»Form follows feminine.«

Oscar Niemeyer

Blog Comment

Models of practice

Iain Low in Lesotho

  •  The slightly Po-Mo columned architecture of Maseru High School library from 1985, was designed to evoke a classical authority. (All photos courtesy Iain Low unless otherwise stated) 1 / 18   The slightly Po-Mo columned architecture of Maseru High School library from 1985, was designed to evoke a classical authority. (All photos courtesy Iain Low unless otherwise stated)
  • Maseru High School library in 2013. Its proportioning and careful siting was scaled to meet its African context. 2 / 18  Maseru High School library in 2013. Its proportioning and careful siting was scaled to meet its African context.
  • Qoaling Peoples’ Facility, Maseru. The concrete block pier construction system it uses can accommodate either stone, site-constructed concrete blocks or clay bricks as infill – whatever is most accessible on site. 3 / 18  Qoaling Peoples’ Facility, Maseru. The concrete block pier construction system it uses can accommodate either stone, site-constructed concrete blocks or clay bricks as infill – whatever is most accessible on site.
  • Low's architecture – here the cluster of classrooms, church and housing at Qoaling – acts as a catalytic urban intervention, laid out with careful consideration of external spaces as places of movement and gathering. 4 / 18  Low's architecture – here the cluster of classrooms, church and housing at Qoaling – acts as a catalytic urban intervention, laid out with careful consideration of external spaces as places of movement and gathering.
  • Qoaling Peoples’ Facility, Maseru: classrooms amd service blocks. 5 / 18  Qoaling Peoples’ Facility, Maseru: classrooms amd service blocks.
  • Pupils at Qoaling school. 6 / 18  Pupils at Qoaling school.
  • Qoaling Church façade has definite echoes of a Mario Botta House. 7 / 18  Qoaling Church façade has definite echoes of a Mario Botta House.
  • The Lesotho Training for Self Reliance project team, 1980s. 8 / 18  The Lesotho Training for Self Reliance project team, 1980s.
  • Iain Low manifesto poster for the South African Institute of Architects conference, 1985. 9 / 18  Iain Low manifesto poster for the South African Institute of Architects conference, 1985.
  • Iain Low today. 10 / 18  Iain Low today.
  • The typical spread-out urban form of many settlements in Lesotho. 11 / 18  The typical spread-out urban form of many settlements in Lesotho.
  • A school addition, designed by its local builder, an example of how even without drawings, Low's School construction system went viral as builders transferred the technology to other schools and houses. 12 / 18  A school addition, designed by its local builder, an example of how even without drawings, Low's School construction system went viral as builders transferred the technology to other schools and houses.
  • Matsieng Primary School in 2013. 13 / 18  Matsieng Primary School in 2013.
  • Mejametalana Primary School, Khubetsoana, 2013. 14 / 18  Mejametalana Primary School, Khubetsoana, 2013.
  • Construction of a classroom building, designed by buildCollective NPO for Architecture and Development. (Photo: © Marlene Wagner) 15 / 18  Construction of a classroom building, designed by buildCollective NPO for Architecture and Development. (Photo: © Marlene Wagner)
  • Classroom building structure, designed by buildCollective NPO for Architecture and Development, who’s practice encouraging innovative self-reliance, resonates with Low’s. (Photo: © Marlene Wagner) 16 / 18  Classroom building structure, designed by buildCollective NPO for Architecture and Development, who’s practice encouraging innovative self-reliance, resonates with Low’s. (Photo: © Marlene Wagner)
  • PITCHAfrica’s rainwater harvesting street soccer pitch. Rain falls on the pitch and seating, passing through the playing-surface, which acts as a filtration layer, to be stored in a matrix of shipping containers below. (Photo: PITCHAfrica) 17 / 18  PITCHAfrica’s rainwater harvesting street soccer pitch. Rain falls on the pitch and seating, passing through the playing-surface, which acts as a filtration layer, to be stored in a matrix of shipping containers below. (Photo: PITCHAfrica)
  • The original full-sized model of PITCHAfrica’s rainwater harvesting street soccer pitch, built in the Port of Los Angeles in 2010. (Photo: PITCHAfrica) 18 / 18  The original full-sized model of PITCHAfrica’s rainwater harvesting street soccer pitch, built in the Port of Los Angeles in 2010. (Photo: PITCHAfrica)

In 1982, the young architect Iain Low escaped apartheid in South Africa – with its problematic diet of State-commissioned architectural work: from military bases to segregated police stations – to live in Lesotho and over five years developed a school-building programme that enshrined the principles of self-reliance. Hannah Le Roux looks back at his work and sees a model still relevant today.

Maseru is the capital of Lesotho, an independent constitutional monarchy with a history as a place of refuge in the heart of Southern Africa. On the edge of the ever-spreading town, set between sandstone slopes and grazing land, is the sanctuary of Maseru High School’s library, a carefully-crafted temple to rural learning and job creation, yet also to architectural history. The architect of this unlikely mix is Iain Low, who, as a young South African during the height of apartheid in the early 1980s, confronted by the choices of compulsory military service or exile, found his own moral refuge in Lesotho.

Low designed Maseru High School in 1986 while working for the Training for Self-Reliance Project that constructed schools funded with World Bank loans. Over five years of self-imposed exile, he extended the programme into one in which architecture both represented and enacted self-reliance. Low estimates that two to three hundred schools were built under the programme through the agency of the draftsmen and builders that the project had trained. Lesotho today has one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. The design approach that Low brought to the Schools project owed some debt to the structuralist thinking of the 1970s, whilst their social agenda anticipates contemporary humanitarian studios and awards for architecture in development.

The Lesotho Training for Self Reliance project team, 1980s.

The construction system engages with ways of making that enable transitions between the colonial, old vernaculars and modern construction. As a scalar, modular system, it enabled replication by draftsmen who could adapt it to different topographies and builders. The concrete block piers were designed to accommodate either stone, site-constructed concrete blocks or clay bricks as infill – whatever was most accessible on site. Equally lucid is the use of straightforward simple technologies: clear sheeting for daylighting, trombe walls for passive solar heating, cross-ventilation and rainwater harvesting. But even without drawings, the School system went viral as builders have transferred the technology to other schools and houses.

The other quality of the schools is their neo-classical detailing and urban siting. The relationship between Latin culture and learning this evokes isn’t incidental: Lesotho has a long mission tradition, and its university town is named Roma. Both as individual buildings and in larger complexes, such as the cluster of classrooms, support pavilions, church and housing at Qoaling, the schools work as catalytic urban interventions, laid out with careful consideration of external spaces as places of movement and gathering. The proportioning and careful siting of the Maseru library, likewise evoke a classical authority, scaled to meet its African context.

Low's architecture – here the cluster of classrooms, church and housing at Qoaling – acts as a catalytic urban intervention, laid out with careful consideration of external spaces as places of movement and gathering.

The commitment to combining both visual and material intentions in a system for rural schools is remarkable. It comes in part from the limited time and spatial scales of the project, as well as from the intense focus that comes of work in exile. But it also has the quality of a political counter-project, one that kept an eye on the situation over the border to South Africa, where apartheid was still, literally, being constructed, in the form of schools for black children that were poor mirrors of those given to whites. In a 1985 manifesto illustrated with his “current solutions”, Low wrote: “the ‘practice of architecture’ in South Africa is often an elitist affair which the Institute of South African Architects attempts to control and can therefore change”. In part he was alluding to that Institute’s actions in censoring its own members who had spoken out against accepting commissions for State work, condemning yet more architects to self-exile.

Instead of reflecting on this model for addressing the priorities of a developing country, however, many other South African professionals continued to invest their skills in the last and most insane phase of apartheid planning for puppet bureaucracies like Bophutatswana, military bases on the borders and intricately segregated police stations. The consequences of their reaction spans thirty years, with everyday structures such as schools mostly built to typologies dating from the 1970s. It is not so much the lack of design as the lack of a social agenda for design that sets South Africa apart from its tiny enclaved neighbour Lesotho. It is tragic that apartheid agendas prevented the the Schools programme from crossing this border.

Still, the viral qualities of ideas do spread. In the face of the Institute’s indifference in the 1980s, Iain Low was hosted by students at congresses that presented alternative practices for a post-apartheid world that they, at least, believed was imminent. In this way, the Universities reinstated their position in hosting oppositional thinking, much as the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg had notably done in the 1930s and again in the 1970s.

Yet it is unclear when Africa will create conditions that are ripe for the rolling out at scale of the idealist visions of architects like Low, as well as those who preceded and follow him. However the tone of some emerging studios and their projects in Africa, such as buildcollective, [a]FA, PITCHAfrica and 1:1 – Agency of Engagement resonates with Low’s, an optimism that is necessary and will, probably, be tempered in time. For now, they deserve the recognition for continuing a thread of practice and construction that links ideas and projects, exiles and remote communities.

– Hannah Le Roux teaches, practices, curates and writes about architecture, and is a senior lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her current research, “lived modernism”, is based on the observation of change over time in modernist spaces, and the design practices that catalyse the social appropriation of space.

RECENT POSTS

more

Recent Magazines

25 Apr 2016

Magazine No. 43
Athens

  • essay

    From the Bottom and the Top

    Powering Athens through collectivity and informal initiatives by Cristina Ampatzidou

  • photo essay

    Nowhere Now Here

    A photo essay by Yiorgis Yerolymbos

  • Essay

    Back to the Garden

    Athens and opportunities for new urban strategies by Aristide Antonas

  • Interview

    Point Supreme

    An interview by Ellie Stathaki

>

03 Mar 2016

Magazine No. 42
Walk the Line

  • Essay

    The Line Connects

    An essay on drawing and architectural education by Wes Jones

  • Essay

    Drawing Attention

    Phineas Harper sketches out new narrative paths with pencil power

  • Essay

    Gotham

    Elvia Wilk on a city of shadows as architectural fiction

  • Interview

    The (Not So) Fine Line

    A conversation thread between Sophie Lovell and architecture cartoonist Klaus

>

28 Jan 2016

Magazine No. 41
Zvi Hecker

  • essay

    Space Packers

    Zvi Hecker’s career-defining partnership with Eldar Sharon and Alfred Neumann by Rafi Segal

  • Interview

    Essentially I am a Medieval Architect

    An interview with Zvi Hecker by Vladimir Belogolovsky

  • viewpoint

    The Technion Affair

    Breaking and entering in the name of architectural integrity by Zvi Hecker

  • Photo Essay

    Revisiting Yesterday’s Future

    A photo essay by Gili Merin

>

17 Dec 2015

Magazine No. 40
Iceland

  • Viewpoint

    Wish You Were Here

    Arna Mathiesen asks: Refinancing Iceland with tourism – but at what cost?

  • Photo Essay

    Spaces Create Bodies, Bodies Create Space

    An essay by Ólafur Elíasson

  • Focus

    Icelandic Domestic

    Focus on post-independence houses by George Kafka

  • Essay

    The Harp That Sang

    The saga of Reykjavík's Concert Hall by Sophie Lovell & Fiona Shipwright

>

more

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MAILING LIST Close

Uncube is brandnew and wants to look good.
For best performance please update your browser.
Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer 10 (or higher), Safari, Chrome, Opera

×