Architect Nina Maritz

Architect Nina Maritz

Meet the team. Interview with Nina Maritz – architect of the Nyae Nyae Village Schools.

You started your own architecture business in 1998. How did you get into architecture?

As both my parents were architects and lectured in architecture, I was exposed to discussions about space, landscape and buildings at an early age. We had art classes both at school and after hours, did many craft projects at home and my mother does pottery, so I have always been interested in the concept of making things. In high school I became fascinated with building space, partly through the Art Deco apartment complexes in Port Elizabeth, where I grew up, and decided that architecture was a good combination of all my interests, as it is a very inclusive discipline.

What is your design philosophy? And can you tell us a bit about your previous experience with community projects?

My design philosophy is contextual responsibility. By that I mean that the designs must be appropriate to the context in the fullest sense – environmentally, socially and economically.

We have worked on a range of community-based projects, some tourism related and others educational. Although I am not a social person by nature, I have always enjoyed interacting with community members in Namibia. Their drive and sincerity in wanting to improve their situation, despite the odds stacked against them, are impressive. Their means to do so, however, are extremely limited, both in terms of infrastructure and capacity. This is what we try to enhance.

Nina Maritz

Nina Maritz

Why have you made the Village Schools Project a priority?

How can one not? The San are at the same time the most marginalised and the most interesting people in Namibia. Their complex cultural and genetic history is absolutely fascinating and it is globally important that it survives. Appropriate education from the earliest age is fundamental to this survival – the children need to learn both about their own culture as well as the modern world. I see the Village Schools as a critical venture in enabling such education.

What do you see as the important issues or considerations of this project?

When it comes to spatial design, probably culture, environment and adaptability. The San have a unique approach to settlement and construction which bears almost no relationship to modern western constructs. They tend to create very loose and flexible arrangements which are the antithesis of contemporary rigidly demarcated and structured space. San notions of territory are fluid, reacting to season and climate, and inherently complex, as it is based on intricate social relationships rather than fixed cadastral mapping.

With regards to the educational aspect, flexibility is critical, as it has to mediate between the two very different worlds of traditional and contemporary culture. It was important to move away from the conventional orthogonal box classrooms, while at the same time not superimposing a flawed concept  of a perceived ”San architecture”.

Unfortunately, cost is always critical towards making such a project a reality. We can have all sorts of creative ideas, but if we cannot fund them, they will simply remain on paper. So of course the buildings must be ultra-affordable. At the same time, this offers an opportunity for skills training and employment to the local community, to try and maximise the beneficial impact of the construction to the community.

Given the very mobile nature of San culture, the location of each school is critical. They have to be centred between villages to improve accessibility, have good road access for supplies, make use of existing boreholes if available, and avoid elephant routes for safety. Foreigners might think it romantic to encounter elephants on your way to school, but there is nothing pleasant about it!

Side view of dormitory

Side view of Dormitory Village Schools

You visited Ju/‘hoansi Bushmen in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy. What was your impression of the subject?

When visiting villages, it is at the same time inspirational to see how people try to persist in their age-old non-materialist traditions, yet saddening to observe the impact of modern political systems and the consumer society. The approaches are totally in opposition, so it must be extremely difficult to reconcile the two.

The most impressive community meeting I have ever attended, was the recent one in September, It was the last day of an exhaustive 5-day conservancy meeting, and despite having camped for a week to attend, people were dressed in their festive best, calm and considerate. It was also an incredibly democratic process, with no sense of domination by one person or group within the larger whole (which is unfortunately the hallmark of most Namibian communities). The idea of the “African strongman” does not exist, and men and women participated on an equal basis.

Nina at Community Conference

Nina at Community Conference September 2016

And what is the design process, for this specific subject?

We spent quite a lot of time in the beginning with discussions at the relevant villages about what hopes and dreams the parents have for the schools. Although modest in scope, the schools can have a much larger impact on the community is built and managed wisely, so it was important to try and understand their views. As school hours are in the morning only, the facilities can be used for other activities as well, such as adult education, health visits, and so on. The schools can also provide regular work for community members, such cleaners, cooks and hostel mothers.

Taking all these views and core issues into account, we first developed spreadsheet of accommodation needs with space sizes and descriptive notes regarding construction methods and fittings, in consultation with David Bruce and Bruce Parcher. Once it was agreed, Herman Martins of De Leeuw Namibia Quantity Surveyors developed the spreadsheet into a cost estimate. The building costs proved to be much more expensive than anticipated, so we went through another round of adjusting the accommodation until we could reach a more realistic target budget.

Then only, we made hand sketches of modular units which we discussed both electronically and face-to-face with David Bruce of the Ju/Hoansi Development fund. These were developed into more detailed sketch proposals, and basic cardboard models. In September 2016, we travelled to Nyae-Nyae to present these at a community meeting for their opinions. The community was quite satisfied with the design and gave us the go-ahead to develop the designs further, once funding for construction has been obtained and the site locations finalised.

Potential School Layout

Potential School Layout (Phase 2)

What is your role during construction?

After drawing up the technical documentation and administering the tenders and contractor’s appointment, the architects will introduce and do some basic training of the builders in the alternative low-technology construction methods we want to use. We will also spend some time with the community to collectively decide on the placing of each building on the site. Thereafter, we will visit the sites on a regular basis to inspect the progress and quality of the work, and evaluate the work done for certifying payments to the contractor/s.

More on the concept design for the Village Schools you find on the website under Village Schools design.

More about Nina Maritz Architect and their contact details, you find on their Facebook page.

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