Why South Africa Needs Architecture Intensive Disciplines
By Roderick Lim Banda
A long time ago, civilization divided into two converging views of the world. The aesthetic values and perceptions of one worldview were shaped by geometric rules and symmetry. The other sought balance with the natural world around them. Today, we of westernized cultures take for granted the way geometry shapes our thinking, helps us abstract complex ideas and how we judge what is beautiful. We grow up walking through rectangular doors and windows, eat off a circular plate and interact with abstract geometric shapes on our computer interfaces. Outside of our world, is another one running in parallel, where people live in the natural surrounds. There are no straight lines unless they are man made. How we perceive the world around us has an influence on what we constitute as structure, function and aesthetics. These are the three elements of what Vitruvius defined as architecture, namely that: it should be structurally sound (Fermitas); it must have a practical function (Utilitas); it should be beautiful (Venustas).
South Africa is diverse and the line between these worlds is not as simple and clear cut as illustrated above. The point is that we may have simply thought of people in terms of diversity in culture, of literate and illiterate, and/or held prejudices based on external appearance. We may not have come to realize how differently we abstract things in our mind when we either visualize geometrically or use our perceptions of nature. Many people who learn to read or write only in their adult life will still have missed out on the fundamental learning skills developed in children ages 3-6. It is in early learning educare where children develop vital visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning skills. They are introduced not just to numbers and letters but also to geometric shapes and forms, which will become essential learning tools as they develop their ability to think, abstract and interact with the modern world around them.
Certainly geometric shapes and forms exist in natural architecture but they are often free flowing. Free flowing curves along a line or shape may be perceived as disordered or unstructured in our western minds, but in natural architecture and design it is aesthetically sound because it is based on nature's own structure. The convergence of these worldviews began before the modern period. Chinese, Indian and Arabic cultural patterns and designs make use of geometric shapes and symmetry as a product of their pursuing mathematics, astronomy and the natural sciences. It would seem that the wall murals of the Ndebele people in southern Africa point to a pre-modern convergence of these worldviews. But as Powell notes in his book "Ndebele - A people and their art", "Ndebele mural art, geometric patterns on traditional houses have their beginnings in the 1940’s. The first 'Ndebele-style' wall paintings that we know of were photographed by Pretoria architect and university academic Al Meiring at a single settlement in the Hartebeestfontein area during the late 1940s - and there is every indication that it was in fact here that the practice of decorative and geometric wall paintings, at least as we think of it today, had its origins among the Ndebele." (Powell, 1995)
Inherent in the past system of colonialism and apartheid was a lack of understanding of these worldviews. Rather than learning to appreciate the differences in the way structure, function and aesthetics were perceived, racial prejudice helped to compound the divide. Black and non-white universities were only allowed to teach professions that had a social value under the apartheid system. Gradually teachers, lawyers and doctors were educated through these universities. But the education of scientists, architects and engineers was not encouraged, supported or allowed. Today, the need in Africa as a whole for technical and constructive knowledge and skills is enormous. The profession of structural engineering is concerned about the lack of new entrants into this field. The expansion of towns and cities, post war re-construction, roadwork infrastructure, biotechnology and information systems are all calling for these technical professions.
Part of the problem is that of perception. The lack of belief that we have the capacity and ability to be technically minded, after all this is AFRICA. Even if Africa missed out on the industrial revolution and modernism, it still has much to offer because of, and not in spite of, its inherent social perceptions of natural structure. As shocking as this may be, the future of design and architecture (buildings, machines and software) may not be inspired by Star Trek. They may in fact be inspired by the study of nature's own structures. Globalization, the environment, depleting natural resources and pollution may force the "global village" to turn to Africa for inspiration and answers.
The Japanese post war economic recovery has been well documented. I could never understand what the big deal was with businessmen comparing Japan to Africa or to the rest of the world. While watching a BBC documentary on Japan, my initial disinterest quickly turned into a personal buy in of the metaphor. The fact that they had to dismantle their shipyard as a condition of surrender created a problem of having to re-deploy a workforce of metal workers and welders. When they decided to tackle America in the race to produce the microchip and electronic appliances, they re-deployed a workforce of welders from building ships to building circuit boards. This was reinforced through cultural values and perceptions - from management philosophy to entertainment. Ever wonder why there are so many Japanese cartoons featuring robots?
What does this have to do with software architecture? Well we as architects are in a position to mentor and lead teams. South Africa has a vast and untapped resource for innovation that can be inspired by our people, our culture and our natural environment. We can begin by sharing knowledge and help transfer our natural way of thinking into modern architecture intensive disciplines.
There are a number of architecture intensive disciplines all around the enterprise. What constitutes architecture intensive disciplines? Here are some attributes and principles.
1. Architecture intensive disciplines is not about a title or practice such as Enterprise Architect, Solutions Architect, System Architect, etc. It is about individuals and teams and the way we think. We elevate construction through design and in turn design through theory. We can perform any activity like a machine without giving it much thought. If we have to think about it by planning, designing or analyzing, we develop our ability to abstract concepts in our mind. When we study the history of architecture, we do not simply look at the building, we analyze the style and design to give us an idea of the social context and philosophy that led to that construction. This mental model or pattern is what provides real value for future applications.
2. Architecture in development terms is a higher level of abstraction - a form of systems thinking. We are taught to deal with complexity by breaking things into parts, in doing so we pay the price of losing sight of the whole (Senge, 1990). That purview of the “whole” is often what is missing from software architecture in modern software engineering terms. Devoid of natural and human qualities, the same people for whom it was intended will reject these systems that we engineer.
3. Organizational values may need to change. Employers and managers should empower people to build their own capability. Standardization and rationalization is often necessary, but it should go beyond simply defining what must be done. Personal development is important for individuals and teams.
4. We may only be able to affect the people around us. There is a social component to every system we create. Beliefs are important in any human activity. As stated in the Agile Alliance manifesto, processes and documentation are important, but we must value people over these things. If you are leading a team or project, you will appreciate how important the team is and will understand what I mean when I say “the team is everything”. The real value is not in the source code.
5. Individuals have unique learning methods – visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The UML was an important work in the standardization of visual modeling but not every one learns visually. Prototyping, Joint Application Development, XP Stories are other valid ways of communicating and presenting views of a system and may be more effective given specific scenarios.
6. Pay attention to high knowledge retention roles such as technical writers, configuration controllers, toolsmiths, software quality engineers, testers, etc. We may only think in terms of architecture and development, but there are other roles where expertise and knowledge can be quickly retained. Maintenance of legacy code may not be everyone’s cup of tea but refactoring can result in regaining intellectual control of complex systems.
7. Think local context and nurture local talent, thinking and diversity. Designs and solutions can be inspired outside of IT. We learn from metaphors in our everyday life, from rugby and soccer – good excuse, for weekend research activities. As stated above, there is a lot of natural structure in Africa, but it’s also about the life force, the spirit, the beliefs, rhythms, these have inspiring patterns and can nurture creative thinking to solving technical problems and dealing with complexity. Most importantly, don’t let differences in perception dissuade you from tapping the African born solutions to complexity and change.
These are just some of the concepts that define architecture intensive disciplines. Architecture from a software engineering perspective has become increasingly complex. Standards have been developed to provide some form of intellectual control and to define or measure quality. Standards and frameworks over the years have increasingly become complex in themselves. We may think that each new element of architecture will correct or eradicate architectures of the past. Many of the elements we build into a system do not go away, they become just another unit of construction that supports a function in the system as a whole. Architecture intensive disciplines are about the common architectural thinking that empowers individuals and teams to deal with all these complexities, from high-level abstractions to detailed technical specifications. Its not about the system nor the standards - its about you (us) and the way you think, abstract and process artifacts in your mind.
As South Africans, we are not behind in our thinking, just different. Bill Gates' vision of a personal computer in every American home may be a cellphone in every African home. But it is not about hardware devices, software-intensive systems and applications. We need to go beyond seeing the potential for Africa representing a society of consumers and focus on the disciplines that can build things – concrete or abstract. Before the economic prosperity, the renaissance was a period of enlightenment. Information technology may have lost its glamour and that may be a good thing, because the value of information systems is in growing our knowledge capital. Like the renaissance, prosperity follows when we focus on improving what we know, especially when it involves a shift in thinking.
Beck K, 2000, Extreme Programming Explained – Embrace Change, Addison-Wesley, Boston