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University of Cape Town architectural student Matthew Mills wins regional finals of Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year.

The social complexities of a developing country cannot be ignored when blending all the ingredients that go towards achieving world class architectural design that has a profound sense of place and is relevant to its environment. Consequently, innovation is an essential attribute for modern architects as they employ their technical skills to create aesthetically appealing and functional built structures that will endure into the future. 

These were the words of Dirk Meyer, managing director of Corobrik, ahead of the 29th Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Awards which have been held annually for almost three decades to encourage and reward innovation and technical excellence amongst the country's most promising architectural students.


The competition begins with regional competitions at eight major universities throughout South Africa and culminates in a national award ceremony for the overall winner in Johannesburg in May 2016.


“We expect new and distinctive ideas from the students, in addition to a high standard of technical skills, creative flair, a good grasp of sustainability issues and a clear understanding of the role a built structure is expected to fulfil in its environment,” said Christie van Niekerk of Corobrik as he presented prizes to the University of Cape Town regional winners.


“The winning students have accomplished this with aplomb,” he said.


At the award ceremony, Matthew Mills was the regional winner of R8 000, Sophie Zimmermann was awarded second prize of R6 500, while Clint Abrahams won third prize of R4 500. A R4500 prize for the best use of clay masonry was also presented to Clint Abrahams.


The eight regional winners automatically qualify to compete for the R50 000 national prize which will be presented at the 29th Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Awards in Johannesburg.

Matthew Mills won the regional finals for his entry entitled. Transurbance: a walk about the river in which he addresses social, economic and environmental issues that exist within the industrial landscape.

Matthew believes the cities in which we live are designed to be technically enhanced but consist of functionally isolated systems that bear no relevance to the living environment. 

Paarden Eiland exemplifies a disconnected and disjointed environment. The focus of his project is on a portion of Salt River, which runs through Paarden Eiland and reaches its mouth surrounded by industrial factories. The solution that emerged consists of a long linear path that moves over and under transport barriers such as highways and railway lines, utilising the often dead residual spaces to provide a pedestrian connection to the shore. The continuous path creates moments in which observation, interaction, play and discovery can take place. It forms a weir in the river, bringing floating debris to a recycling centre, where it can be re-purposed into usable components that restore the river. 

The architecture attempts to merge landscape, building and infrastructure into one, creating a design that can rehabilitate the environment. 

Mills says, “it is my belief that the design will be able to shift its users’ understanding of the environment, to one where technology and nature can exist not only harmoniously but also symbiotically.”

Sophie Zimmermann’s Embodied Relevance explores the potential of existing concrete frame structures.  Her thesis explores the case of the Christiaan Barnard Hospital.

The concept design allowed the building to be repurposed while retaining the majority of the embodied energy of an otherwise destitute building.

In third place is Clint Abrahams with his entry entitled “High Streets: Constructing the public realm in low income areas.”

Abrahams’ interest in high streets comes from growing up in Macassar, an apartheid planned township where there is no high street. After living in Observatory for the past 7 years he was intrigued by the different energies emanating from the adjacent high-streets in Observatory. He researched what makes a functioning high-street and how architects and urban designers could retrofit this idea to lower income areas.


Abrahams sited his thesis in Delft, a low income area 25km from Cape Town CBD, due to the unique street energy he believes is reminiscent of areas such as Observatory. However, the energies in Delft are brought about by the informal activities and not institutional use. The dissertation design explores how institutional buildings can also aid positive street making conditions in the same way the informal use does.


Clay brick is incorporated into the thesis as he believes the building trade in particular brick masonry supplements the livelihoods of many households in low income areas. These trades are often practiced outside to build up wealthier areas. He believes this is reminiscent of how apartheid planned towns’ remains subservient to wealthier towns. Masonry work is then practiced in an ad hoc manner and is not representative of the creativity and skills of local labour.  Abrahams believes these skills that are practiced elsewhere should be brought home. By using clay brick in a creative manner it challenges the mundane use of clay brick of traditional institutional buildings in these areas. Brick is use as enclosure, screening, ground cover as well as craft in the design and pays homage to the informal way it is used in the area.


Van Niekerk said that clay brick masonry brought a myriad of benefits to a building project including low maintenance, durability, long-term life performance and energy efficiency, reducing the heating and cooling costs of buildings, along with providing a healthy and comfortable living environment.


He said that another major advantage of clay brick was its capacity for both recycling and reuse which was the case during the rejuvenation of the 90-year-old Lion Match factory in Durban, an Amafa heritage site, where a combination of bricks from the demolished sections were used along with carefully selected new Corobrik bricks to blend the old and new buildings seamlessly. 


Replacement of old bricks which are no longer manufactured is also a specialised requirement which Corobrik is called upon to fulfil. In the refurbishment of the 167-year-old Government House in Pietermaritzburg, a national monument, for use as UNISA’s regional campus, Corobrik created special dies to manufacture bricks to match the handmade salmon pink bricks typical of the 1900 period. 


“Clay brick’s versatility and aesthetic qualities make it ideal to enhance and harmonise with any environment for ultra-modern projects as well as the sensitive renovations of landmark period buildings,” he said.