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NOW WE KNOW - In conversation with Don Albert, a decade after his seminal essay, NOT KNOWING.

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

As the most important climate election unfolds in the USA, University of Cape Town Associate Professor of Architecture Nic Coetzer chats to Don Albert about the tumultuous decade since the publication of his firm’s eponymous monograph SOUND SPACE DESIGN exactly ten years ago, its principle essay NOT KNOWING, what has changed since, and his upcoming city planning manifesto NOW WE KNOW.

Guest editor - Robyn L Harding

In October of 2010, after little more than a decade of diverse award-winning projects in South Africa, UCLA masters graduate and Fulbright Scholar Don Albert published what remains one of the most audacious architectural monographs ever. While some scratched their heads, others, like his contemporary Mokena Makeka, praised its mix of both realised and theoretical projects and the seminal way in which it promoted an emergent approach towards digital design which is now ubiquitous.

In this lengthy Zoom interview, guest-edited by visual artist, landscape architect and urban designer Robyn L Harding, Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town Dr. Nic Coetzer reconnects with Don to revisit some of the key ideas in the principle essay Not Knowing, the post-truth culture wars that have raged since, and what brought about Don’s climate change epiphany which is proving to be a utopian pivot away from the experimental bravura of his early career.

Nic Coetzer - Hey, Don. It's been 10 years since you wrote that book... (lifts copy of SOUND SPACE DESIGN)

Don Albert - Yes, with a bit of help from you!

Nic Coetzer - So what a different world it is since then. Let's hear you've been up to? I think you've moved around a lot! 

Don Albert - Where to start?... Before the book launched in South Africa I had planned to move to Singapore after I was appointed on a giant observation wheel project in India. So that took me to India on and-off-for four years and I opened a branch office in Singapore to be closer to the project. Being in Singapore I realised that I needed a weekend place away and friend alerted me to the sale of a mutual friend's property in Canggu Bali. As it turned out, the project in India got shelved, so I actually needed to develop the Bali property to its full potential.

That's what started the Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat, which I ran there for five years with my partner at the time as an ‘Arts Ashram’. I then sold it, moved back to Johannesburg for a year but ultimately the buyers reneged on the final tranche and I had to return to Bali, refresh the hotel and launch another restaurant! Vegan of course! And then sell it again! 

Nic Coetzer - Quite an adventure! Do you miss Bali? Is it what you imagined it would be?

Don Albert - Of course! It was mind-blowing and I met so many wonderful people, especially the locals and expats. I was very sad to leave but the friendships have endured, which is great. Having creative people from all over the world return to Voyager often was very gratifying. We had so much fun recording, making music videos, running painting workshops, creative writing workshops and so on, a bit of retail design and spa design too of course, but I was much more invested in a “Bauhaus-in-the-tropics”-type environment of cross-pollination. Bali has a welcoming local/global symbiosis that are few and far between; a proper melting pot of design and production in art, furniture, surf-moto, fashion, and because of this openness it will hopefully remain an incredibly innovative place for hospitality when the pandemic wanes.

Nic Coetzer - Why are hospitality and tourism so interesting for you?

Don Albert - Well I grew up in a tourist town, so I’m aware of how tourism supports communities. My grandfather was an hotelier and his brother an architect so it’s probably in the blood? My other grandfather said: plant trees! He was a tree wholesaler! I find being immersed in creative communities exciting and if I occasionally have to develop them myself so be it!

Nic Coetzer - So after Bali?

Don Albert - I then moved to Sydney and being ‘fresh off the boat’ I decided to work for an established firm. So… I approached FJMTStudio and was there for three years as a senior architect doing multi-family residential, a bit of retail and education. I was eventually promoted to Head of International Development. Ultimately my vision was more towards eco-tourism and climate change resilience which pushed me to go back on my own. By taking on a little dive resort project in Palau and having been approached for on an off-grid house in the Mojave desert, I was able to launch soundspacedesign, the company, in Australia.

Nic Coetzer - Sorry I think I lost you at Head of International Development?

Don Albert - Well that’s really what I was bringing into FJMT ~ former clients of mine in Hong Kong who were doing new things. One introduced me to clients in Portugal, Obrana who are building an exciting multi-generational, creative surf-community in Peralta Beach, Lourinhã. I brought the masterplanning and concept design of the public spaces of Peralta Beach into FJMT, whereafter I went back out on my own. 

        Soundspacedesign were then appointed as the masterplanners on another project in Portugal, the Monte Redondo racing resort, which is an 800 acre motorsport resort in the countryside for people who want to race their cars on a formula-1 track. A very challenging project with all the contradictions of climate change, place-making and globalisation due to the Golden Visa drawcard, which Peralta Beach offers too of course. We pushed for a sustainable ‘permaculture’ approach though, that dealt with all waste within the property, the threat of bushfires, and included collective urban farming, a solar grid and a network of self-sufficient villages. We envisioned that all the cars would be electric ultimately, with an emphasis on the pedestrian realm, cycling and hiking. So really, that's how things have evolved since my carving of a niche in tourism ~ a consequence of owning and operating a boutique hotel in Bali.

Nic Coetzer - Great, so that's some background to what you've been up to, because the world's been up to other things as well which are maybe not that great! I think back in 2010 with the FIFA World Cup there was a lot of positivity in South Africa. There was a sense of hope that few in the world are feeling nowadays. Obviously we are in a pandemic, but that's just one of the problems that make the world seem really awful right now. How do we reflect on that? Is the world such an awful place or is this just a little, you know…blip?

Don Albert -  That depends on the outcome of the USA election. Architecturally however, and in terms of where South Africa was going around 2010 I was concerned that overspending on FIFA infrastructure was keeping the industry artificially afloat, and that with Jacob Zuma coming in as President ~ which was an abomination ~ I could foresee a vacuum of public spending on anything to do with the actual public. You just have to look at what hasn't happened in South Africa for the last 10 years, like the shelved Durban Central Library and the new KwaZulu-Natal Legislature of which we were the preferred bidders.

        As far as world architecture is concerned, I remember being asked to review Phaidon's World Atlas of 21st Century Architecture for a major newspaper just before the GFC, and I think my observation at the time was that the architecture in it, some of which was my own, felt like it was the last song being played on the deck of the Titanic.

There's been a lot of privately funded architecture, but very little public spending. An awful hangover…

Nic Coetzer - But what does that mean for architecture?

Don Albert - With private clients you are somewhat bound by their tastes compared with public work which generally happens via design competitions looking for the best of current thought. So I think we have all been in a bit of a post-GFC creative slump, architecturally. Compounded with that are the crises that continue to roll in which were addressed upfront in NOT KNOWING as the primary context of our times.

Nic Coetzer - In that “Not Knowing” essay, you mentioned ‘poise’, a key idea in the book. The idea of not being stuck within a repetitive mode of operating but being able to be agile and adapt as a strategy; to be much more fluid on the ‘battlefield’, so, looking back at the monograph, would you say poise is still important?

Don Albert - Yes, but I think the title of “Not Knowing” was problematic. Having a position of poise in design is not just an intellectual poise that enables us to deal with diverse briefs... it's an ability to be geographically nimble too. To foster relationships that lead to building what you prefer to build and to serve clients whom you would like to serve. To be resilient in the face of crisis.

Of course I stand by what I wrote then but I've come to realise that clients actually do want you to know. Right? Clients want you to know, but one shouldn’t be a know-it-all… 

Nic Coetzer - Ha Ha! Yes… Your contemporary, Mokena Makeka, called your monograph “iconoclastic” in that it paired ideas with realised projects in just about equal measure, which is never done in a monograph. What was the reception to the book? Were you happy with it?  

Don Albert - I was surprised with the sales actually.  It ended up in almost every state and university library around the world. It sold in the Tate Modern's bookstore amongst others, at the Venice Biennale, etc, thanks to Papadakis Publisher of course. It was bootlegged in Korea and a Chinese publisher wanted to translate it which probably happened even without my permission but I’ve never seen it. Anyway, after the book launches I wanted to get stuck into hotels which I knew were not going to be happening in South Africa post-FIFA. The Sudarshan Wheel was going to be a 52-room rotating hotel within a double Ferris Wheel as tall as the Eiffel Tower, so I really needed to be closer to India, or so I thought. That project is actually being published in a book on Mumbai at the moment which is bizarre, but there you go…

Nic Coetzer - Ok, so if you are claiming to ‘now know’, that's a quite an about-turn. Are you being literal or just being provocative with the working title of your next book?

Don Albert - Good question. I mean, the idea of expertise has also been trashed since Brexit, so it’s definitely ironic. I remember the weekend the Brexit votes were being counted and I couldn't sleep because there appeared to be a mass rejection of what the experts predicted would happen if the UK left the EU. Of course the public were grossly mislead too. That set into motion an emboldening of nativist attitudes which ultimately lead to Trump's election in 2016. 

So in terms of "Now We Know", as opposed to “Not Knowing”, I think the penny dropped for me on June 1, 2017 when Trump said he was going to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement. Until that point, and during my 20 years of cursory following of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change COP meetings, I’d blithely assumed I didn’t need to worry because the experts and politicians were making a plan to save us and the planet. Well all that changed...

        I then experienced the unprecedented Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020, first hand, which generated huge activism across the country, allied with Greta Thunberg’s School Strikes For Climate and so on. There was a national election here midway through 2019, which was dubbed ‘the climate election’ but the unexpected result was almost as shocking as Trump’s 2016 win. Yet even before that I had started the Climate Change Cities website and Facebook group which was my attempt at starting conversations around the spatial dimension to the climate crisis, as opposed to what we have traditionally focused on as architects, which is mostly pertained to the skin of buildings. I wanted to draw in all walks of life into the conversation, from lay persons to professionals.

I find it an unethical contradiction that certain governments enforce thermal performance codes onto developers while continuing to approve of coal exports that defeat the objective of reducing carbon emissions, which is a borderless problem. I was astounded how Climate Change Cities suffered vicious and obviously co-ordinated online attacks for the articles I had written. An army of coal industry bots took us on! We had a team blocking and deleting trolls for weeks.

        Anyhow, we began building a database of climate change evidence and strategies, the land-use/transportation equation, live-work, co-living, urban farming, food wastage, transport emissions etc, and I was really energised by that because for the first time since the advent of modernity, a social agenda for architecture seemed possible again… as opposed to the formalistic stuff that was going on with post-modernism, deconstruction, or parametric design.

Nic CoetzerOk Don, let’s just drill down on ‘deconstruction’ a moment …

Don Albert - I was just saying that since deconstruction, there really hasn't been another “intellectual" movement in architecture. I'm far more concerned about what we build, how we build, and where we build. Issues around citizenship and new forms of transient and virtual community are also paramount because of the tremendous migration happening in the 21st Century.

Nic CoetzerSo that's interesting. I mean, the idea of Not Knowing was about design as a process; an unfolding exploration that doesn’t predetermine an outcome, be it stylistic or typological, and it suggested an openness to exploration. On the other hand there are urgent climate imperatives galvanising architecture back into a coherent set of ideas. So how do you reconcile this? That on the one hand, building in locally sourced timber is a worthwhile approach to reducing carbon footprint - albeit limiting in some ways, while on the other, a digitally-driven architecture of form can yield unexpected outcomes? How do you reconcile between ‘Not Knowing’ and really knowing the science of what needs to be done when building rationally?

Don Albert - ‘Not knowing’ was never about ignoring science. To the contrary, it was about finding out. In any case limits are good. They can be inspiring. All that has changed is that now we have more stringent energy targets for well-insulated building envelopes. So I have had to let go some of that formalism while still trying to maintain a metaphorical approach. I have battled, to be honest. I found that when designs can't reach that metaphorical level, something’s missing. 

        With energy codes becoming more rigorous, buildings are now more expensive by default, so we have a different cloth to cut today compared with a decade or two ago. That doesn’t mean we can't have thoughtful explorations and take the client on a journey that yields extraordinary and beautiful outcomes though.

Nic Coetzer - SOUND SPACE DESIGN is a play on words, and you made a case for the parallels of harmony and poetry that exist between architecture and music. You are also a fan of pop music. On Spotify I find that, as Leonard Cohen noted, I don’t care too much for music! It’s a glut and I find it impossible to digest and enjoy. Are you finding the same thing has happened for our consumption of architecture via the architectural equivalent of Spotify; the Instagrams and Pinterests of the world?

Don Albert - I do. But the real challenge of Instagram and Pinterest culture is that many clients now have prescribed ideas of aesthetics before they approach you. I find that older clients have the ability to trust a more abstract, modern design process ~ having lived through that period of visual art ~ whereas for younger clients, the final image is paramount. It’s almost as if people expect an amount of ‘reverse engineering’ in design these days.

        If you look at most popular Instagram architecture accounts, the aggregators, it's so often cliched. There is this relentless barn roof profile, see-through on both ends. It's got a black steel window frame white inside. It's like a rash. And this is happening all over the world. So you ask yourself; where is the sense of place? Where is the connection to geography? There’s an online design “shorthand" that is immediately comforting it seems, these perpetual cabins, harking back to a simpler time possibly. A self soothe…

Nic CoetzerBut there are online journals like Dezeen and Archdaily where content is curated and which still feature architectural drawings which are fundamental to unlocking some of the concerns you're talking about; locality, geography, context and so on. My experience of it though is that there are too many projects to see! It’s like a sushi conveyor belt that doesn't go around but just goes right past you never to return…

Don Albert - Fast food!

Nic Coetzer - Yes, its nutritional content is limited. And so how do you navigate this with clients? I think that's what you're alluding to, that it's become not so much the sushi itself, but rather the picture of the sushi that is up for consumption?

Don Albert - Correct. Of course, architecture is also expressing this ‘post-truth’ reality without any overarching theoretical leadership. So there is no one to vet the conveyor-belt you speak of anymore. Where is the suspension of disbelief that allowed the modern masters to make such opaque and abstract proposals that only revealed their power once built? Why does everything need a ‘fly-through’ and to be rendered explicitly? Is it because we are too rushed to communicate conceptual intent and leave some things open for development later? Language is certainly an issue in the globalised industry of architecture today, so images have to do the heavy lifting unfortunately.

        There is a story about how a sketch of the grand outdoor staircase Jorn Utzon’s proposed Sydney Opera House, randomly discovered lying on the floor during the competition selection process by Eero Saarinen, was actually the key to the proposal's selection. That drawing bears no resemblance to the final design and yet somehow there was enough of a smattering of conceptual DNA in it for Saarinen to promote Utzon as the winner. The greatest building in Australia as a result of a rather whimsical pencil drawing! That simply doesn’t happen these days.

In fact, your ‘sushi conveyor belt’ is not the only problem because there's also this question of "how many followers has this architect got on Instagram?”, “Should we hire this one versus the other one because of their brand value?” Most architects have to compete for social-media validation too now. 

        When Facebook came along in 2008 I was like, “please, not another social network”…little did I know. Soon after, publishing in the traditional sense started to collapse. My own pythagoras-TV social network which had started a few months before Facebook arrived, and which had a vibrant community of about 650 creatives contributing content across all the visual arts eventually had to be put to bed too. Facebook destroyed this kind of citizen journalism because its video handling ability and the ease of building groups and promoting content was much more advanced. Then everything degenerated into memes. Everyone’s attention span reduced drastically. So that has been a major change in the last decade.

Nic Coetzer -  The democratising effect of social media is well known but it also enables toxic sub-cultures to flourish; the coarsening of discourse and the rise of identity politics. Yet for architecture, the connection of culture to geography via building remains an imperative that we are taught to value highly. So on the one hand we have this placeless smorgasbord of social media sushi, yet, on the other, there is a sense that one has to remain true to one’s culture, one's identity, be faithful to one’s tribe. Clearly there are contradicting forces about.

Don Albert - Marrying a ‘popular’ aesthetic into a plan that performs contextually is possible. Of course having something completely unique on both levels is the holy grail! 

        There’s an interesting move afoot recently, especially amongst the neo-avant grade towards “post-digital” modes of representation which removes 3-D renders out of the concept presentation stage in favour of collages and painterly images, effectively forcing evaluation on more “traditional” terms. I find it very exciting. In other words even if the design domain is entirely digital, the output is deliberately two-dimensional - almost retro - in order to allow the right kind of discussions to flourish…anyway that’s a bit of an aside, or maybe it isn’t?

Nic Coetzer - I was referring to the ‘sushi conveyor belt of style’ versus the rise of identity politics that ultimately ends up as nationalist rhetoric. The problem that 'critical regionalism’ in architecture couldn't quite deal with is about place-based identity politics which, in the wrong hands, ends up as a ‘blood and soil' rhetoric from the fascist era… I'm always interested in contradictions and you know this era of ours is just full of them. So how do we square this contradiction? Do we even need to?

Don Albert -  Well first of all identity politics is not necessarily a bad thing. Oppression is what creates identity politics, so if one has to lay a finger of blame, it's blame against patriarchal attitudes and those that ‘other' the so-called others in order to maintain power. So when the ‘others’ decide “Hey, we are equal! Our lives matter too! I've also got something to say! I want space to respond to my needs, my aspirations, my culture…”, I don't think that that is invalid, it should be celebrated.

        However, I think that the universality of architecture, the ideas that unify ~ ideas for the common good ~ that are for everybody… that discussion has taken a back seat recently. So how do we make an architecture that is universally relevant and inspiring again? Where are the architects who have a grand unifying arc pulling everything together, telling us it's all going to be okay, or even better, FABULOUS! So yeah, I don't know really how to answer that question other than "local is lekker” but global thinking is for of all of our benefit too. Architects need to be sensitive to identity and consider inputs and impacts way beyond the borders of their sites. The blinkers must come off.

        Right now the most critical issues are climate change and the covid-19 pandemic. Architects who specialise in, for example, commercial buildings only, or residential towers only, are having their foundations rocked right now, but they are not losing sleep about identity politics.

Nic Coetzer - But what about hospitality and hotels? Surely that’s pretty much doomed too?

Don Albert - Not in the long term. Experiencing new cultures, food and places will always be a fundamental human desire, so travel will bounce back and has already responded in interesting ways domestically due to Covid-19. We are still getting interesting hospitality enquiries; a health-tourism project in India, a stadium box interior in Cape Town, maybe a country hotel there too… Our work in Portugal continues thankfully.

        No sane person has a desire to work in an office tower every day but most people will always have a desire to travel, not to mention the travel required by business and the human diaspora.

        A good friend of mine, a partner at Toronto’s biggest architecture firm, called me the other today to tell me that many of his staff will continue to work from home regardless of when the pandemic ends. Some will remain overseas and he said that I was “right about remote working all along”… It has made no difference to their productivity, only reduced overheads. The 1930’s drawing sweatshop is over and the same goes for service industries generally.

Nic CoetzerOkay, yes. I think there's a radical shift in how cities are currently working since the pandemic but nobody knows whether this is the ‘new normal’ or if the logic of centralising capital will revert back to 'business as usual'. Naturally I have no idea what the permanent changes in cities might be, but, shockingly, de-densification of the city might be a consequence of this. This is antithetical to climate change imperatives which many believe rely on densification to reduce carbon emissions. So where do we go from here?

Don Albert - My own train of thought over this crazy year has shifted. Great tracts of suburban Sydney were so close to being wiped out by the bushfires last Christmas and back then my thought was: Why should inner-city dwellers pay a tax burden to fight fires on properties on the fringes that are mostly hobby farms and second-home luxury properties? Why should we subsidise this anti-urban indulgence? That was my first ~ and wrong ~ “inner city elite” thought. However, having interviewed firemen and understanding how firefighting works in Australia, which is something that started at day one as this land has always been managed though controlled burning, my understanding shifted. The First Peoples managed the landscape through fire, and the European settlers also put together a sophisticated system of volunteering and burn-offs.

Fittingly, the Australian Royal Commission on the 2019/20 bushfires has pointed a very big finger at human-induced climate change and warned us to prepare for even worse!

But my thinking evolved further to the idea that apart from reducing carbon emissions globally, hobby farms and second homes on the periphery could have a role to play in protecting the next layer of urbanity where the greater losses would be. In other words this man-made interface between the wild and the suburbs could deal with the problem through landscape design interventions, not just burn-offs and military assistance. That this is where we should be spending money: on interventions that require less labour, liberating the next layer of suburbia from expensive fire codes in their construction which increase the cost of housing too. Not to mention the cost of insurance.

Nic Coetzer - Interesting ideas but what about the apparent Covid and density conundrum?

Don Albert - I think that Covid-19 has showed us that governments can be quick with financial stimulus and policing when they think they absolutely have to, but it’s short-term politicking. Why is man-made climate change not as urgent as Covid-19 when it already accounts for the rapid extinction of species, the displacement of millions of people, damage to property and mental health? 

        But back to your question… with the ongoing pandemic there's a considerable migration of people from cities to towns. I've been living on a friend's wine farm in South Australia for the last 7 months as a result of the pandemic, which lead to a wedding venue and cellar door project under the auspices of the Architects Assist bushfire recovery initiative, so while two overseas projects have been put on hold due to travel restrictions, most have continued. Yes, hospitality and the arts in particular have suffered in cities, but in low-population areas like South Australia it is almost as if Covid-19 never happened. South Australia has been very fortunate. I had a full professional team meeting last week in Adelaide, the first time since February, and everyone was in the room!

        Will we see shifts in urbanism? In the short term definitely. The office tower was already on shaky ground. I have thought that for a long time in my own practice. Are commercial towers wrong? If we discount the time and cost of commuting, they are space-efficient and good for collaboration but should small towns that were otherwise declining take advantage of the pandemic while they can? Absolutely. Rural areas need young blood to help build climate resilience with muscle.

        Things will balance out. Hopefully housing will become more affordable in cities. Maybe in a few years time the new normal will be more like the 1970’s. More funky creativity in low-rent cities would be great! Bring back the grunge of Andy Warhol’s Factory!

Nic CoetzerOne of my research areas is the Garden City movement of a hundred years ago. A key driver was the causality between density and disease. The Spanish flu galvanised a lot of new housing around that time which was decentralised and thinned out. In any event, I’ve always been suspicious of the Garden City idea as a paternalistic ‘sanitisation’ of working class aspirations by ‘upper class’ architects who were trying to impose ‘correct’ ways to be in the world. So I've been wary of it, but it does seem as though its time has come!

Don Albert - Quite possibly. You mentioned earlier that density is the most efficient way to live, but that depends on where food is produced and where housing is in relation to work. The good thing about the Garden City concept or even ‘new-ruralism', as they call it, is that one has the ability to eat food which is grown closer to where you live, if not by you yourself. This trend was already in motion before the pandemic. If we look to really dense cities; Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cairo, Sao Paolo and so forth, these kinds of cities probably won’t change that much due to the nature of employment within them and food production in relation to them, but if you look at western cities like Manhattan, Sydney, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, these are cities that people are migrating from, and not just because of Covid. There's a clear movement in the United States to Western 'gateway communities’, where people who are able to work remotely, or simply want a better quality of life with lower housing costs, have moved to rural towns on the edge of national parks so they can literally ‘get away’ - permanently. There are over 1500 of these gateway towns in the USA. Places like Joshua Tree near Palm Springs in California which falls somewhere between tourist town and small-town. 

        So I agree. The Garden City as a precursor to suburbia is problematic; what, with its car-driven, anti-urban and environmentally damaging sprawl, but the question is: Can we do suburbia better? Can we prevent these gateway communities from becoming banal?

Nic CoetzerOne of the things we haven't spoken about is how we teach architecture in the future. I think in your monograph you had ideas about that. Have you been doing any kind of teaching recently? Any reflections on what it must be like to be an architecture student today?

Don Albert - It must be very tough. Our generation had the benefit of the ‘live-in-studio’ system and the constant input from our peers while at the drawing board. But really, that studio system was already dying. I have guest lectured a little since South Africa but I haven't run a design studio since India about 10 years ago and I would like to do more of that.  Voyager was of course a space for a different kind of learning but I have done a few guest lectures for the University of New South Wales and University of Cape Town lately, some via Zoom. I am always writing as a way to unpack what is going on, which is a lot lately! I have written for the Fifth Estate as well as Climate Change Cities, and am working on another book in addition to NOW WE KNOW too. To answer your question, I think that to be studying anything right now is really difficult. The interesting thing nowadays is obviously the internationalisation of students who always add valuable perspective ~ a diversity that allows for looking at projects from many angles so the learning is much broader.

Nic Coetzer - Students are dealing with much more complexity than you and I had to deal with and I think the challenges of architectural design, without going into urban conditions, is the design process. The rationalising and then synthesising of contradictory forces...

Don Albert - Yes. It’s the synthesis! Unfortunately that is a learned skill which takes time. I’m probably not the best teacher, more of a doer, but I hope that when I do “do", I can demonstrate the how and why.

Nic Coetzer - My experience with students is one of their increasing difficulty in achieving synthesis. A result of the 'sushi conveyor belt’ perhaps, of "you can have that if you don't like this”… "there'll be a new thing coming past soon”... This idea of instant gratification compared with knowing that good design is the exact opposite of that. These are slow processes which have to occur within increasingly short timeframes by increasingly distracted minds… I think we have a problem?

Don Albert -  Yes and no. I was a guest critic for a Vienna Technical University studio project this year, which happened to be a convention centre and hotel in a rural heritage context, via Zoom of course, and I was impressed by their ability to get something done. This was a very diverse group, mostly from Eastern Europe. I was heartened to be honest, with their sensitivity and grasp of the heritage nature of the problem and challenges of convention centres. Then again perhaps they had sufficient time!

Nic Coetzer - I'd like to talk a bit about your current projects in relation to past projects like the Millennium Tower which I see needs rebuilding after that disastrous storm. In your own practice, what is shifting? You alluded to that a few minutes ago but any further thoughts?

Don Albert -  Well, I think my energies are increasingly in the urban planning realm in terms of creating vibrant communities, be they tourism communities or creative communities or some overlap between the two. In South Africa before 2010, what I had been doing was taking on work in an organic fashion whereas now, I'm more targeted in terms of the work I'm trying to procure. I’m working more in collaboration with developers and their local architects wherever they may be, only using my own networks in South Africa and Singapore for low-cost project documentation when needed. This remote-working mode is not too different to how I have run soundspacedesign in the past, I’m just more specialised now. I'm concentrating on how we are going to thrive beyond 2050 because that is the dire situation we are in, and this is the area in which I am learning the most.

Nic Coetzer - Meaning?

Don Albert - Solid research is pointing to devastating climate disruptions, rising oceans, mass movements of climate change refugees, both domestic and international, so we need to plan for this inevitability. We need to design new towns and augment existing ones in sensitive and appealing ways that create “there” there. The things that make for good urbanism and provide high tourism appeal are often the same things; access to natural beauty, walkable neighbourhoods, high diversity, job opportunities, social mobility, vibrant nightlife, spaces of cultural identity and participation, but if you want to build more stable communities then education and health infrastructure becomes important glue.

We need to deal with competing issues; the relocation and reconfiguration of industry, renewable energy, agriculture, tourism etc, wherever that may be. That’s where I'm applying my mind; the frontier of new-ruralism, reviving rural communities, retrofitting big ones. 

Bjarke Ingels recently proposed a masterplan for the planet that proposes a network of cities playing a key role ~ which of course they do ~  but he seems to have neglected the important wilds, deserts, farms, rivers and oceans between them. This hierarchy of interdependence is not just “home” < “city block” < “neighbourhood” < “city” < “planet” as Bjarke has suggested. This is a blue planet! We need divestment from destructive industrial processes and 100% commitment to a carbon neutral global economy. 

Nic Coetzer -  Okay. We've covered a lot of ground.  So obviously NOW WE KNOW is the working title of your new book. Is it only about preparing for climate change, or what else do we now know?

Don Albert - It's about joining all of these dots of what we now know about the climate crisis and the covid-19 pandemic and plotting the way forward, rapidly. As a futurist I believe that there's enough to go around but that what we don’t have, as the science tells us, is the luxury of time. I believe that we must plan our way to a better future, or at least a future in which we survive as a species. This is not hyperbole, for example:

Now we know that the forecasting of climate catastrophes, that was routinely dismissed by skeptics, was actually understatedNow we know that energy multinationals actively squashed climate science findings for decades. Now we know that governments can respond swiftly and with vast amounts of economic stimulus and manpower in the face of calamities like Covid-19, so there is no excuse for a lack of intervention in the case of climate change. Now we know it is going to be much cheaper to prepare for climate change events than mop up after them. Now we know that global supply chains in manufacturing are extremely vulnerable to crisis and are part of the climate problem. Now we know that habitat loss contributes to pandemics. Now we know that cattle contribute hugely to the greenhouse gas problem. Now we know that we must expect annual wild-fires of increasing intensity as the planet warms. The list goes on...

        California is currently ablaze with hundreds of thousands of people displaced matching what happened in Australia last fire season when over 2000 homes were lost, 173 people and 3 billion animals died. We cannot afford to go through this year after year.

        On November the 22nd I am presenting a virtual lecture for Baltic Sands on how to design a passive house in a desert context by making a comparison between traditional passive design methodology versus the newer German “Passive Haus” method; both of which are extremely down-to-earth with site analysis, microclimate, fire risks, water management and so on.

        The formal exuberance that marked the first 25 years of my career is taking a back seat for now. If buildings are going to burn down, or blow away like the Millennium Tower did, then frankly, what's the point? Planning is not keeping pace with climate change and the risks of building the wrong thing in the wrong place need to be made clear. A vision for the future is crucial.  We need to know where to go and how to get there. That is what NOW WE KNOW is about. 

As a futurist I believe that there's enough to go around but that what we don’t have, as the science tells us, is the luxury of time.

        I'm also co-writing a book on “Cult Cities” which is a very different kind of book. It examines cities that are built on foundations of faith; why some have succeeded and others failed. This cycles back into the ‘post-truth' debate, ‘science-versus-faith’, and the culture wars being waged today which are of the biggest obstacle to stemming climate change. The belief that someone else ~ especially someone in the sky ~ is going to save us…

Nic Coetzer - I think that's what you meant earlier, referring to the COP meetings, that there was some comfort that scientists and politicians are applying their minds and will lead us into a better future. Yet now there’s an unfortunate shift away from that, which brings it all down onto our individual actions. The actions that we have to take personally instead of collectively through policy.

Don Albert - Yes, but it’s also a con ~ this idea that it's only our agency as consumers that is going to save the planet. One of the great cons of the neo-liberal era has been that we must take so much personal responsibility for the environment, while major corporations and parastatals remain in cahoots with governments who continue to frack, export coal and subsidise fossil fuels, as opposed to all of us demanding an end to the fossil-fuel inferno. 

        This is not to dismiss greater energy efficiency in buildings which is needed as the planet heats up, but rather to expand the discussion around settlement patterns and energy. Solar and wind already amount to 100% of supply in certain states, yet the energy codes for off-grid houses and commercial buildings remain the same as for those that are not off-grid, which is an unfair burden if one has already paid a premium to go off-grid. So to answer your question NOW WE KNOW is one part expose, three parts solutions for the responsible, ‘eco-social’ design of settlements, new and existing, where people matter.

Nic CoetzerGreat, thanks Don. I look forward to knowing more when it's published!

Don Albert - Thanks Nic!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Images courtesy of SOUNDSPACEDESIGN, Sydney. For PDF downloads of the original monograph essays click here > LINK

Nic Coetzer (Phd) is an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town’s undergraduate architecture programme and author of Building Apartheid (Routledge, 2013).

Robyn Harding is a fine artist, writer and landscape architect based in Sydney.


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