Guy Ailion is one of South Africa's brightest young architects. The winner of SA's 2010 National Architectural Student of the Year award for his M.A.Thesis Everywhere is Here: Architecture and a Developing Information Society, his design is informed by a dual fascination with moving images and the urban environment. Not only is he revolutionizing the way South Africans think about space and light and living - but all gushing aside - he is also helping to move the country in a more environmentally-progressive direction. We asked him a few questions about his fascinating cinematic renderings and about the challenges that are currently facing South African designers.
Inhabitat: Guy, one of the first of your many projects we came across was the sketch proposal submitted to the Design Indaba 10×10, a Silvio Rech collaborative effort. Can you describe the Chesterfield House?
Guy: The Design Indaba 10×10 project was part of the 2007 Design Indaba Conference in South Africa that challenged 10 architectural teams to design dynamic, effective and affordable low-cost housing systems. I was working with Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens architects (SRLC is an international award winning practice) that is renowned for spearheading a sustainable, luxury, bare-foot, boutique architecture for island and safari living.
Our approach was to create easy and simple construction methods for found material, useful techniques for skills exchange with local community builders, and passive design strategies for climatic control. The design harvested water, controlled sunlight, and made strong use of thermal massing. The techniques and processes SRLC resembled a bulging mud wall or chesterfield couch.
While providing the security of a cave, the Chesterfield house was designed to be both practical and sculptural, and to function for any family of 4 persons. And – as with any well crafted vintage sofa passed on from grandparent to grandchildren – it was designed to age naturally and beautifully.
Inhabitat: We really love your architectural films. Would you be able to share some of the ideas behind the sketches-as-film?
Guy: I feel that if you can’t distill an idea into a basic diagram or sketch, then the communication of the idea will be lost in complexity. This is why when I am putting together a short film that describes a design project I land up narrating and animating my doodles and sketches.
Film and animation are wonderful tools for communicating ideas, and sketches bring an analogue dimension to this digital medium, making it playful and human. The viewer recognizes that these are human drawings and therefore relate more easily to the content. The architectural maxim “less is more” and the architect’s napkin sketches are great communication tools in the digital world of film.
Inhabitat: When and how did it become possible to submit renderings in this format, and how has this medium advanced your own design process?
Guy: Animation has been around for ages. In today’s age of digital information access, it’s not the techniques that are new, it is that they are now available to everyone! Composition, mood, lighting, staging, balance, the golden section, tilt, panoramic, texture, blur, drama and focus, are all terms shared between film and architecture. They are also the tools used to “narrate” space. When I sit in a beautiful and haphazardly-crafted coffee shop, I think about how to capture this space on film, while observing how and why the room is shaped like it is architecturally.
Inhabitat: The music, by The Real Estate Agents, was edgy, scratchy, and definitely caught our attention. How do you think music either enhances or detracts from the core design?
Guy: Film can touch on every emotion we have, but it only has the ability to do so by influencing two of our senses at once – sight and hearing. This is why the choice of sound effects and especially music is so fundamental to evoking the correct mood and atmosphere for a short film. In the 10×10 sketch animation, I used two fantastic tracks by the Real Estate Agents which were mixed and chopped up to make the animation hip, funky, and sketchy. The tracks were fun and had a lot of off-time peaks that movement can be animated to.
Inhabitat: You have 18 awards under your belt already, including the SA National Student of the Year and first prize for the Best Regional Architecture Thesis. Both were awarded in 2009 M. Arch Thesis project. Can you explain the philosophy behind your thesis?
Guy: In an age of instantaneous digital information, the ability to access the world’s knowledge from anywhere is a reality, except for communities on the other side of the digital divide.
With technology becoming cheaper and faster, the “Digital Divide” is more than lack of hardware, it’s a cultural divide. Nurturing information societies in a developing context needs a bottoms-up approach that applies local cultures and methods of interaction to global trends.
My thesis adapts the traditional information platform to a developing world context. The result is an open-information-campus model that provides new ways of thinking about social interactivity, the remix culture and opportunities for innovation.
Inhabitat: Although you are currently in England, you are from and studied in South Africa. What are some of the challenges you faced there as an ecologically and socially aware design professional?
Guy: The South African democratic context is still in its infancy and maturing slowly. There are of course plenty of designers and people of power who champion a local awareness for global and local ecological and social changes, but it is baby-steps for now.
One particular challenge is the current approach to social housing. The notorious 51/9 RDP prototype is what it sounds like: a generic, badly-designed walled box with a leaking roof that does nothing to inspire the occupants. These social housing prototypes are rolled out between election periods with little to no consideration for place-making, adaptability, meeting community needs, or home making.
Inhabitat: At the same time, there appears to be a very tangible shift towards a more sustainable future. In what way is South Africa progressing in your view?
Guy: Designers, thinkers and planners are starting to come together to make changes and plan for the future. We are slowly seeing a consciousness of sustainable building methods and new technologies for the production and consumption of energy. South Africa has great potential to become the leading advocate for a sustainable Africa; awareness of this is slowly emerging.
Inhabitat: We are very curious to have a sneak preview of your ongoing or upcoming projects… care to share?
Guy: I am talking to an incredible group of thinkers and do-ers in the UK and USA that are spearheading a rapid movement toward sustainable urban agriculture. Emmanuel Pratt, a PhD student based out of Chicago, is co-coordinating an initiative inspired by vertical farming concepts and the urban farming projects by Will Allen (USA) and Charlie Price (UK). Its very exciting to think about reinventing or retrofitting old buildings and factories to produce organic food and natural consumables for the urban context. I’m also working locally on residential architecture.