Winning Women – Kate Otten: For the love of lines

2014-07-22 08:00

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It never occurred to architect Kate Otten to do anything other than open her own practice a year after she graduated, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Imagine fussy, ornate, heavy, often Victorian-style architecture. Then think of the polar opposite?– light, bright, clean lines that blend with nature or surrounding historic buildings?–?and that sums up Joburg architect Kate Otten.

Well, not quite. Add two more words?–?unique and authentic. For no two buildings she designs are the same. The very thought of replication is anathema to her because each project is highly individual.

“My approach is deeply personal as I engage with the client, the builder, the people in my office and those on site,” says Otten. For her there is an emotional connection to creating a space or a place.

This is clear in her extraordinary buildings. Otten was involved in the restoration of the Old Fort on Joburg’s Constitution Hill, an intensive and slow process that involved carefully scraping away layers of history as she preserved the country’s heritage.

Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were imprisoned there “and we uncovered historical artefacts such as a toothbrush and a razor blade hidden beneath a window”, she says.

Her practice, “which I keep small, only seven of us and mainly women”, restored, rebuilt and added on to the historic Women’s Jail, also on Constitution Hill.

Otten has transformed a number of homes in 4th Avenue, Parkhurst, Joburg, into shops, running a canopy along the length of the street. Its dynamic, folded shapes reflect the rhythm of life passing beneath it.

She has designed community libraries, a waterfront development in Tzaneen and an art therapy centre in Soweto.

Otten clearly enjoyed designing a house in Pringle Bay, Cape Town, “that makes you feel connected to the earth, sea, mountains and sky”.

Such was the passion of the homeowners for Otten’s touch and taste that they also commissioned her to do the interior. “Artwork from Senegal, furniture, even curtains, were left to me,” says Otten who, despite her unique approach to design, insists her work is “architecture for everyday use”.

“By using simple means, we make the ordinary extraordinary,” she says.

She recycles and reuses materials she finds on a building site. In converting a suburban house in Melville, Joburg, into a home and office, she used sealed red plaster sand, galvanised sheeting, stainless steel, oxidised plaster and stone from the koppie on which the house stands.

Involving the people or clients who will live, work or use the places she helps to create is a top priority.

“I made one error and learnt from it. I built a love shack in the Magaliesberg, as a surprise gift for my family. Some people get cars for gifts. My family got a house.” As it was a surprise, Otten didn’t involve them in its creative process and got a less-than-enthusiastic response to it.

“I had made something they didn’t necessarily love and that didn’t suit their needs,” she recalls.

Her passion is to take a client on a journey as she creates their building. Her goal is to produce something “that is beyond even their wildest dreams. But I don’t build expensive edifices.”

The award-winning architect, who flies all over the world to give talks and lectures about her eclectic work, has the energy, enthusiasm and gumption that sometimes surprises even herself.

“It’s hard work but it’s fun and I’ll work day and night on a project if I feel I need to,” she says, her rapid-fire but gently modulated speech reflecting her mercurial thoughts and visions. The late eminent architect, Alan Lipman, once described Otten’s architecture as that of “a cheerful humanist”.

Despite her highly individualistic approach, her business, Kate Otten Architects, has created more than 150 buildings in the past two decades.

Otten’s earliest memories are of her mother “who allowed us to make an awful mess in our rooms in the name of creativity. I didn’t have to fight a system that said ‘you can’t’.”

Her creative urge was such that she was sewing by the age of six.

She has a photograph depicting four generations of women in her family. In it are her great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and herself. “We’re all strong, capable people who determine our own lives.”

She doesn’t know if living in 24 houses by the time she was 21 had anything to do with her love for creating spaces for other people, “but I could easily personalise even a tiny boarding-school room”.

Otten was a serious classical guitarist. While she was at university, she heard that her guitar teacher was moving to Durban, so she followed him. When he returned to Joburg, so did she.

She graduated from Wits University in 1988 with a degree in architecture and worked for a number of practices to earn enough money to start her own company. She did that the following year.

“It seemed the obvious thing to do even though I started off with virtually nothing. I thought of practising in London, but the cold drove me home.”

Last year Otten received the 2013 Mbokodo Award for Architecture and Creative Design. Earlier this year, she was invited to give the Sophia Gray Memorial Lecture to 1?000 people in Bloemfontein. Gray was the first female architect in South Africa.

It was a fitting honour for an architect who describes herself as coming from a family of “strong, talented and often eccentric women”.

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