Architecture, News and Trends, News and Trends

shape shifter: architect peter rich's career-spanning exhibition at venice biennale

Barry Goldman



Architect Peter Rich.

The 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale – which sees 63 countries presenting their expertise across the floating Italian city – features a space dedicated exclusively to the genre-defying work of South African architect Peter Rich. Opened to the public officially on 26 May, Rich’s career-spanning exhibit forms part of the International Architecture Exhibition that will see 71 architects from around the world responding to the 2018 Biennale’s ‘Freespace’ theme.

Over the six months of the exhibit’s run, nearly a million visitors will encounter the evocative body of work Rich has created during the course of his 40-year career. From the monumental brickwork domes of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre to his proposed lodges at Silonque Bush Estate in Mpumalanga and Bwanari in North West Province – where the plastic qualities of thatch are explored beyond their limits – his architecture spans a scope of material, and manner, that reflects Rich’s community-collaborative investigation of architecture.

Early renders of Gheralta Lodge in the Tigray mountains, Ethiopia.
Rich’s design for the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre won the World Architecture Festival’s World Building of the Year Award.
Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre blends beautifully with the surrounding landscape of the national park in which it is situated.

Rich was raised, and is still based, in Johannesburg where, at the time of his studies and entry into his profession, apartheid structures sought to literally dismantle Southern African indigenous architecture. Iron Age ruins were in danger of complete destruction, as were functioning settlements built by amaNdebele people and others living in South Africa at the time.

As the threat grew, some young architects and architectural students began to fight back. It was a battle in which Rich – and his cofounders of the activist group Architects Against Apartheid – would seek to rally against the destruction, but ultimately it was a fight that they lost. Today, many settlements and structures have either been totally destroyed, integrated beyond recognition in rapid urbanisation, or fallen to ruin, but Rich’s drawings of the sites and structures remain as the few custodians of this lost knowledge.

In the post-apartheid context, Rich’s work moved to reconcile Western architectural traditions with lessons learned from traditional African architectural practice. Critically in democratic South Africa, this awareness of the past has contributed to the construction of new ‘places of reconciliation’ that re-engineer active social engagement through their architectural attitudes.


An interior view of the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre at Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo shows Rich’s distinctive use of brickwork domes at its sculptural finest.

Westridge House and Garden – Rich’s private home in Parktown, Johannesburg – has, for instance, reorientated itself over 30 years from its early Victorian orthogonal plan into one that adopts the diagonal courtyard movement developed by amaNdebele architects over the centuries, encouraging a meeting of the organic and the formal at the point of the courtyard.

Much of Rich’s architectural practice in general has included working directly with ‘communities as clients’, addressing the need for the regeneration of the fragmented and damaged social landscape by entering into learning relationships with the communities.

His drawings of his buildings and spaces – including Westridge, Mapungubwe, Amanzwi, Bwanari and Silonque, among others – provide a look into the workings of Rich’s prolific creative process. For Rich, the drawings can often be more significant than a building; similar sentiments were advanced by his late mentor, Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes, who famously claimed for architects the same ‘rights and liberties that painters and poets have held for so long’.

In the past few years, Rich’s drawings have been presented around the world in schools, corporate institutions and workshops where drawing as an activity is used to restructure the audience’s connection to their own creativity.

‘There’s drawing as a thinking tool, but then there’s also drawing as an analytical tool, and there’s this transition that is made, which is what you do when you design,’ says Rich. ‘Because you take an idea, and you might have all these metaphors and influences, but they actually influence the building, which, at the end of the day, has to be experienced by ordinary people,’ he says.

The works and drawings enable their viewers to ‘travel’ to places they have never been, and situate themselves in the works they have come to create. The ideas expressed in them invite a detailed exploration of context, and request a reconnection with our own intuition, to create a humane architecture built of the continent they come from.  

For more information about this year's Venice Architecture Biennale visit labiennale.org and peterricharchitects.co.za for more of Rich's development and design work.  

The garden of Westridge House and Garden, Rich’s own residence, features undulating stone retaining walls.


Rich’s architectural drawings include a wealth of conceptual detail.