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Harare's miles better

Richard Beattie and Penny Stone left Glasgow to practise in Zimbabwe, a beautiful country, but economically volatile

Practising architecture in what is today virtually a siege economy is proving a major challenge to Richard Beattie and Penny Stone, husband-and-wife partners in The Stone Beattie Studio in Harare, Zimbabwe. Due to continuing uncertainty and unrest in the country, earlier this month a major pension fund and investor in the country shelved all new property development for the next 18 months. Withholding perhaps £25-30 million may seem like small beer to us, but there the impact will be dramatic as wider confidence in the economy crashes, along with the exchange rate.

At independence in 1980, there were two Zimbabwean dollars to the British pound. Last summer it was about Z$18. Today, Z$30. While this is very good news for tourists, any imported goods - including building materials - in effect cost 60 per cent more than just a few months ago. Inflation is running at over 25 per cent, interest rates at over 40 per cent, while unemployment is almost 50 per cent.

But Beattie and Stone, who graduated from the Mackintosh School in Glasgow in the early 1980s, remain almost sanguine about recent events, which include rioting in high-density suburbs such as Mbare. Here live tens of thousands of urban workers, some jammed into packing cases and other temporary structures assembled from waste materials. The area is little more than 8 km from the couple's home, built by Stone's father some 30 years ago to the designs of local architect Peter Oldfield, and where they married in 1983.

Both practised in Scotland for a while, mostly on the refurbishment of tenement and slab blocks, Beattie for McGurn Logan Duncan Opfer, Stone for Murray Design Group. Beattie, who had earlier received an urban-design commendation from the RIBA for his thesis, also entered design competitions including that for the Bastille Opera House in Paris.

But in 1985 the pair decided to leave Glasgow and set off for Harare overland, a journey which took three-and-a-half months. Having decided that while they lived together they couldn't work together, Stone set up her own practice and Beattie joined local architect Jimmy Hope. On New Year's Day 1991, after a traditional Hogmanay, they bowed to the inevitable and began practising together.

Initial impressions of working in southern Africa, before the current turmoil, remain with them: 'This is not a design-orientated culture, ' Beattie says. 'There are far more important issues of survival for the majority of the population and there is a huge gulf between European and African expectations.'

Added to the universal practice problems of late payers, non-payers and cash flow, are other everyday concerns over the quality of materials, quality of workmanship and 'slippage' in delivery times and contract periods.

There are about 98 registered architects in the country, only 21 of them black Zimbabweans, and of the 24 candidates who recently sat the registration exams, only four passed - all of them white, all of them Scottish-trained. This is a grave disappointment to Beattie and Stone, as it is almost 20 years since the end of Ian Smith's UDI, in what was then Southern Rhodesia, and the country's new independence. There have been renewed plans to establish a faculty of architecture at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, and at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo. These would provide a system for producing local graduates as against the current requirement for overseas training - a situation which is limiting due to economic constraints.

With a total of three architects and three technicians, the Stone/Beattie studio is a medium-sized practice in local terms and handles a wide variety of commissions: a clinic and maternity hospital for the capital, a laboratory building for the university, oneoff private houses, small housing developments, hotel refurbishments, tourist projects at Victoria Falls, shops and supermarkets, and petrol filling stations . 'We can't afford to specialise, ' they say.

They run AppleMacs with Graphisoft programmes - 'a huge investment' - even though salaries generally are comparatively low: experienced architects can earn £700 a month, with few earning more than £1500 a month. The overall cost of living mitigates their circumstances, however.

The natural beauty of Zimbabwe (it means 'stone house'), with just 12 million people scattered over 390,000km 2, also has its compensations. The architecture ranges from the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a complex of stone enclosures dating from the third century AD, to colonial architecture in Harare, the former Salisbury, which has been recorded by Stone and Beattie's friend Peter Jackson, a British-born local architect. More recent additions to the skyline, many of them in the worst style of Miami Vice and the usual commercial tat, are uninspiring - although often thought worthy of a local design award.

But things being what they are over there at present, do the pair never consider returning to work in Blighty? 'We wouldn't go back, not even to Scotland, except to recharge our batteries occasionally.

Everyone complains a lot, but it's really a wonderful life out here.'

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