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Dialogues with the Masters


Transcript of conversation with Karen Eicker

Dr. Amancio d'Alpoim Miranda Guedes

See: 10-12 December 2003 - Wits University

and The Exhibition of Paintings and Sculptures


What's it like to be back in South Africa?


But I'm not back in South Africa. I'm in a new country. I mean, the change at Wits, the change in the graduation ceremony. How much more relaxed the whole thing is. You know, the hierarchies, all those things seem to have disappeared. Absolutely wonderful. 

You know, when there is a revolution, when there is a change, normally what collapses is the economy and somehow South Africa has kept its head above water. I'm a state pensioner, so my pension by comparison to the money in Europe had faded off to almost nothing. But now, all of a sudden, the rand is moving upwards, every day. You know I go and change dollars, and every day it becomes different (laughs).

I know that it is forces that are outside South Africa. I mean, gold is suddenly worth a lot more money. But there are many other things happening in South Africa.

And what does this doctorate mean to you?

Well, what it means is coming back here. Coming back here again. 

Because my fifteen years here were a very agitated fifteen years. I met up with a lot of opposition. I didn't fit in properly. I thought the University neglected us. I wanted more support. Within the department things were fine, but outside the department the relationship with the University administration was always a bit strained.

I never felt that they would do anything nasty to me. I felt secure in that I could say what I believed and they would oppose me, they sometimes behaved very nastily to me. I did a square for the University, for Professor Sutton. They demolished the monument. They actually cut it up with welding machines, a steel monument. They wrecked the square. Yesterday I found out that the Building Committee has agreed to restore it next year.

So you see that there's something in Wits which always comes right.

My first year in architecture was your last year here, so I was lucky enough to have heard some of your talks. 

Are you an architect?

Yes, I am a qualified architect but now I write about architecture.

That's wonderful. Because there are so many people trying to do architecture much too fast. I know the pressure. The developers, and the State you know, they're building museums. They must have museums, one after another. As architects you must have time to do these things.

I wanted to ask you the role of the architect when you were here and in Mozambique, compared to the role of the architect now.

The role of the architect in Mozambique was that there was too much work. I'd never had an office. I always worked at home. I trained Africans to draw. They would go on to do engineering, they would set up offices in Mozambique. I don't know if they've gone back to school with Ze Forjaz but then, in Mozambique, I worked mostly for missionaries and banks and big foreign companies. Lourenco Marques was a fiction. It wasn't Portuguese. Lourenco Marques was always the Transvaal port for imports and exports and it was the people, the foreigners involved in the ports that I worked for. I didn't get much work from the government, although some government architects were very keen that I should get work. They actually would give work to engineers on condition that I did their work. 

But, in South Africa, the profession is much more established, and the architects still have a very good control of the building process. The pressures on the architects are to do it very fast, to do it on the run. And some architects are set up to cope with this. Even before the change, Louis Karol and Revel Fox were people that could really take a project through and hold it, and administrate it, each in his own different way. But now there are so many people who've got fantastic work, but the pressures on them are really extraordinary. You know, everything has got to be done the day before.

And what work are you busy with at the moment? Tell me a bit more about your work.

Well you've heard I'm building a road to heaven. I've got a huge property on the mountain, about 14,000 square metres, and there's no road access to our house. Everything had to come up carried, up 89 steps to the house. And I started making a road. Then there was trouble. I had to wait two years for it to be approved because someone denounced me, a nasty neighbour. Then I started. I'm still building the road, but I drive down, and I go into the forest to get to the house. I go through into the forest where there are still silver foxes, and rabbits and everything.

Where is your house?

On the mountain at Sintra. Near a little village called Eugaria. I've got two houses. I've got one little house that I built when I went on a sabbatical. I went to teach in the United States for part of the time. When I got back to Portugal I had so many dollars I could rebuild the first little house. Because the dollar had risen fantastically and things were still very cheap in Portugal. 

Now it's been more difficult because going into Europe I think has been a disaster for Portugal. They've got too much money from Europe. They've built freeways all over the place, they've built big things. They haven't really looked after the people. Education and all that is pretty bad and very old-fashioned, still. And now Europe is in trouble because this kind of society requires growth. And growth has left Europe. What Europe has been good at, and what Europe can hold onto is to have ideas and be able to realise those ideas, and do tourism, and look after a population which every year becomes more and more geriatric. I mean the future is in Africa, it's in Asia, already it's in China. You walk into a shop here and you turn a shoe around and it's cheap. But people are making an enormous profit on it when they are selling it here because China's gone mad producing things for next to nothing. I don't know how long it's going to last.

And what about the work you're doing on the fifteenth century old aged home?

Oh, that's been through such trouble. It's the village where my grandfather was a doctor, where my cousin of my age was the provodor of the old people's home. We were trying to build something to look after a lot of very, very old people; to provide medical support, for them to be well fed, and to live in. Now the rules from Brussels ... well, their problems are different from ours because the old people in Belgium, the old people in France are already very well looked after, and in Germany too. But in Portugal they're not and the rules should be different. The kind of accommodation should be different. And that has caused a lot of trouble. We've now got the project approved. We're trying to build it, we're trying to go out to tender. It's approved by the municipality of this little village. But there's been trouble with the town planners. I did one scheme but then they wanted the building to have a facade to the street because the law courts are going to be next door, and they're trying to make what is a little village into a city with one main street with important buildings. And, you know, there are so many complications.

Another thing I'm involved in is a house that I've been building for five years for a doctor and her husband who is an engineer. Now the doctor I built a house for her father in Mozambique when she was four years old. They were Indo-Portuguese from Goa and when they wanted to build, they looked for me and they asked me to design a house for them. I inspired myself on a country house from Goa, in the Imperial Goa, that I liked very much and that I saw when I was doing research in what had been Portuguese India. And I did this design. It took two years for it to be approved. Now we've started building. And we had to chase the first builder away. Now we've got a second builder, we've got a series of sub-contractors, and I think it will take another year to finish this house properly. But it's beautifully built. I do a house without curtains. It only closes off with wooden shutters like a traditional house. It's full of special screens to control the sunlight. It uses an immense amount of marble. The bathrooms are all in marble, the lounge floor, the library, the light fittings in the bathrooms are in marble. We've got a wonderful marble chap who we got hold of because his daughter is the good friend of the daughter of this couple who was doing pharmacy so we got special prices for that. We have a marvellous workman on the balustrades, struggling with the internal staircase balustrades, with the outside balustrades as well.

And now I've got, for Malangatana we're building a Foundation in Mozambique.

Where in Mozambique?

I've always told him never to get mixed up with the politicians. And it's in the bush where his clan have always lived in the past. Where the Ngwenya clan, which are the crocodiles, has always lived. I've made a Foundation with a museum, and archives and all sorts of other bits and pieces for the Foundation, which is like a labyrinth. It starts off with the idea you know James Walton was the one person who documented African kraals and sites, and Shaka's own kraal, and Zimbabwe. And I started with the idea of Zimbabwe and the idea of a building which appears to be simple, but you get lost in the building and these alternative routes in the building. Even Frank Gehry's Guggenheim has got two long sheds a little bit shorter than the Louvre. You know, if you walk through the Louvre you just have parallel walls. And this, no, this every space is different. The walls are curved, the walls zigzag. There's a grand staircase and you get lost, and then there's a mirror image of the upstairs and the downstairs. Then you move into platforms. All the time you can go into what will be the best auditorium in Mozambique (laughs). A grand staircase into the auditorium, sculpture gardens, and then ateliers for artists, workshops. And he's trying to get started. Imagine, he was a servant in the club, and he's now an ambassador, a consultant of UNESCO and a banker in Mozambique. An investment banker. He's the chairman of the Bank of Mozambique.

When are you hoping to start building?

Well, we're waiting for the engineer that he's got in Mozambique. He keeps on thinking he should build with a builder and I keep on telling him to build with the people. He's also got a studio in the Canisso in Lourenco Marques that I designed, and he just built it with his friends. Very cheap. What you do in Mozambique is that you dig out your septic tank, and with the earth you make concrete blocks. You make better concrete blocks than the ones you can buy, with a decent mix. You also make a lot of possibility of work for people who have no work.

So you've come full-circle now. You're doing what you were doing in Mozambique, providing work for the local people.

Well, in a different way. Because when I worked for the Protestant Mission it was very different. There was one Senhor Muchlanga who'd been trained by a Swiss builder, and nobody else in Mozambique could really build as impeccably as this chap.

Have you been back to Mozambique?

Once, some years ago. At the invitation of an international bank. But I was very disturbed. It was in the mid-nineties. But now I hear it is very, very different.

Are you planning on going back again?

When he (Malangatana) is building I want to go back. But I have a lot of friends there.

Is there anything else that you would like to say about your work? What you were talking about with Julian Beinart earlier about the dilemma that architects have in proposing urban renewal projects, and finding funding etc.

That's why I called the thing that he showed us "a very nice painting". All the trouble they have. Like Rabin had decided to work with the King of Jordan and then someone killed him, and then everything stopped. Actually some Jewish radical chap shot him and killed him. A sort of complete lunatic. Because here was one man who was prepared to get over all these difficulties.

I was teaching in Israel during the first Entifada. I was teaching students from Central and South America. You know, the Jews who couldn't get into the United States then went to South America. And the Israelis said, "Come and get a secondary education, come and get a University education in Israel. Then if you want to stay, you can become Israeli nationals. If you don't want to stay then you are equipped to go into the world and emigrate to wherever you want to go, or go back to your own country.

What would you like to see our students taught? Do you think they've been properly equipped?

Look, with very few exceptions, in all this enthusiasm, all these museums and government buildings, there's still no housing for the poor. Still no facilities to build for the poor. Talk to Jo Noero. He's working on that, he's trying to get that going. Talk to Heather Dodd and Colin Savage because they are the ones I know, the ones that are doing something. I don't know if you've seen their house that they've just finished. They bought some outbuildings in a cul-de-sac, and they transformed that into a village with very simple construction. And it's really wonderful. They've got the office, their house above the office. They work at home. They've got a big office, they're coping with big jobs, they've a guest cottage, they've got another staff place, and a place for parking and all that. And it's completely different from what other people are doing. Other people are doing houses which cost three, four, five million.

There doesn't seem to be anything holding the architectural community together. Everybody's doing their own thing.

Well, it's good that there isn't a general philosophy, but I wish there were more people who could get on and do that. I know it's also the government's fault. I'm involved in a project. Lonka, my daughter, who worked at one stage for M-Net, came across Brent van Rensburg and his wife. They have the circus school. And the idea was to make a circus school for street children. Brent was a street child himself. He was taken on as a youth by an acrobat. And then he went to France, he became a great circus man, he went to America. He went everywhere. Then he wants to build a circus school for street children. I go and meet him in France. In France's circus schools you get a degree in circus. We go and see the schools and everything. I make a project for him. He wants to take these children and accommodate them. He needed a big piece of land, so we can grow our own vegetables, keep our own chickens and rabbits, know how to plant things. And then these people could learn how to run their own circus, travelling circus all over Africa. But we could never get finance. You know, I thought the Mandela Children's Fund would support this. They ran the circus which they paid for they paid an enormous rent. One night I met Brent here, and together with Lewis and Donavon, we designed he'd been given an empty water reservoir in Cape Town and we designed a circus to build on top of this and build inside the reservoir. I don't know what's happened. If he's managed to get it, because the municipality was giving it free to them to temporarily occupy. And, I mean, they tried to get this going on the Foreshore and all that, but there was never enough room. People were very sympathetic, but the pressures of money just didn't let that come about.

It is very sad. Our society's very materialistic.

But it's also society which provides funding for all sorts of things. You know, there are so many people who are completely over-rich. And they take on projects which cost them a lot of money. But no-one's taken this up. It's sad.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you.

Visit the Pancho Guedes Website
























Images and References:

The images above are from two sources - Cedric Green's Pancho Guedes website and the Total Cad Academy's Viva Pancho Publication.



The City of Lourenco Marques (Maputo)





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