illustrates an environment full of physical barriers, which segregates communities in the isolated, monofunctional informal settlements that populate our urban landscapes,” he says. 

Le Grange is convinced that this condition – all over our nation’s towns and cities – is an inditement against our dysfunctional state. “It is astounding that 27 years since the birth of our democracy, the apartheid city planning model still prevails,” he says. 

Projects contributing to the social fabric

Much of the work he displayed during the lecture was done in the first decade after 1994. He says in the early years of our new democracy, the aspirations and ambitions of the RDP somehow influenced how our social services programmes were conceived and how they were delivered. The projects were executed in a manner that allowed greater social interpretation in terms of its design and execution. Facilities were expected to serve a broader social role, and its construction very often incorporated training and employment opportunities. 

“It was an exciting time, although short-lived.”

He grouped his work into three overlapping areas of concern – architecture and the city, architecture and history, and architecture and community – which have informed the understanding of various contextual challenges and inspired his design ideas. 

“These areas have assisted us to develop strategies that assist city building, urban design, engagement with user communities, the making of buildings, and the treatment and use of building materials,” he says. 

Talking about architecture and the city, he discussed the urban design for the old Klipfontein Road Corridor. The project consists of an activity corridor along 35 km of landscape and is envisioned as a space that will allow for various development opportunities. The project also aims to break down the barriers that divide much of the urban landscape in Cape Town and to populate it with nodes, coinciding with activity areas such as a stadium, schools, or shopping malls.

Le Grange’s portfolio also includes projects that investigate a revitalisation of destroyed and forgotten sites or landscapes in District Six.

As an urbanist, he investigates how cityscapes should perform to retain integrity and a kind of density that allows mixed-use development. He points out some of the opportunities that come with dense urban living, offered by structures such as major routes, punctuated with urban landmarks and streets. Multi-purpose in their function, he believes streets are social spaces where children can play and where communities can gather during a carnival or a protest. “It is also a place of finer intimacies, from which to be seen and into which one can look onto,” he adds. 

“One must also remember the existence of natural features; in this case the presence of Table Mountain that is like a mantle wrapped around Cape Town,” says Le Grange.

The declaration of the Group Areas Act in 1966 meant the end of this vibrant and highly liveable quarter in the city, and was followed by a period of destruction, implemented between the mid-1970s through to the 1990s.

Le Grange says there was, however, not a full removal. Places of worship and the schools were still occupied. When requested to develop a first-phase housing development for people to return to this area, it was around these particular social spaces that he worked. 

The first nine houses built for this project were privately funded by the developers and were constructed without any approval from the authorities. The occupants of these houses were the first claimants to be moved back to District Six after being forcibly removed by the apartheid regime. 

The Klipfontein and District Six projects are but two on the list of projects in which Le Grange – who believes all of humanity has a right to a life of dignity – was involved to better the lives of communities around him. 

Other projects he touched on during his lecture include the Genadendal Heritage, Conservation, and Restoration project, the Ocean View Community Hall, and the Hanover Park Market. 

View the complete lecture and access the virtual exhibition here. A live exhibition is also on display in the Oliewenhuis Art Museum. 

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