This architect is a people-pleaser who loves to create

15 November 2015 - 02:00 By Margaret Harris

Robert Silke is an architect at Robert Silke & Partners. He tells Margaret Harris he wants to make Cape Town a better place What does your work as an architect involve?I'm primarily a designer of buildings. Many people think all architects do that, but actually very few do. So I get involved right at the start, and my job is to understand the client's aspirations and demonstrate what can be done and what that will look and feel like. I design the concept for the building - what it looks like, how it feels and how you move through it.I then keep an eye on the project throughout the construction process to ensure that the dream lives on to emerge as something special at the end. I have an exceptionally talented partner, Rob McGiven, who makes sure that the dream is delivered.My job is to get everyone excited about building something of scale and significance, and that often involves building models as well as computer-generated images and sometimes video fly-throughs. Anything to excite.story_article_left1But it's not all about beauty. Beauty is only a small part of it. It's even more about economics - and even politics.There are many different kinds of architects and many ways of being an architect. Some architects design, some are more technical and others are more managerial. I think the most you can hope for is two out of three.Which of the buildings you have designed is your favourite?Chevron's new corporate headquarters in Century City, Cape Town. It's a five-star green building made from white concrete, which is a first in South Africa on that scale. It's blue-chip, ultra-modern, energy-efficient, striking and precision-built. We achieved a level of excellence that many naysayers thought was no longer possible with South African skill sets. We also achieved a near-perfect health and safety record for the workers on the site, which is important to me, as it was to Chevron.What is your favourite building in Cape Town (any architect)?Holyrood is a tight, 10-storey spindle of 40 apartments from 1938 that faces towards Table Mountain over the Company Gardens. It's one of the most striking examples of Art Deco in South Africa. It's a sculptural and curvaceous (yet greedy) building that sought to cram the maximum amount of accommodation in the tightest possible space. All developers try to do this, but few manage it so beautifully. I live in three small Holyrood flats we've knocked together.What part of your job would readers be surprised to hear about?I think that many people (including architects) tend to overestimate the influence that an architect has over the final look of any given building - 90% is determined by economic and functional factors, with the architect having perhaps a 5% influence over the final form and look and feel. And an exceptionally talented architect can maybe have a 10% influence. Frank Gehry said that. Think of it as similar to a hairdresser, who can profoundly influence a client's appearance, but can't exactly turn your mother into Lupita Nyong'o.What made you choose architecture as a career?I wanted to do something that mattered. I grew up in love with the Cape Town city skyline, and dreamt as a child of adding something special and significant to the city. So I've tended to focus on larger-scale projects such as hotels, shopping centres, apartments and corporate headquarters. I was most interested in making something of a public gesture. I get on well with property developers, primarily because we share the same interests. I've never met a developer who hasn't had the same aspiration of making the city a better place.What did you want to be when you were a child?I was going to restore cars, go into advertising or become a psychologist. But all of these interests are well represented within the field of architecture - and not entirely unrelated to that line of work.Tell me more about your "mockumentary"?I'd never dreamt of becoming a filmmaker, but always wanted to make a film. In 2009, I teamed up with Aaron Scheiner, a film-industry friend, to direct and produce a mockumentary about the sad, weird and wonderful inmates of an inner-city block of flats, entitled The Satyr of Springbok Heights.story_article_right2The film blurred the lines between fantasy and reality and combined real interviews with staged ones. The film screened nationally and in the US and received critical acclaim. Most importantly, I learnt that there are many similarities between architecture and filmmaking, and that both careers require similar aptitudes.What are the five most important characteristics of an architect?Many would perceive the five qualities to be artistic ability, maths aptitude, science aptitude, skills with one's hands and capacity for hard work. But I don't think that's quite it. One of the country's greatest architects, the late Revel Fox, said that anybody can be an architect and that the only common denominator between all architects is simply the burning ambition to be one. The desire to build.What do you love most about your work?I'm a sucker for pleasing clients. If we've managed to produce a building (or even an image of a building) that gets a client excited, I become a really happy person. I love working in large teams in order to achieve something gigantic and significant that's bigger and better than all of us. It's definitely a service-industry career, and if you don't like to serve, then I don't think it's for you. And there's nothing more exciting than seeing an end user move in.

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