KZNIA interview with Dennis-Lee Stols – Regional winner of the COROBRIK Student Architect of the Year

KZNIA recently caught up with Dennis-Lee Stols Regional Winner of the Corobrik Architecture Student of the Year Award 2012. In this frank interview, Dennis-Lee explains what made him decide to get into the architectural profession, shares his thoughts on UIA2014 and tell us what makes him tick in general…..

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Tell us briefly about yourself, where you grew up, schooled etc. Well I was born and bred in good old JHB, but moved here when I was 5 years old and have been here ever since. I was a La Lucia snob (said in jest) growing up, going to school at Northwood Boys. I originally wanted to be a vet, but I didn’t do science at school so never got accepted. The next irony is that I applied to Architecture at UKZN, and they too rejected my application saying I was “too creative” for architecture and that I should try interior design instead….so I did. I studied my 3 year interior design degree (NDIP INTD) at DUT (Tech) and finished first in class Cum Laude. It is also here that I met my wife to be 🙂 Not being fully satisfied I then re-applied to UKZN and then got accepted into second year! I completed my BAS undergrad and finished first in class there too, which was a great feather in my cap! Following my 5 years of studying, in 2 different fields and schools I took a bit of a break, well a 4 year break to be exact where I worked for Richard Stretton at KOOP and then for Ian Bell at Paton Taylor. It was Ian who suggested I go back to finish my Masters which I was reluctant to do as I was now married, living in my own home in Glenwood and have 3 furry children (basset hounds). But after some persuasion I listened and I suppose the rest is history, finishing first in class for design, winning Corobrik and now mentally preparing to start work at Paton Taylor again in December!

What made you decide to get into architecture? I suppose I’ve always had an appreciation for how we interact with our built environment. When I was in undergrad I came up with the term “URBAN SCULPTURE” which kind of summed up how I viewed architecture, basically as an art form that everyone has the opportunity to comment on, interact with, love and hate. Every person regardless of education, race, religion understands architecture making it one of the most relevant art forms and forms of social science. Although I still believe in this somewhat, my ideologies have changed. Although I still believe in the power of the built form, and the interaction of people within it, I now longer view it as merely art or sculpture. This can be seen in my dissertation and my architectural proposal where I have experienced a profound paradigm shift that removes the architect from architecture, and places people first, understanding that architectures fundamental purpose is to SERVE people, beyond any aesthetic preconception.  Therefore I’d like to think that my reasons for going into architecture have matured, and I am becoming a more relevant architect than merely an urban artist.

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Please tell us a little bit about your Master’s project? The architectural dissertation investigated “life between buildings” and how the citizens of the in-between are living and thriving between architecture, in non-space and non-architecture. It also investigated the notion of Insurgency, which is a social theory, that shows how marginalised communities and citizens eventually break from being mainly survivalist to being participatory, thereby staking their claim to the city and redefining how the city works…this is a tiny nutshell of a 32000 word document so please excuse its vagueness! The project on the other hand identifies a local insurgent citizenship, the informal recyclers of the Durban CBD. Worldwide informal recyclers make up to 2% of the planets population, yet they are still marginalised, victimised and abused. Even though they face intense social struggles and spacial exclusions, these unique citizens actively redefine the city by creating lives and livelihoods between architecture. I spent a lot of time with the NPO Asiye eTafuleni, working with the informal recyclers, getting to know them personally, and literally following them around daily, taking notes and photographs to build a brief snapshot into their complex lives. The project from the start was always meant to be about them, it was a social project which sought a grass roots up intervention, where the clients would dictate what I drew and provided, which proved quite challenging as they have created an existence in spite of architecture and not because of it! With the great help from my supervisor Bridget Horner of Space Syntax, along with Richard Dobson, Tasmi Quazi and Patric Ndlovu of AET we were able to muscle out a proposal that satisfied the needs of both the client and the requirements stipulated by the varsity, which by the way were on opposite ends of the scale! So what is the project? It is essentially what Dobson calls a “safe pavement” contained under a soaring “urban umbrella”. The idea was to create a space for the recyclers to perform the activities they do currently without changing their patterns or the way they work. I was very reluctant to provide a recycling “factory” just because they are recyclers….they are NOT factory workers, as such the program allows for their own interpretation of space. The oversailing saw tooth roof that covers the site is reminiscent of an industrial factory, which I included for some architectural poetic licence. There are various ancillary functions such as an education centre, NPO offices, storage facilities, transient housing to name a few, but the core focus was to support the recyclers. As such storage facilities, bailing station, showers, workshops and sorting areas were all provided to assist in the collecting, sorting and selling processes. The site was conceived as a permeable piece of true public property, for the use and interpretation of those who sought to use it.

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Name your role models in the following categories (and reasons why):

1.) Favourite Durban/KZN archi? Sheesh this is almost a trick question…

2.) Favourite SA archi? Studio MAS hands down: This goes back to my Urban Sculpture splurb in the beginning…studioMAS somehow manage to create the most beautiful pieces of urban sculpture yet retain a true South African architectural identity…I often find myself oogling over their website 😉

3.) Favourite international archi? I would have to say BIG: The work he does is so obvious and simple it’s almost insulting that nobody else has thought about it. He is able to “dumb down” the practice of architecture into a concise thought pattern that is both logical and legible in the final product…but I suppose MOST of all, he always seems to just be having fun!

What are your thoughts on UIA2014 Durban? I’m quite excited about it actually, I think it’s a great platform to showcase South African architecture and the extremely deep pool of talent we have in this country. Perhaps most importantly the world can see that architecture in South Africa is not just gum poles and mud brick walls, I was in JHB recently and the quality of the buildings I saw there blew me away…truly world class! That being said, and swinging right back to my thesis, it is important that we show how we are defining SOCIAL and ECONOMICAL sustainability. The green finger movement with the green star rating is all good and well, but we have a HUGE social agenda happening in this country, with the gap between rich and poor growing exponentially every day. The service delivery strikes, bouts of violence and xenophobia all point toward extreme ills that architecture has the power to address! The Smithsonian calls it Design for the Other 90% and I believe that THAT is what we need to focus on. We need to be able to show how we as architects are actively contributing the building of a nation as cheesy as that sounds. The truth is anybody can design a house or an office park, but not enough architects are designing in service of the majority poor in this country! Once we unlock that door, and prove to the world that architecture for the Other 90% is happening here, we will be true leaders in the profession.

Are you planning on staying in Durban/South Africa and working here, or are we losing another star to the International Arena? Nope my feet are planted on SA soil! I’m starting with Paton Taylor, so I’ve got job commitments already. I probably will travel a bit this year, keen on visiting India, which has been a dream of mine for what seems like forever….but SA is my home and you would need to drag me kicking and screaming to soggy London.

Dennis-Lee with wife, Lyndall

Dennis-Lee with wife, Lyndall

Please tell us a little about your family? I’m married to probably one of the strongest women I know. My wife supported me both financially and emotionally during these last 2 years, so I am forever indebted to her…which I’m sure she knows and is going to milk! Other than that we live in a listed house that’s been in the family since my father-in-law was a child here in Glenwood. We share our home with 3 crazy basset hounds, which I must say are the funniest and best dogs I have ever owned….we keen to start a family, but not sure how the dogs are going to take it as the 3 of them rule the roost!

Hobbies and passions (besides architecture)? This is an easy one….Trail Running! This is something I’m extremely passionate about and was quite competitive this year, completing a 40km 8 hours mountain run up the Mweni Needles as well as being on of 16 runners to complete the 112km Mamu Loman off-road comrades, which is a run from PMB to Blue Lagoon off-road, starting at 2am an ending at 17H00! I think running has taught me to be a better architect, you learn when to push, when to relax and how to deal with mental and physical fatigue. I often find myself on a 25km trot on the trails pondering if it is architecture that has made me an endurance runner or endurance running that has made me an architect!? Look out; I’m often sprinting past the Institute in my poly shorts and iPod, sometimes barefoot 😉

Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now? Well if the Mayans were wrong, then I see myself established in a reputable firm, I’m not one for starting my own company. Hopefully my family would have grown with some human children, and I would have found a way to marry my love for outdoors and running into a professional capacity of sorts…even if it means architecture pays the running bills! But in all seriousness, I would like to be surprised by what my future holds, I believe that the last 10 years of study-work-study have provided me with the tools to do whatever comes my way, so now I’ve just got to put the hook in the water and see what I catch!

KZNIA thanks Dennis-Lee for his time and wishes him all of the best for the Corobrik Student architect of the Year Nationals!

COROBRIK Student Architect of the Year Award – Regional Award

The KZNIA office is abuzz with activity today in light of a very special event which will take place at 160 Bulwer tonight.

COROBRIK will be announcing the Regional winner of the COROBRIK Student Architect of the Year – Regional Award, at a closed event at the KZNIA offices. Students have been flitting in and out all week, setting up presentations and models for the big night. My inner child has been yearning to play with the stunning little laser profiled trucks, cars and buses in Geoffrey Richards’ model….he he!

Members are advised that the installation will be available for viewing at the KZNIA from tomorrow, until 30 November 2012.

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We thank COROBRIK for their ongoing, generous and dedicated support of the Architectural profession and education.

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Tonight at the KZNIA we look forward to opening the UKZN students exhibition. The exhibition comprises primarily fourth year Shift housing projects 2012 but also a creative project undertaken by the whole school which has produced some pleasing results.

As a pre-exhibition celebration KZNIA invited UKZN staff to share a lunch at 160 Bulwer Rd today. There was a great turnout and Nina Saunders  (KZNIA President) had a few things to say about the university’s role in the KZN architecture community.

Many of the members have a sense of connection to UKZN because it is our alma mater. The New Paradigms video highlighted the new directions in the built environment and how much architects are thinking about their role in relation to this. UKZN has an aspirational role to play in twinning practice with research and drawing on the experience of established professionals and the exploratory thinking of young students.

Another positive development is the appointment of a new Head of Architecture at UKZN, Mthembeni Mkhize, who brings several years of experience in architectural research and practice with him from around the world. But that is for another post.

More pictures on our facebook album: