'Architecture is not just the creation of space and giving it character, it is the essence of how we experience life,' says Singalakha Bongela-Jojo — a woman that is living up to her name — Singalakha, is Nguni (Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele) for 'We can build a home.' The architect recently launched her own firm, Sakhiwo Architecture in Johannesburg after ten years working for various firms in South African and abroad. She shares her journey, her thoughts on representation in the industry, lessons and her favourite woman architect.
According to reports, only 21% of SA architects are women. What are your thoughts on this and your greatest challenge in the design and architecture space as a woman?
There are very few women in our industry, the limitation is as a result of the challenges and obstacles women have to go through compared to our male counterparts. Women have to be extraordinary to berecognised, men just have to show up. It's a challenge women have to face in all aspects of life and across most industries. The built environment, which functions as a very masculine industry from design to construction, makes it a lot harder for women to be included and recognised. The inclusion of women is taking time, and we aren’t asking for special treatment or anything out of the ordinary. We want equal treatment and an equal platform from which to obtain a justifiable level of respect. Can we not be forced to have to prove our worth at every juncture while producing a quality service because we don’t necessarily fit the preconceived image?
As a woman, you get placed on the back foot, before you say: ‘hello my name is……….’. As long as we still have to prove we deserve the seat on the boardroom table, justify a position as lead consultant, or need to conjure up a polite way of telling a potential client, boss, colleague or bricklayer that it’s not ok for him to make advances on you - then we are not equal. As long as those obstacles are part of our journey, the industry won't rope in a lot of women. However the stats are better now than they were a couple of years ago, we just have to keep reinforcing equal rights and reiterating the fact that the industry is the one that needs to change, us women are here to stay.
Please tell us about your journey to birthing Sakhiwo Architecture.
I grew up with the love of creating things, whether is it making wire cars with tin-can wheels, building go-carts with my neighbour or playing with Lego’s. My parents noticed my love of working with my hands, so after attending an all-girls Primary school, they sent me to a Technical High School. This is where I fell in love with technical drawing and took woodwork as a major. I designed and got to build my own furniture and after I matriculated I went to study Architecture at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth.
I graduated with a BAS (Bachelor of Architectural Studies) and thereafter packed my bags and left for England at the age of 21 on a working holiday visa. I started off working in a restaurant for three weeks while knocking on every architecture firm door I came across, requesting employment. I carried my A3 drawing portfolio wherever I went, and my breakthrough came in Brighton where I was appointed at a medium-sized architecture firm as an Architectural Assistant.
A year after of working and saving, I returned home to pursue my Masters degree in Architecture. When I completed my Masters, I started working in East London (my hometown) for a small firm called NN Architects. This is where I gained a lot of experience and my love for making a positive contribution in people lives through architecture, became a driving factor and motivation for me.
After five years in the Eastern Cape doing schools, houses, hospitals, and sports complexes, I got an opportunity to work in a multi-disciplinary, built environment consulting firm in Johannesburg as the Head of the Architecture business unit. This is where is learnt the business aspect of our profession. I started working on Sakhiwo Architecture on a full-time basis. I love waking up to pursue my dream and not someone else’s anymore. I’m grateful for the flexibility I have to structure my day and pursue my passion with great intent.
What was the first space you designed?
In 2006 I worked as a student architect while doing my second year of varsity, this was a holiday job for an architecture firm in East London. I’ve always worked, since the age of 16 I was a cashier at Debonairs pizza and the local video shop. My then boss and mentor Charles Nduku was the type of leader who believed in you more than you believed in yourself. So my first design was the renovation of the old Maluti Teachers College and hostel for government departments of Matatiele.
What have been the highlights for Sakhiwo so far?
Being involved in a great initiative to create a heritage and resource centre for the Xesibe association in Mount Ayliff. This interpretative centre will bring to surface the history, culture, and heritage of the Xesibe people. There are very few cultural centres in the Eastern Cape that depict and outline the story of the indigenous people, so to be involved in an initiative of this nature that will also be an economic generator for the communities at large is amazing.
Would you kindly share an anecdote on some lessons you've picked up as an entrepreneur?
I was a Project Architect for five schools in the rural Eastern Cape area. This was an eradication of mud structures initiative by Coega Development Corporation. I would drive for hundreds of kilometres alone on the gravel road-sometimes a non-existant road, get to the top of a mountain, arrive at a dilapidated hut which they identified as their local school. I would have to do this journey every 2 weeks while overseeing the implementation of the new infrastructure and facilities I had designed for the schools.
My mom would be so worried every time I made the long drive and my friends thought I was insane for doing it on my own. But what kept me going for the entire duration of the construction period of 12-18 months was the excitement that I was making a change in someone’s life. That I had the ability to influence an entire community’s environment and education for the better. Having the driving force when I did, enabled me to identify that this is my passion. As an entrepreneur I’ve learnt to understand that your passion is what drives you, it waht keeps you motivated during hard times. You will encounter ups and downs but if you love what you do and your heart and soul is dedicated to what you do, you can overcome any obstacle and achieve anything. Make sure you’re living your passion.
What is your design philosophy?
My philosophy has always centred on the needs of the user while taking cognisance of; sensibility to the context, environmental impact, latest technology, availability of materials and green building principals. Architecture is not just the creation of space and giving it character, it is the essence of how we experience life. Functionality is key to the way I design spaces.
What is good and bad design in your view?
Bad design would be the inability of a user to make full use of the space as they intended. Good design is meeting the clients requirement by striking the perfect balance between function and aesthetics.
Your current favourite building or local structure?
I’m loving the new Marc Building in Sandton. It's bold, expressive and unapologetic. I enjoy architecture that pushes the boundaries and the Marc does that with such visual pleasure.
Favourite female architect and why?
The Queen, Zaha Hadid. She’s a pioneer of Deconstructive Architecture in the 21st Century. She transformed the notion of what can be done with concrete, glass, and steel. She never pushed the boundary, she simply had no boundaries.
Current/future projects you're excited about?
I’m designing a Mega Industrial hub for the Central Corridor in Gauteng. An initiative by the Gauteng Department of Economic Development. We are engaging all the industrial needs of the community and harnessing them in a hub that incorporates the manufacturing and retail functions. This will be a great tool to support the businesses in the industry and bringing manufacturing closer to the people brings about convenience for the community at large.