The Chairman Part 2: Ndabo Langa in conversation
An “in his own words” Q & A with founding owner, architect Ndabo Langa, published here for the first time.
By Wanda Hennig
I spoke with Langa at Ciao Bella Cafe on Mahatma Gandhi Road (previously Point Road), which is a couple of doors from his offices and where he has meetings when he wants peace and quiet from the demands of a super-busy architectural practice.
Before we connect I know, from his Linked In profile, that his degrees are from the University of KwaZulu-Natalʼs School of Architecture. His architectural practice is called DGIT Architects (Diverse Group of Independent Thinkers). And that he spends weekends “scavenging in junk/antique shops, a compulsive collector of mid-century modern artifacts, jazz records and furniture.”
Q: How long have you been practicing as an architect and why, when I Google you, don’t I find a whole lot about you? It’s like you haven’t been promoting yourself.
A: For 17 years. It takes a bit of time to have a claim on a project. You always say “I was part of…” and that is not the same as starting your own initiative from scratch and seeing it to the end. I think it’s disappointing to create an impression you’re this person who has done “xyz,” when maybe your contribution has been minimal. Any architect can do a lot of projects not worth flaunting, as good and noble they may be. Much of the work you do is just expected. Part of what you do. To be significant there has to be something special about what you’ve done or how you did it. Now, I have a sufficient body of work to put out there.
It makes you think about architecture
Q: What are some of your projects that you are most inspired by, to date?
A: Funnily enough, a little bridge down in the Warwick triangle: the Music Bridge. That was one of our first projects. Then again — going back about 12 years — the Umbilo Station. You come up from Umlazi and there’s a station on your left; a bullet shaped elevated building. When you drive by, it grabs you — makes you think about architecture.
Q: More recently?
A: There’s the magistrate’s court in Bridge City. And we’re building a hospital now, right next to the court. The brief has been forever changing. Raising the required R2 billion has not been easy for the Department of Health. So, while we’ve been involved in the project for five or six years, we only started on site at the beginning of this year.
Q: What makes these projects exciting to you?
A: I grew up in KwaMashu. Bridge City is in KwaMashu. Getting a project right there is in itself quite a big responsibility. You want to set yourself different kinds of objectives. There has never been much by way of architecture in KwaMashu.
We wanted to create a bit of an awareness — to make ordinary people take note of, and talk about, architecture. Think about it differently. KwaMashu has never had a building before that is intriguing or that stimulates discussion among, for example, a domestic worker and a gardener.
But Bridge City (magistrate’s court) — they talk about it. About the structure. About the shape. One of the statements we wanted to make was that you can be from KwaMashu and you can pursue professions you didn’t know existed — in this case, architecture. And you can also make an impact. And one is conscious that it adds a little bit of pride for the people who live there.
Q: What do you think made you think this way?
A: My folks, when I said I want to study architecture, said “What does an architect do?” As learned as they were (his father, South Africa’s former Chief Justice Pius Langa, died July 24, 2013; his mom was a nurse) they didn’t know. For them, it had always been doctor, lawyer or teacher. They didn’t think in terms of careers of an artistic nature or even highly technical professions.
You want to start inspiring hope
Q: Tell me more about the Bridge City projects.
A: When we go and talk to schools about careers, they say, “Oh, I’ve seen that building.” It’s gratifying. Now the hospital is being built next to the court and it is also going to be equally interesting. It’s gratifying to be putting some seriously decent building into areas you wouldn’t expect to find them.
And, for example, courts have changed. They’re now are about justice — not a dominant intimidating statement.
And a hospital is not a place of death. You want to start inspiring hope. So you need a little bit of playfulness and a lot of natural light inside, and landscaping. Your design has to be cleverly done and considerate to the patients and their visitors and so on.
Q: You say “we” repeatedly?
A: I work with a team. I may lead them, but I strongly believe in team effort. There are a lot of things I suck at and we complement one another. Some are good at the admin, which I find really boring. But coming up with creative solutions and design, I could work around the clock.
Q: Did you go to a private school?
A: No, I went to school Nqubakazulu High School in KwaMashu. The school was a typical township school. No lab, no art classes, no library.
In turn, you want to harness this
Q: So what inspired you to look at architecture?
A: I started off by doing all sorts of things with wire — like making wire cars. You start being creative with your hands. Using what you have. You’re learning from people around you. Then, maybe the penny dropped when I was going into standard nine. One saw the ability. I was really good at mathematics, I discovered in standard nine. And then, in biology class, the teachers always ask you to draw a diagram on the chalkboard for the other pupils. And then the teacher from the next class would ask you too. And you are asked to draw the skeleton, the structure of the heart.
And I suppose the feedback you get from other people, from the teachers, helps you discover what you’re good at. Then, in turn, you want to harness this — hold those skills you have.
I wasn’t quite clear what an architect really did. You’d see people working on a construction site. Then you’d see the people with white shirts and ties and boards. You’d see them calling the shots. That was one attractive things. So I researched architecture. I saw it is one of the artistic professions you can make a decent living out of — and make an impact.
I matriculated 1990. I wanted to enrol at the old University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal). It was a little difficult to gain admission to the university coming from a township school — wanting to do something so sophisticated. I wasn’t accepted the first year. They told me to go and work for an architect.
So in 1991, I worked at an architecture firm. In 1992 I started in my first year at varsity. We had six black students out of 45 that year, which broke a record at the time.
Q: What would you say was your dad’s main influence on you?
A: I feel a little awkward saying it, but I think humility. It would be very high on the priority list.
Also, you pick up things from parents. My dad worked very hard. That was a reference, certainly to me. He was really passionate. Dedication to his chosen profession. My mom was a nurse. All her life, she nursed till she retired. There would be weeks we didn’t see my dad, when he had a case, for example, in the Eastern Cape or elsewhere. I was expected to work hard. Not going to school was never an option.
In turn, you want to harness this
Q: What is your model for your firm DGIT?
A: That we would be seen at the forefront of rejuvenation and walking the talk. And as people who are putting money where mouths are. And I think if anything, its what architects ought to do. Lead by example. Take responsibility. So that’s why we’re doing this Chairman initiative.
Q: And your house and family?
A: I didn’t design my house. It’s a very old house and I opened it up. It’s in Glenashley, near Virginia Airport. I’ve been married for 14 years. (To Mpume Langa, Regional Head, KZN, of ABSA Private Bank and Chairwoman of the Durban Branch at Businesswomen’s Association South Africa. They have two children, aged 5 and 7.)
Home is different. It has to be homely. Not a showroom kind of approach. Though its full of, call it modern classic pieces, my interest really. I have a serious fascination with mid-century modern classics.
© Wanda Hennig, 2015