Understanding architecture’s role in alleviating inequality in society preoccupies Heinrich Wolff.

For the award-winning architect and urban designer these inequalities are keenly felt knowing the three most unequal cities in the world (Buffalo City, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni) are located in his own country, South Africa. Acute, when the level of inequality of Heinrich’s home town Cape Town mirrors the inequality of the entire globe.

Heinrich visited State Library of Queensland providing the keynote address for the 2017 Australian Urban Design Awards. In his erudite lecture he demonstrated his fascination with the morphology of forms, in particular how cities and communities have been be affected by their political and ideological formation in unintended ways.

In an interview before his lecture, he said: “People aren’t necessarily familiar with how spatial segregation helps to enshrine privilege and the monopolisation of economic opportunity.”

The father-of-three said most people would naturally think that made sense because of Apartheid. “But if you know that inequality rapidly increased at the end of Apartheid, you need to ask yourself ‘Is inequality tied up with democracy?’” Heinrich doesn’t believe so and said the liberalisation of the economy in the early 1990s was pivotal to the rise of inequality.

In his keynote address, he explained how this related to architectural practice and then finished with an example of his studio’s own work, which brought together some theoretical principles with his attempts to find ways of applying more democratic processes into his urban design projects, such as Watershed.

Heinrich is a co-founder of Wolff Architecture with his business partner and wife, architect Ilze Wolff. Both have taught and lectured internationally including Japan and India, with the work of the practice included at various international exhibitions like the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Some in the audience might have wondered how his talk Network Systems – which was peppered with references to postcolonial and critical theory – might relate to the design awards to follow. However, what was important for the evening’s lecture, were the ways in which he suggested strategies for re-working architectural practices.

“In many cases there are morphological things in the cities that should just be prevented…large city blocks which are impenetrable, massive tenancies which do not make space for smaller tenancies are problematic configurations within a city. In the context of severe inequality, that has dire consequences and is responsible for the growing inequality,” said Heinrich before his lecture.

While his practice was informed and shaped by the inequality of opportunities in Cape Town and beyond, he recognised that Australian urban design is commonly concerned with various issues of liveability.

The liveability concerns include the density and height of new buildings, access to public transport, and provision of adequate green space, social amenities, schools and affordable housing provisions. This has meant that design resolutions have often been compromised. Not necessarily by the lack of imagination in the work of designers, but often by the developer’s aggressive search for the maximum profit in each build: Avarice not architecture. However, it is crucial to recognise that there are opportunities to propose better designs.

An “unintended consequence” of protesting against poor town planning in Australia has seen designers and architects working with residents affected by development proposals. The incubation of ideas in democratic ways is what neighbourhood groups would like to see happen more often, as do many design professionals who are prepared to work pro bono for causes they believe in.

This is the territory in which theory and practice may come together, and comparisons between Australia and South Africa might reveal common ground.

Heinrich’s illustrated lecture and introduction of critical theories on architecture gave the audience new perspectives on the ways in which urban spaces and repurposed industrial buildings might be designed to bring various communities together in ways that avoided conventional wisdom yet worked well. Heinrich’s talk was an intelligent contribution to an urban design awards ceremony which you can read more about here.

Books Heinrich recommends:

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said

“It’s about how culture was expressed at the time of Imperialism. How one can learn from one’s attitudes and how one can form new attitudes. I think it would be essential reading in a country where acknowledgement that the land used to belong to other people.”

Asia Pacific architects Heinrich admires:

Indian architects: Charles Correa and Balkrishna Doshi

Chinese architect: Wang Shu

Japanese architects: Ryue Nishizawa, Tojo ito, Sou Fujimoto and Kazuyo Sejima

Vietnamese architect: Vo Trong Nghia

Australian architects: Kevin O’Brien, Donovan Hill, Glenn Murcutt, Harry Seidler

“I have a certain kind of affinity with work done in the Third World to understand people dealing with post-colonial issues of identity formation, or establishing new identities in the face of the obliteration of local identities by white supremacy.”