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Wandile Mthiyane on Why Dignified Housing is at the Foundation of a Community

Wandile Mthiyane on Why Dignified Housing is at the Foundation of a Community

The Midnight Charette is an explicit podcast about design, architecture, and the everyday. Hosted by architectural designers David Lee and Marina Bourderonnet, it features a variety of creative professionals in unscripted conversations that allow for thoughtful takes and personal discussions. A wide array of subjects are covered with honesty and humor: some episodes provide useful tips for designers, while others are project reviews, interviews, or explorations of everyday life and design. The Midnight Charette is also available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

This week David and Marina are joined by Wandile Mthiyane to discuss growing up in Durban, South Africa, Christians building classrooms, the apartheid, becoming an Obama Foundation Leader, the subtleties of racism and how it differs from the United States to South Africa, hiring locally, and more. Enjoy!

Highlights & Timestamps 


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Wandile discusses growing up in an informal settlement in Durban, South Africa. (00:00)

When I went to the West I realized there’s this notion that people who are poor, or low-income communities, are lazy and uncreated or unimaginative, but that’s furthest from the truth. I think the most creative individuals in the world are those communities that I lived with in informal settlements. Because those guys could make a house out of anything; literally anything. I wanted to be able to harness that creativity and combine it with some structural, architectural education so that we would have dignified homes. (02:54)

What apartheid architecture is and how architecture can be used to segregate people. (07:07)

Wandile tells a story of Christian missionaries trying to build a one-day classroom in Zimbabwe and white culture is masquerading as Christianity. (12:40)

They came over and they told us we shouldn’t drink coke. That was the funniest thing ever. They were probably thinking, “You need to start eating avocado sandwiches.” [...] Basically what they did is built a tin room shack as the one-day classroom which was worse than any other building on campus. All of the other buildings were made of concrete block, plastered; nice looking buildings which were good for the climate and etc. [...] I was young, but I knew this was wrong. This does not make any sense. That building ended being a white elephant because it was too hot during the summer and too cold during the winter. We couldn’t even use it when they left. I calculated a flight is about $1,000, so just by their flights alone that’s about $86,000. We could’ve built the whole campus. [...] This was a vacation made to look like they were here to build something for the community. It was a photo-op. (14:25)

Wandile’s journey from Durban, South Africa to the United States to study architecture: Waiting at the Mayor of Durban’s office for 7 months to get a meeting for an unprecedented scholarship to study the US and moving to Michigan. (23:12)

The languages Wandile speaks, nuances of American English, and assimilating to American culture. (35:45)

Studying at Andrews University. (45:00)

Naming and founding Ubuntu Design Group, what UBG stands for, why dignified housing is at the foundation of a community and funding UBG. (54:35)

Wandile shares what it is like to be an Obama Foundation Leader. (01:02:57)

The importance of bringing up local African architects and the UBG team. (01:17:12)

Some of these great architects who come from Africa end up having their first in Germany, London, or New York and when you look at their staff, it’s almost 90% white. [...] I’m like, “What happened?” That made me really angry as an architecture student because I’m like, “You understand how much lack of opportunities exists. You understand you’re an anomaly to be where you’re at and we’re all looking up to you. You know more than anyone how hard it was for you to get up there. Because I do not want to dismiss the amount of pain, hustle, and talent it took for you to get up there. But don’t shut the door when you get there. When you’re going to design all these big projects in Africa, with these 23-year-old German kids (as your staff), what message are you sending to the 23-year-old Nigerian who just graduated and doesn’t have a job? Who knows the context better, the culture better?” It’s perpetuating the colonial mindset that everything Western is better. (01:18:50)

Wandile discusses struggling with mental health during coronavirus and creating the “Building Better Mental Health” program with other the Obama Foundation Leaders. (01:22:15)

How racism is different in the US and South Africa, the subtleties of racism, acknowledging white privilege, and the Black Lives Matter movement. (01:25:25)

I am not persecuting anyone for growing having a pipeline to Harvard. I’m just saying acknowledge what you’ve grown up to. In fact, I didn’t choose to be black and grow up in a shantytown in South Africa and they didn’t choose to be white and grow up in Malibu or Beverly Hills. We both didn’t choose this. We were born into it. Now, we can choose to change it though. And that’s where we have a problem. There’s a willingness not to want to change because, “It’s comfortable for me… I don’t know those people.” (01:34:35)

How COVID-19 has impacted Wandile’s outlook. (01:39:49)

Check out The Midnight Charette Podcast's previous editions.

About this author
Cite: The Second Studio Podcast. "Wandile Mthiyane on Why Dignified Housing is at the Foundation of a Community" 30 Aug 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/946691/wandile-mthiyane-on-why-dignified-housing-is-at-the-foundation-of-a-community> ISSN 0719-8884

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