At just 26 years of age, Riaan Huiskens already has an award to his name after winning the Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Award for 2019. Huiskens was among seven regional finalists who showcased their work at the Corobrik Awards, which took place in May at the Maslow Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg.

By Dineo Phoshoko

Huiskens holds a Master of Architecture degree obtained from the Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in 2018. He is currently an architectural candidate at The Matrix Urban Designers and Architects.

In an interview with Timber iQ, Huiskens explains that growing up, he wasn’t 100% sure about what career he wanted to pursue after finishing school. “I took a gap year after school and I worked for my dad who is an architect,” he says. Working for his father exposed Huiskens to the architecture world which he found interesting. As an architectural candidate at The Matrix, Huiskens has worked in different areas of architecture including administrative, technical and conceptual designing. The design component is his favourite.

A challenging industry

According to Huiskens, challenges in architecture appear in two realms. Firstly, there is the architectural realm which Huiskens defines as architectural opportunity. Here architects are confronted with the challenge of trying to respond architecturally, while also keeping within the budget constraints. This has become ever more challenging because of the current economic conditions. Creating sustainable and eco-friendly building designs is another aspect architects have to deal with. In addition, architects have to consider various social and cultural factors when designing buildings.

The second realm has to do with the respect for architecture as a discipline. Huiskens explains that well-known architects, ‘starchitects’, are respected in the industry, however it is a different story for local architects. “Your local architects don’t get respected anymore. Architecture doesn’t have its glory name anymore,” says Huiskens. He adds that many short cuts are taken to save costs, which has a negative impact on the outcome of the building’s design. “If you look at complexes and how poorly they’re built and designed – it shows disrespect towards the profession.” From his viewpoint, there is a rush to have something physically produced so that it can be sold — resulting in bad aesthetics and poor space. “We have these buildings that are produced with a single vision (to be as profitable as possible within the building lines of the ERF) without any consideration of how it sits in its immediate context, resulting in isolated pockets.”

Despite these and many other challenges, Huiskens believes it is possible to create beautiful buildings on a tight budget with clever material selection and following the architectural plan. “The way that you shape the building doesn’t necessarily add to the cost. Just the thinking behind the relationship between spaces and the sequence of the building as you move through it. The physical and spatial setup of the building doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank,” says Huiskens.

The architecture industry in South Africa

The architecture of buildings varies across different cities in South Africa. From a cultural aspect, Huiskens feels it is important for a person to visit an area and experience a strong identity and sense of that particular area. He adds that when designing buildings for South Africa, it is important not to borrow too much from western ideas. He uses the example of glass buildings, saying there are similarities between many of them in different countries. “Every place has got that issue when you are globalised,” mentions Huiskens.

In essence, Huiskens stresses the importance of designing buildings that tell more South African stories. Such buildings are ones that have an African quality which hasn’t been replicated anywhere else. For Huiskens, the Business School Building at NMU is designed with an African quality. The building’s mass, deep recesses and off-centre courtyard are some of the elements that make it unique.

Award-winning architect

Although his career is developing, Huiskens already has an accolade to his name. He explains that the entire experience was fun and that everyone got along well. “It didn’t feel like a competition. All the other students were very good competitors,” he says modestly. He adds that the judges made everyone feel comfortable, which was helpful for participants when they presented their designs.

Speaking about his award-winning design, Huiskens explains that it was inspired by the future. He believes that solutions to many of the current problems lie in the future. “We solve things in the future; we come across things and then tomorrow we do better. The future of architecture is in digital fabrication. It has only recently begun to be explored and it’s opening up a world of opportunities.” Though digital fabrication is still in its developmental and conceptual stages, it is offering new possibilities for creating better space and buildings that are eco-friendly, thanks to engineered material. “We are moving towards a much more intelligent architecture,” says Huiskens.

Titled The design of a 3D printing facility in central Port Elizabeth, Huiskens’ design explores how architecture is moving towards a paradigm shift with the development and incorporation of digital fabrication technology. This is extended into the discussion of recycling existing infrastructure and ties together both the heritage and ecological discourse and recognises the significance of historical urban elements and the finite quality of heritage resources within the city.

Speaking of the future, there is still a lot that Huiskens would like to achieve going forward – including traveling abroad. “I would like to go overseas and explore there,” he explains. In addition, he would also like to make a meaningful contribution to current dialogue regarding architecture in South African.

“I would say, become an observer.” That’s the advice Huiskens has for anyone who is interested in pursuing a career in architecture. He emphasises that most of the time, architects are observers of how people move around in space. “If you become an observer and try to feel your environment, then you can start commenting and start drawing and composing space – with an informed and conscious mind.”

Having completed his studies at NMU, Huiskens is grateful for the education that the institution provided – not forgetting the lecturers whom Huiskens says were always eager to avail themselves to assist students. “I would like to thank Corobrik for this prestigious experience, and not just because I won. They expose architecture to the public,” he adds. He concludes by explaining the value of architects in the public domain. “We plan public space. We make buildings that make space.”