Footnotes for Love, Buildings and Nothingness

Can a building be loved?

Relationships are trivial, hard to define narratives that have to lend themselves to father time in order to develop. The relationship I had with my brother’s pet parrot (I deem loathing as some sort of relationship),  and the relationship I have with my house. Time is critical to developing any relationship. Love however, is another story…

Die Es – Gawie Fagan, Camps Bay © Justin Coetzee

The question I have been troubled with for quite some time – and yes, this is a personal account – is whether I can actually love a building. We are all aware of the dangers and excitement that comes with love, where love is perhaps defined as an admiration of certain qualities that holds a promise of rectifying or correcting our weaknesses and downfalls, filling voids and mending imbalances – in a way, a search for completion. Wholeness.

Die Es – Gawie Fagan, Camps Bay © Justin Coetzee

“Where there is nothing, everything is possible. Where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible” – Rem Koolhaas

The Baxter Theatre – Jack Barnett, Cape Town © Justin Coetzee
  • Time is critical to developing any relationship.
  • How can I find this in a building?
  • Can I find it in any space?

Do we have the capacity to love a building… and what space would it be?

SA Breweries Visitors’ Centre (Mariendahl Brewery) Newlands, Cape Town © Justin Coetzee

This question, our expectation of a building, may not be answered in fact, as this relationship is continually redefined on daily basis. However, one place that has the capacity to project and evoke the most intense emotions is a place called home. I suppose home is truly where the heart is. A family, a small group of people deeply attached and coupled to a single piece of architecture. It is almost libidinous; investments are made and care is lavished.

Hout Bay Public Library © Justin Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee writes in ‘A House in Spain’ about a villa, he wants to develop and cement a relationship with this house, wanting to treat her like a woman, spend money on her, pay attention to her needs and treat her with kindness.

So I suppose we are capable and, as humans, have the capacity to develop some sort of love for a building; however this is a very private matter as it pertains to one’s home. It is out of self-interest, care and consideration that we develop and institute this love, and in return, we are rewarded with familiarity, well-being and permanence. Naturally you would agree that this connection, this love affair, is something that lingers and becomes harder to break.

Hout Bay Public Library © Justin Coetzee

Does one then love a building programme – as I love the library in Hout Bay?

So yes, buildings can be loved, by a small group of people that is. But what sort of building can be loved by the collective, a society or general public? Is this duality of give and take, this association we call love, possible to share among strangers?

We love houses, because we are at its very core, its centre of attraction and functionality, we are the subject to the verbs we ascribe to what happens within our houses. A house has become a place of multiple undertakings – from home cinemas to prayer rooms – whereas public buildings tend to be mono-functional. A love for a public building might then be coupled to its function and general use. A single activity is laid on a number of people – a library, a cinema, a museum or a school.

Afrikaanse Taal Monument, Paarl © Justin Coetzee

Cultures and society have developed in such a way that people are distinctly diverse and needs are copious. The public domain is administered and guided by austere unwritten rules pertaining to dress codes, music genres, public appearances, circulation, codes of conduct and dialects. Thus, any public activity becomes through mere engagement, an extension, and a familiar extension at that, of the private and domestic world. However, what transpires within a city, in public spaces, naturally will exclude certain ‘portions’ of a society that does not ‘fit’ into a definite activity.

Afrikaanse Taal Monument, Paarl © Justin Coetzee

Does one then love a building programme – as I love the library in Hout Bay – or does one develop a love for a building as a result of its inclusion?

The hypothesis that I pose is that one can love a building, and develop this love for a building, beyond its programmatic activities and exclusions and inclusions. One can love a building that serves our favourite human pastime, where a large group of people can engage together in doing – nothing.

Constitutional Court Precinct, Johannesburg © Justin Coetzee

I have yet to find such a place. Perhaps as you are reading this, you have found it. The way I see this building functioning – as a place of nothingness, a space where nothing can happen, but everything can happen simultaneously – is that it does not function at all, but is rather appropriated. I suppose what such a building implies, a building that I wish to fall in love with, and that most people will love, is a building the epitomises the notion of being situated in a public domain, in the public sphere where private worlds collide, life lines touch, traverse, weave and diverge without interference. What happens here is the accretion of several moments, occasions and potential activities, which may occur naturally – however not necessarily simultaneously. Does such a building exist?

In ‘Imagining Nothingness’ Rem Koolhaas states: ‘Where there is nothing, everything is possible. Where there is architecture, nothing (else) is possible’.

For a building to allow for a meaningful relationship to develop – for loving it – it has to complete and enhance the relationships of all other urbanities, without any exception, freely and informally. The building has to become a home for a great number of people. It has to be nothing and everything at the same time.

Would you not love such a building?