Nina Maritz: Understanding and responding to context

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Nina Maritz is principal and founder of Nina Maritz Architects in Windhoek, Namibia. A graduate of the University of Cape Town School of Architecture in 1991, she establishing her firm seven years later with a focus on environmental sustainability and community projects.

A member of Namibia Institute of Architects, Nina is an author of numerous papers on energy efficiency and sustainability within developing countries, as well as a frequent lecturer on sustainable architecture.

Using an approach that is deferential to both the setting and its people, Nina’s work draws not only from her familiarity with environmental and social factors, but also from an ability to delve into the detailed particulars of each place by simultaneously being both vernacular scholar and environmental designer.  Utilizing an honest expression of materials and structure, her firm’s growing portfolio elicits a sensitive approach to place and climate, rooted in a deep appreciation of Namibia’s unique history, culture, and ecology.


What drew you to architecture?

NM: As both my parents were architects, teaching it at university, and frequently hosting visiting architects, I was surrounded by architectural discussion. I tagged along on architectural sightseeing tours for the visitors all over town and used to wander around the intriguing Art Deco era buildings in Port Elizabeth.  My parents gave me Maurice Sendak’s “A Little House all of your Own”, with beautiful illustrations.

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Nina Maritz in front of a rammed earth wall at Habitat Research & Development Centre. Katututa, Namibia. © Nina Maritz

Maybe this led to one of the two favourite games my best friend and I indulged in – performing ‘plays’ and building houses with whatever came to hand – cardboard boxes, blankets over the washing line, and a memorable one using flat stones on steel rods as a roof, which promptly collapsed on our heads.  My friend went on to study drama, and I – architecture. (A second career choice was landscape architecture, aspects of which I now incorporate in my work).


How did you end up in Namibia and what made you decide to establish your practice there?

NM: My father is 4th generation Namibian and we visited my grandparents here in school holidays. In 1985, my parents decided to move back to Namibia and I came with the luggage, as a result of getting a Namibian Government bursary to study from my second year onward. This was a few years before Independence, and after Independence in 1990, at the end of 1992, I returned to fulfill my bursary obligations by working for Government. I wasn’t suited to the civil service environment, however, and left to work for a private firm after 10 months, paying back the bursary instead.

As I am not the cocktail-circuit kind of person, I found that the more informal and open nature of Namibian society suited me better. Here you are not judged so much on your appearance or social skills, but on your reputation. With Namibia’s focus on environmental conservation, I felt at home and can slot in my work with conservation and development initiatives in the country. Here I feel I can make a contribution to society and the planet.

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Nina and Max enjoying a walk . Avis Dam, Namibia. © Nina Maritz


Much of your work is anchored in contextual response, sustainability, and community development. What led to this devotion?

NM: The main drivers for my work have been an abiding interest in nature, a concern over the devastation that humanity is wreaking on the earth, and a conviction that architecture should be integrative, instead of just stopping at the threshold or site boundary line. Growing up during the last years of apartheid and having grappled with the ethics of being white, privileged because of race, as well as a contested African identity, makes me very concerned with issues of community. Understanding context and responding appropriately to context, helps to resolve this search for identity.

Namibian landscape and topography. © Nina Maritz

Namibian landscape and topography. © Nina Maritz


Namibian vernacular architecture inhibits classification, as it depends on culture, climate, and availability of skills and resources. How is practicing in such an environment where these factors vary from region to region, town to town, and even family to family?

NM: Architectural design in Namibia is as much a matter of contextual response as anywhere in the world. To a large extent such response is forced on all of us here through distance and cost, as it is seldom possible to justify the importation of “exotic” materials and skills. In that way, Namibian contemporary architecture is subject to a certain uniformity, but development of a true regionalist vernacular is prevented by the influence of international media on architectural design.

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The organic forms of Twyfelfontein Visitors Centre blend into its physical setting. Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects and Dennis Mc Donald © Nina Maritz

I am personally influenced by land- and bio-form, which requires investigations into wider fields such as anthropology, geology, botany and zoology complemented with inter alia languages, contemporary culture and local traditions. Such investigations can only benefit architects in local practice, but few seem to recognize wider interests as relevant. This may be due to the current global adherence to “Architecture” as almost a belief system in itself rather than a component of a larger world.

Namibian practices are generally small. Single architects supported by one or two technicians are responsible for entire projects, unlike the much larger project teams in many other countries. This can result in very individualistic approaches, but also creates a lack of depth in most work, unless thorough research and design development is done. I agree with Dr Jaco Wasserfall that among Namibian architects time pressures due to lack of resources often lead to shortcuts taken in these two areas, resulting in mundane design resolutions.


In many countries, water’s role in construction is taken for granted. But in Namibia, the absence of it forced you into becoming quite frugal and inventive in your design process. What are some of the unique lessons you’ve learnt from being in an environment where the very resources one needs to build are scarce?

NM: Scarce resources mean that minimalism is so much more than a matter of form. Inventive use of basic materials, re-thinking the uses of space, using the outdoors as extensions of indoor space, are all strategies born from this scarcity. Locally available materials and skills can also be manipulated to create a kind of modern local vernacular, an architecture which is born of its place and time. And it is much more fun – creatively challenging – to be inventive than to just choose something from a catalogue.

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Roof cladding tiles made from sandblasted recycled oil drums. Twyfelfontein Visitors Center, Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects and Dennis Mc Donald. © Dennis Mc Donald

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Toilet screens and associated signage made from recycled drum lids. Twyfelfontein Visitors Center, Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects and Dennis Mc Donald. © Dennis Mc Donald

 

Should architects be proud scavengers?

NM: Oh yes. However, the time demands of modern practice as well as restrictive regulatory environments can make it difficult. In rural Namibia, we have the rare freedom of working with very little regulatory demands, which opens up creative opportunities. I live in hope of a recycling company opening a building materials yard where we can go to source second-hand components. However, then we might also be competing with the poor, many of whom survive on sourcing and using or re-selling used building materials.

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Site meeting at Fish River Canyon Viewpoint, Karas. Namibia. © Nina Maritz

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Canopies at Fish River Canyon Viewpoint, Karas. Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Nina Maritz

By collecting used materials, cleaning and assembling them for something new, you have my respect. I find it rather insulting when designers take brand-new components and create other products (such as new plastic bottles for a lamp-shade). I sometimes think such a pretense of recycling can romanticise true poverty, which is problematic from an ethical viewpoint. But if such ideas can be translated into actual re-purposing (what a horrible word) in the real world, it might have a point.


Designers tend to look at sustainability exclusively through the environmental lens. But shouldn’t sustainability encompass much more?

NM: Of course – the concept of sustainability means environmental, social and economic continuance. But it is understandable that the focus seems to be environmental, as without a sound environment, there would be no social or economic context in any case, to put it bluntly. In Namibia, the economy is one of primary resources (mining, fishing, agriculture and tourism), so we are totally reliant on the environment. The first two are extractive and thus doomed for eventual demise, agriculture is sensitive to climate change, and tourism depends on a largely unspoilt natural environment.


Practicing sustainable architecture requires one to be an educator as well. How challenging is convincing clients of the benefits of sustainable and place-specific design, especially when it involves altering the way people live, function, and interact on a daily basis?

NM: Very challenging. Conventional architect-client interaction does not provide the time during a project to elicit a mind-shift when required. Tactics range from direct appeal to conscience, to describing spin-off economic benefits. Broader public awareness of the need for sustainable approaches have made it much easier to convince clients of the intention, but it is still difficult to advocate change if it impacts on issues of status, in particular (such as the concept of what constitutes a “proper” house or workplace). I am increasingly battling with status concerns as desire for the “”American” lifestyle permeates society.


Sustainability in the West is often a very technical and quantitative process.  Is there anything Western architects can learn from seeing how sustainability works in the African context?

NM: Here there is probably a greater understanding of the immediate environment born from necessity, but it must be remembered that compared to Europe and North America, the environmental demands are completely different in Africa. We almost never have to contend with snow and accompanying sub-zero temperatures, for instance.

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Recycled Tire Wall at Habitat Research & Development Centre. Katutura, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Maryke Maree, Nina Maritz.

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Amphitheatre at Habitat Research & Development Centre. Katutura, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Maryke Maree

However, I agree that the Western approach ends up almost separating the aesthetic and spatial design from the technological resolution of envelope and contents. Perhaps integrating these might result in better buildings? (The research by Scott Turner and other bio-physicists on subjects such as wind impedance, make this a very interesting avenue of investigation – the nature and surface of the envelope as a ventilation strategy, almost an external lung, for a building, will have considerable impact on form.)

As most African countries function in a context of developed first world mixed with ‘developing’ third world, the international ratings like LEED can be appropriate in many projects, some more so than others. The WGBC (World Green Building Council) system has the advantage of working through national councils which adapt the criteria to country-specific conditions. All these rating systems, however, are commercially driven private initiatives, not regulatory. They are thus only applied to the first world context. Only government and local regulations can drive green building for the rest of the economy, in my view. I am not a fan of over-regulation, but if we have regulations in any case, we must ensure that they are pro-green building as much as possible. (The question whether a capitalist economy will ever successfully conserve the environment, is an extension of this debate).


Foreign architectural and construction firms in Namibia are omnipresent, particularly in projects of national significance. How can local firms gain more visibility in these types of commissions?

NM: The design by North Korean architects and construction by Chinese companies of the State House of Namibia, the Independence Museum and the Heroes’ Acre, was motivated by political, financial and security considerations. These buildings were not only financed by the Korean and Chinese governments, but the new Namibian Government perceived local architects and contractors as white-dominated and sympathetic to the old regime.

25 years after Independence, there are now several black-owned or mixed practices and more inter-racial trust and respect in the professional arena. Several well-designed large commissions have been executed by Namibian architects in the last 10 years and acts as a spur to local visibility of the profession. Future nationally significant projects will undoubtedly be awarded to local architects.

The construction sector, however, is still increasingly dominated by both Chinese State-owned and private Chinese enterprises. Skills improvement in construction has not improved significantly and it can even be argued that there is a serious loss of skills due to older craftsmen retiring without adequate replacements. Vocational training is short-term and superficial, and few are willing to engage in the old German-style apprenticeship system which produced high-level craftsmen.


Namibia has a long history and [inter]dependent relationship with South Africa. How is this relationship manifested in the domestic architectural space?

NM: Viewed from outside, practice in Namibia and South Africa would appear identical. Most professionals were and are trained in South Africa; the same legal system, contracts, building regulations and standards are used; most manufactured goods are sourced from or via South Africa, and with downturns in the South African economy, construction firms and professionals are streaming into Namibia to find work.

Banks, retailers and other large companies from South Africa make up the second largest employer group after Government.  These often insist on their South African consultants to be used. Despite reservation of work legislation, this is a continuing practice. Local professionals are employed for assistance and construction management.

As yet, Namibia is not urbanized to the same extent as South-Africa, so architects tend to do far more projects in rural or semi-rural environments, fueled by the state’s decentralization policy.

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West facade of Oshakati Regional Study & Resource Centre, Oshana Region, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Dennis Mc Donald

Cultural similarities are manifested in architectural features such “stoeps” (verandas) for the outdoor activities of “braai-vleis” (barbecue), and building typologies like suburban housing, ‘townhouses’, shopping malls, fuel stations, etc. Urban landscapes are very similar, having developed after the 1960’s based on the car as main transport medium.  Apartheid inequalities are still ubiquitous, although the Group Areas Act was repealed more than 20 years earlier than in South Africa.

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Interior view showing Prosopis window screen. Oshakati Regional Study & Resource Centre, Oshana Region, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Christine Skowski

Differences in practice are subtle, such as a more intimate working environment where most professional consultants, contractors and particularly state employers in the country know one another personally. This leads to a less aggressive working environment than in South Africa, but closer scrutiny of working practices.

Namibian legislation is lagging behind South African, where energy efficient building regulations, strict environmental, labour and other legislation have been adopted.  Whether such an over-regulated system would work in Namibia, is debatable, as it would be difficult to control and may lead to an increase in corruption.


Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s youngest proportion of population, with over 70% being under the age of 30. This emerging demographic is increasingly connected to the outside world and desiring of that world’s tastes. What can be done to ensure that culturally and environmentally sensitive architecture remains relevant – if not paramount – in the rush to provide built environments for this growth?

NM: Culture has always been fluid and changing over time. With modern communications this is happening at a much faster rate compared to previous centuries.  Globalisation of ‘taste’ is inevitable, however much we would like to retain local vernacular in dress, language, food and buildings. I am skeptical as to whether diversity can be protected, but do agree that it should as long as such protection does not preclude equal development for peoples.

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Sossusvlei Service Station, sheltered behind a “sand dune” that extends over the roof, both to screen the buildings in the wider landscape and to help keep them cool. Maltahöhe District, Namibia. Nina Maritz Architects. © Nina Maritz

It is important not to view cultural factors in architecture as aesthetic only. A contemporary private dwelling in Africa may appear similar on the outside to one in South America, but the functional layout will differ completely (to do with notions of privacy, etc.). For architecture to be culturally sensitive, it must respond spatially to the zeitgeist and hereditary culture. Visual responses based on climate, vernacular, history, etc. may be appropriate, but not necessarily for all typologies. To give a crude example – a twelve-storey office building cannot channel a traditional thatched ‘hut’.

Environmental factors are somewhat different – although climate change is happening, it is pushing towards more extremes of the same. This exerts its own pressure on design. Where sophisticated technology is expensive or unobtainable, climatic response and use of local materials and systems will remain. So it really depends on which side of the poverty line a project is located.


You have journeyed from Port Elizabeth, by way of Cape Town, to Windhoek. But Namibia is a small country for your niche. Is this your final destination, or is there still an explorer in you?

NM: My niche evolved because Namibia has a small population, not despite it. The close interaction between people of different backgrounds make integrated design approaches possible. I am here to stay, but this does not preclude an interest in other parts of the world. I enjoy collaborations with others and look forward to more in future, some of which include participation in more academic design-build ventures as well.

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