Architect Thorsten Deckler is striving to make architecture a more inclusive, accessible and ultimately more aware practise. He’s Johannesburg architectural practise, 26’10 (say twenty-six ten), with Anne Graupner and now heads up the practice on his own since 2020, continuing the ethos of designing considered and creative spaces which engage with the local people, culture and landscape. He’s co-author of Contemporary South African Architecture in a Landscape of Transition.
We were very excited to catch up with Thorsten to find out more about his life and practice, and gain some insights into his drawing practice...
Interview: Lauren Burlinson in conversation with Thorsten Deckler.
Hi Thorsten, thank you for joining us. Could you tell us a bit about growing up and what chances you had to be creative?
“I spent part of my early childhood in Namibia. My mom is an artist and encouraged me to draw. At the same time I was surrounded by people (my granddad and dad) who could make stuff with their hands. These two things (drawing and making) kind of coalesce in architecture, which became an obvious choice."
When did you realise you wanted to be an architect and are you a creative person outside of your work?
“I was lucky enough to spend a year working and travelling in Europe after high school. I ended up doing a short stint on a building site and also spent lots of time looking at and photographing buildings. I think this, and the fact that I could draw, factored into my decision to study architecture. I do a lot of sketching in and outside of practice. I guess that is creative, but I see drawing primarily as a tool to understand things rather than an artistic output."
[Thorsten Deckler - Sketchbook]
You founded 26’10 to help create a more democratic and humane Johannesburg. Has your work inspired other architects around the world to consider taking a similar socialist response within their own work?
“I am not sure our work is socialist… I would say it is socially minded, in the sense that we believe architecture can contribute to how people interact with each other in a more humane way. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world today and we wanted to contribute consciously to the undoing of its spatial legacy of segregation or at least not make it worse!”
How does this impact the way you choose which materials you use when designing a particular build?
“It all depends on the projects, really. We like to use quite ordinary and readily available materials in an unexpected way. We try to make clear arguments for why we use materials in order to generate buy-in from all involved in making a building. For example, using standard road traffic signs for an artwork was easy to motivate since it was a highly practical and cost effective material suited to an outdoor sculpture on a traffic island.
"For a student housing project we were asked to use fair-faced brick by the client and in order to make the rather large building humane and friendly we developed the idea of a woven fabric made of a range of different bricks, some of which we could obtain for quite a low cost because they were left-overs from commissioned ranges."
[Timeline sketch for TV series - Thorsten Deckler]
What advice would you give to someone trying to get into architecture?
“I’d suggest working in an architect’s office, perhaps try out two very different types of offices – a big and a small one, for instance. Even if you just do a couple of menial tasks you could get an idea of how things work. Make sure you can go to a few meetings and especially site visits. Then also visit an architecture school and speak to some of the students to see if this is for you.
"Studying architecture educates you to be a generalist. You end up knowing a bit about everything that goes into the making of a building. It is both a scientific and art-based education and you learn to work within various, often conflicting, parameters. You also learn how to think at various scales, from the overall to the detail and back, and how to organize and communicate information. Technology is always evolving and it can be a challenge to stay on top of the latest developments, especially software.
"As an architect you also serve those with means and power as well as the broader community. You have an impact on the well-being of people and the environment through your decisions, and it’s quite a tall order to balance all of this. I see opportunities in how architects combine their practice with specific fields, like property development, sustainability, wellness, etc.”
26’10 have a fantastic YouTube channel. Has digital documentation always been a big part of your work?
“We have always enjoyed content creation and sharing ideas and especially connecting architecture to primary needs people have. Although tangibly visible when built, architecture, as a discipline, has not made itself very accessible to non-architects. Digital media presents a flood of images without telling the stories behind their creation. Making useful content helps us share how magic architecture can be.”
Can you explain the principles of 5 seconds chess and how it forms the basis of your student workshops?
“It is about making decisions really fast to see what happens, it takes self-doubt and second guessing out of the equation and allows people to discover ideas rapidly and intuitively."
[Image of a model building workshop run by Thorsten Deckler with students in Namibia exploring what an informal settlement might look like in 2-5 years. Applying the principle of 5 second chess helped the group build the model in a day.]
Architecture involves a great deal of collaboration. Do you enjoy that aspect of the role?
“It is both fun and a challenge. The best quality I have found in team members and collaborators, is openness and rigour. This allows us all to collaborate and galvanise around important issues. Being able to listen and mirror people’s reality as well as asking questions is very powerful in this regard.”
What content do you devour on a daily or weekly basis?
“I love podcasts like 99% Invisible. I have found many TED talks incredibly useful and I have read a bunch of really great books on business. But what I like most are movies and TV series'. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Search for the Wrong-eyed Jesus, Bon-bon le Perro and The Wire are some of my favourites.”
What's your drive when you sketch and how does drawing fit into your daily life as well as your architectural practise?
“I draw for various reasons; after 20 years of being an architect I feel a bit like a human tape measure… it is quiet satisfying to be able to pace a place out and produce a plan of it.
"I redesign spaces I go to, like this walkway that had no seats to rest. It’s a useful skill when looking at apartments – or in this case a giant pineapple!
[Left: Pineapple Sketch I - Thorsten Deckler. Right: Pineapple Sketch II - Thorsten Deckler]
[Left: Walkway sketch I - Thorsten Deckler. Right: Walkway sketch II - Thorsten Deckler]
"I recently painted a bunch of houses from my neighbourhood; stripping away all the fortification and accoutrements to get back to the original Victorian forms, which are rather beautiful.
"I like to use drawing as a form of self-therapy; It helps me feel like I have done something creative, just for myself. The other day I drew a pile of carpet off-cuts that someone dumped on the pavement. That would usually depress me, but drawing the shapes made me happy.
[Carpet drawings - Thorsten Deckler]
"I try to draw what I am thinking about. The poo drawing, for instance, connects the dots around how we handle waste. When you see the interrelationships it’s quite horrifying, but also shows a huge potential.
"My partner [Heather Mason] is a photographer and blogger. We like to explore together, and I occasionally draw things for her blog, 2Summers.”
[Poo Drawing - Thorsten Deckler]
Do you have any drawing tips we could practise to improve our observational sketching?
“Be kind to yourself (don’t listen to your monkey brain telling you your drawings suck). Draw anything: your hand, a plant, a tree... just get going and you’ll discover something fascinating. Look more at the thing that you draw than your drawing. What you draw does not have to be a realistic representation of what you see, but rather an interpretation of the thing and your (loving) struggle to understand it.”
Lastly, could you let us in on what's next for Thorsten Deckler?
“Right now I’m working on three things...
"10 Buildings That Tell the Story of South Africa; a TV series I’ve been working on with my colleague, Tebogo Ramatlo. We are currently finalizing the pilot, which we’ll use to get support to shoot a whole season. The idea for the TV series was born out of a frustration with how architecture is perceived and represented. We would like to tell the story of our amazing and complex country through both monuments and ordinary buildings.
"Badass Houses; really big and fancy houses that are cleverly designed around human and environmental needs. This project will offer the financial support to work on....
"495 City; a project to develop compact, communal life and work projects, which are like small pieces of cities with multiple uses and users.”
[495 city sketch - Thorsten Deckler]
Thank you, Thorsten!
If you were inspired by this interview with Thorsten Deckler and would like to find out more about him and his work, head to the 26’10 south Architects website here. You can also follow Thorsten on Instagram.
Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2021: Make the Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.
Referenced in this piece:
26’10 south Architects: https://www.2610south.co.za/
26’10’s YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQDOJS4vR68I3MHgAkmkcyA
10 Buildings That Tell the Story of South Africa: https://www.facebook.com/2610south/posts/this-week-we-wrapped-the-shoot-for-matchbox-a-pilot-for-a-future-tv-show-on-10-b/1958690574306423/
Badass Houses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaJUMkfmP-k
495 City: https://2610southarchitects.wordpress.com/2019/02/07/the-495-city/
Heather Mason’s blog: https://2summers.net/
Maja Marx: https://vimeo.com/464222913
Tebogo Ramatlo: https://www.instagram.com/teebza_
99% Invisible: https://99percentinvisible.org/episodes/
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0248845/
The Search for the Wrong-eyed Jesus: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0389361/
Bombon: El Perro: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0420548/
The Wire: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0306414