Modern Architecture VS. Traditional Culture

Is Modern Architecture in South Africa a deterrent to the Continuum of Traditional Culture?

Upon discussing this statement, one should first establish the core definitions within – i.e. what exactly is modern architecture as well as what is traditional culture for South Africans as a people.

According to Megha Arora, modern architecture is vastly different from latest or contemporary architecture and can easily be defined by observing specific characteristics of a specific building or structure.  The modern architectural style has a set of defining principals that it adheres to; contrary to latest or contemporary architecture that is flexible in all aspects of the design. [1](Arora, M., 2017)

Greg Jones, A.I.A (Jones, G., 2011) – a member of a2 MODERN – lists ‘honesty of materials’ as a prominent characteristic of modern architecture.  Timber, glass, concrete and steel are the four most used materials in modern architectural buildings.  Modern architecture promotes the notion of truth and justice to materials.  This means that the materials used should not be altered form their natural colour or form – timber should not be painted, concrete should be left exposed and brickwork should not be plastered.  Another characteristic listed is the ‘emphasis of rectangular forms and horizontal and vertical lines’.  Linear shapes are favoured over curvilinear organic geometry.  These linear shapes create acute clean lines in the building’s elevation creating a dramatic response as juxtapositions between the vertical and horizontal planes are evident.  [2](Jones, G., 2011)

Lack of ornamentation and emphasis on function is another major characteristic of modern architecture.  The phrase ‘form follows function’ was first coined by Chicago architect, Louis Sullivan.  This is the core definition of modern architecture in the belief that all characteristics of a building should be driven solely by the function.  The hypothesis is that if the function is adequate, the architectural beauty would naturally follow. [3](Essential Humanities n.d.)

These are only three of the numerous characteristics of modern architecture – these three should be sufficient for a final conclusion.

South African culture is boundless, for a lack of a more suitable word.  The great gift of Ubuntu – humanity, the people – has made South Africa into the unfathomable cultural hub it is today.  First, was the KhoiKhoi and the San people – they were soon joined by the Bantu people and later by colonial Europeans form the south.  From the Bantus emerged the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Pedi, Tswana, Tsonga, Ndebele, Shangaan and Venda cultures to name a few – all bringing their own skills, arts and farming methods with them. [4](Show Me n.d.)

The various cultures each had their own farming style, dress code and building preferences – their own way of living.  From the mud ‘rondawels’ to the beehive grass huts to the Cape-Dutch houses, everything is different, yet similar at the same time.  All cultures are family orientated, enjoy space (land) and live very simple lifestyles – the different cultures generally are satisfied with the bare necessities. In short, South Africans are basic people to the core.

The truth is that a very strong case can be made that traditional cultures in South Africa is dying out – due to Western influences.  In the 2011 census, it was reported that there was a definite decline in several official languages, including Zulu, Sotho, Tswana and Swati.  Language is just an example – traditional marriages, burials are also declining – and soon, South Africa will lose Ubuntu. [5](SAPA, 2012)

Therefore, a strong assumption can be made that modern architecture is in fact aiding the South African culture if anything.  Basic passive house design that emphasises rectangular forms and horizontal and vertical lines (much like current rural settlements); uses the principal of honesty of materials; the notion of form follows function seems, from a certain perspective, perfect for South African culture.  But that might be all it really is, an assumption.

If modern architecture desires to aid traditional culture it should incorporate all the characteristics mentioned and then some – it should take into account the lifestyle of indigenous South Africans with regards to basic tradition e.g. farming, traditional rituals, marriage, etc.

Modern architecture is true to form and materials whereas traditional culture is true to its site and surrounding context; well general tradition that in some cases are limited with modern architectural contexts or sites.  Modern architecture in itself is not a deterrent to the continuum of traditional culture; the effects of inadequate modern architectural design can be detrimental to the sustainability thereof.  The crux of this conundrum is that informed modern architecture is not a direct deterrent to traditional culture.

[1] Arora, M., 2017, ‘Characteristics of Modern Architecture’, in Plan n Design, viewed 27 February 2018, from

[2] Jones, G., 2011, ‘What is Modern: Characteristics of Modern Architecture’, in a2 MODERN, viewed 27 February 2018, from

[3] Essential Humanities n.d., ‘Modern Architecture’, viewed 28 February 2018, from

[4] Show Me n.d., ‘South African Culture’, viewed 28 February 2018, from

[5] SAPA, 2012, ‘Avoid Cultures Dying Out’, in Sowetan Live (News), viewed 28 February 2018, from

Social Development Project by Indalo + Collectif Saga

Alexandra Interpretation Centre by Peter Rich Architects

Artist Residency & Cultural Centre: THREAD


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