Traveling as Education- Experiencing South Africa

I was originally bitten by “the travel bug” in 2002 when my dad followed through on a long-standing dream to do as his dad had done for him- take his son(s) to Italy, the land of our not-so-distant-anscestors. During my Master”s of Architecture program in 2009, three months living in Barcelona and four months abroad total, in eleven different countries, permanently imprinted me with the value of the personal and professional impact of traveling on my career as an Architect. Experiencing things firsthand is important to me, which is a large part of why I travel- everything becomes suddenly and amazingly real when you see it with your own eyes.

This past February I took advantage of the amazing chance to visit an old friend in South Africa, living and researching for nine months in a small town an hour outside of Cape Town. I wasn”t fully or nearly prepared for the impact of a trip flying 21 total hours, across the Equator, to the Southern tip of a new continent, to a country of many languages and peoples, still awash in racial, political, and economic strife the likes of which we only (rarely) read about in the papers blogs.

My ten days in South Africa was less architecture and more history/language/politics/culture than expected- but more educational than I”d hoped. Personally and professionally, I am particularly interested in residential design- the small scale, the Psychology of the impact the spaces can have on your day to day life. Additionally, I feel a moral obligation and tremendous opportunity as an Architect to use design (and blood, sweat, and tears) to effect social change.

In a confluence of the two, I had the rare chance to tour a “township” outside of Cape Town- a “shantytown”, a settlement of metal shacks- known as a “favela” in Brazil. It was known as “Imizamo Yethu”, which is Xhosa for “Our Struggle”. While a bit disconcerting to be a tourist gawking at the living conditions of some of the poorest in the Western Cape, it was a unique opportunity to experience it firsthand, with a tour guide who lived in the area, for a fee that ostensibly went directly to the community.


I was immediately struck by the contrast between their poverty and the fact that they still had the basic pieces of a normal life. Many had electricity, some had running water, there was a shocking number of satellite dishes mounted on fences, and people had shoes, clothing, paved streets (with street signs!), some cars here and there, televisions, bars strew about town, a school down the street…but the poverty was obvious in their one-room, corrugated-metal homes.


Yet I noticed that their basic needs of food, shelter, clothing were met in those humble abodes. I thought back to the 200 square foot apartment I had in Chicago, with a *large* closet and air conditioning, and found myself wondering if I really “needed” such a *lavish* living situation to be happy- or better yet to be actualized, to borrow Abraham Maslow”s term. What do we really NEED from our homes and our lives to happy? How could homes be more modestly designed for necessity rather than contingency?

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A wealthy Irishman had been coming to Imizamo Yethu for five years, bringing money and muscle to build homes and a library. Germans had just built a new school the past year. It seemed a bit “white guilt” or the typical helicoptering help to Africa from the Western World, but it had made a profound impact (credit william). I”m aware of the American concern “why should we send help and money overseas with so much poverty and need here at home” yet I couldn”t help wondering about the impact I could make there in South Africa- and the need and opportunity were clearly there.

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