A few days in South Africa's Western Cape, reflecting on contrasts between home and abroad, suggested that topography and weather aside (that is some aside), there were few. This underscored my observations when, before departure, I reviewed the first English projects of two international foreign architects. Both spoke a great deal about the pleasure of working in specific places, then presented projects that were particular to their oeuvre alone. This was fine as their oeuvre is unique to them and not location, and they worked well. Both projects have still to be built - time will tell what 'well' means.
They are continuing a history of the export, import and bastardisation of ideas and forms from one place and culture to another.
Interestingly, the exporters always import subconsciously. So the architecture of Cape Town is constructed from the farmsteads of the Dutch polders and the architecture of the French Huguenots and a particular British Empire Palladianism: Classicism with a sub-tropical twist. All of these were later reimported. This is not so much critical regionalism as criticising regionalism. Cape Town's recent buildings are less successful not because they are an imported global commercial architecture, but because global commercial architecture is bland and bereft of ideas. The problem is not with importing per se, but with the selection of product and the wit of the bastardiser.
The real contrast in South Africa stems from the political drift to play up the successes of the past 10 years of democracy and play down the many examples of discrimination, both covert (tales of unpleasant ideas of exclusivity) and overt (it is undeniable that poverty and crime are still the particular lot of the black majority). Mandela's outstanding gift to post-apartheid South Africa is an idea of tolerance. This offers a stark contrast to the British preference for condemnation by a righteous press or detailed legislation on matters of fairness in life. In South Africa's vast and varied landscape, a ban on 4x4 cars (as was recently petitioned by the chattering classes in my local high street) would be seen to be as intolerant as it is inappropriate.
Insulated by economic prosperity, it appears that we in Britain are suffering from the excesses of ideological orthodoxies in an advanced state of decadence.
In the established democratic world, we are increasingly less able to make choices without being accused of something, and to be accused is to be tarnished. Sitting free of Cold War fears, we look on McCarthyism as a grotesque witch-hunt, yet ignore that we are all corrected on ideas of race, gender, religion, class and, at the petty political level of architectural consultation, regional sensitivity. Regardless of moral position, Stalinist denunciations are now the unacceptable, yet accepted, norm. How many of us have the confidence to stand up against the correctness of the political tide?
With creeping compromise it is easier to toe the line.
All this is in stark contrast to the convictions of Mandela and his fellow protesters. I admire anybody who has beliefs and principles that transport them to uncomfortable territory where accusation is inevitable. On this point I was recently drawn to Pepys' diaries.
Regicide, though not quite a contemporary option, put the courage of the Puritan position into context: 'To Charing Cross to see Major General Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered - which was done there - he looked as cheerfully as any man could do in that condition.' We are all offending someone. If you stand accused, make sure that it is for something worth pursuing.