Set sail with award-winning architect Y Tsai who has designed some of the most innovative buildings in South Africa and beyond. Here he explains how he harnessed his interest in creativity and engineering to pursue a successful career as an architect and how reading is critical to getting ahead!

At what age did you know you wanted to pursue a career as an architect?

Initially, I wanted to be a graphic artist. But when considering a career choice in matric, a family friend suggested architecture. And when I looked into it, the architectural course at UCT seemed to provide a balance between creativity and engineering. In fact, after completing three years of study, some of my friends wanted to become interior designers or pursue a career in advertising and art. I decided to persist and completed the remaining two years of study to become an architect.

What are some of the buildings you’ve designed that you’re most proud of and why?

As a junior architect, I worked for companies focused on affluent private residences. This was both very exciting and frustrating at the same time- exciting because I was able to get to exercise my creativity. But it was frustrating because I also wanted to contribute, as an architect, to the social issues around us. When I finally started my practice, the first step was to focus on social projects and engage with local NGOs to see how I could help. Starting small, we devised a bed system called the Nested Bunk Beds, which rolled out into orphanages around the country. This was followed by an opportunity to demonstrate how design can transform an ordinary shipping container and elevate it to make a social impact. The highlights of these container projects are Safmarine Sports Center, Vissershoek Classrooms and the Spinach King Kiosk. More recently, we were commissioned to dream bigger. The results are the Zip Zap Academy (a circus school) in Salt River and Bridges Academy (an electronic music school) in Langa. We are very proud of these recent buildings because they look amazing; they are actively transforming lives on a daily basis.

What do you love most about South Africa?

I love the people and the environment. Having travelled around the world, I ended up back in SA because this is a special place.
South Africans are resilient; some of the fantastic people I met in the townships face hardship with a sense of humour and love for life. I am also inspired by the natural beauty of SA, especially Cape Town.

What advice would you give a young person who wishes to pursue a career in architecture?

My advice is to read a lot about architecture and develop a deep passion for design. When I started architecture school at UCT, I was hungry for information!

I was not interested in history or theory; I just wanted to find amazing buildings in books and magazines and read about the designer and their ideas. Over time, I developed a library of cool projects in my head and used them as examples to convince the lecturers of my ideas.

What projects are you currently busy with?

In the winelands, we are working on conference facilities and retreats designed for social activists. We are working with a few NGOs in the townships to develop interesting dance schools and youth centres. The most recent example is Urban Oasis, based in Lavender Hill, where we are creating a safe zone for the kids to engage in art and drama classes, away from the criminal elements. In the rest of Africa, we are developing ideas for ECD centres.

What do you regard as buildings that have stood the test of time?

The buildings that stood the test of time are certainly not the ones with flashy exteriors and forms. The quality of a timeless building is in the simplicity of the materials and a strong conceptual idea.

What would you still like to learn?

In this information age, we are constantly learning to keep up. I am still learning to do 3d computer renderings, and I would still like to learn to sail a boat.


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