UIA Congress Copenhagen: Leave No One Behind

UIA Congress Copenhagen: Leave No One Behind

In July, Cebisa Mafukuzela attended the UIA Congress in Copenhagen to present a paper and learn from her peers. Here are some of her experiences, insights and reflections.

The International Union of Architects (UIA) Congress takes place once every three years in different locations around the world. The Nordic Section of the UIA (which is composed of Denmark, Finland, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) won the 2023 bid, and it was the first time the Congress was held in a Nordic country.Previous destinations include Rio de Janeiro (2021), Seoul (2017), Durban (2014) and Tokyo (2011).

The theme for the 2023 Congress was Leave No One Behind, with six subthemes that focused on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and attempted to consolidate these into digestible topics that could be addressed within the 3-day conference. These sub-themes were: Climate Adaptation, Health, Inclusivity, Resilient Communities, Partners for Change, and Rethinking Resources.

Towards the end of 2022, I came across a call for an abstract submission for publication and presentation at the 2023 UIA Congress in Copenhagen. I saw this as an opportunity to share my ideas and to attempt academic writing.

Together with an industry colleague, Mlondolozi Hempe from PJC and Partners, we drafted an abstract about our topic of interest “Sustainable Rural Development through Generative design”. The abstract and ultimately the paper were submitted and approved for presentation at the Congress under the theme ‘Inclusivity’.

And so, the preparation to head to Copenhagen began and, on 29 June, I boarded the first flight on a 3-flight, 20-hour trip! Arriving in Copenhagen, I was struck by the incredible transport infrastructure that allowed me to catch a train at 10pm from the airport and connect with a bus to my Airbnb. The city center was buzzing with young and old using the public transport network or cycling. Although it was late and I was alone and in a new country, I found it easy to navigate. There is also wifi everywhere!

With a day to spend exploring the city and taking in the architecture, I wanted to experience what a normal life in Copenhagen would feel like, so I went grocery shopping and walked for a few hours just taking the city in, and tried to figure out how I would get to and from the venue. Staying in Sorborg and with the Congress at the Belle Center, I had about a 30-minute commute. The experience of grocery shopping itself was a story worth telling, but this article is less about urban life in Denmark, and more about the UIA Congress.

Day 1:

The first day of the conference kicked off with an opening ceremony where the president of the UIA, Jose Cortes shared some words on his journey with architecture and leading the UIA. The rest of the day included incredible keynote panels and smaller breakaway presentations. I attended the Next Gen Keynote session, where Nyasha Harper-Michon, a self-proclaimed “Archtivist” together with Jerome Foster and William Chan, discussed Architecture for Activism, which really resonated with me as someone who pursued the architectural profession with an impact driven intent.

Another interesting session I attended on the day, aside from the introduction session for the Science Track speakers I was part of, was a presentation titled Local Conditions: Learning from Vernacular Architecture in the Faroe Island which touched on the importance of looking back in order to make informed decisions going forward.

Day 2:

This was the morning of my presentation. In the rush to get to the venue on time, I found myself on the wrong train and heading in the opposite direction to the venue but, fortunately, with the effective public transit systems, I quickly redirected myself and arrived right on time to talk about how data can be used to drive rural development in the Eastern Cape.

Our paper focused on how data being built into the design process can assist architects, urban designers, and town planners to effectively make development recommendations and approach projects with a perspective that is not prescriptive but rather responsive, specific and nuanced for the community for which each project is developed.

Immediately after our presentation, we made our way to the keynote address by Francis Kere, who shared his architectural journey and his approach to architecture; and Minik Rosing, a professor of geology at the University of  Copenhagen – who shared an insightful perspective on how construction and building habitat is not something to be avoided, but that we need to change how we do things, by creating things that are beautiful and useful and can last a long time. He also spoke about how our quest to save the planet is for our benefit, that it is humans who cannot survive without the Earth. This was a particularly insightful concept for me as it forced me to consider how we view sustainability as an attempt to save the planet instead of the need to save humanity.

I spent the afternoon on a historic city architectural tour, where we walked around the city exploring the many historic buildings and castles, and experiencing the rich history of this very modern city. This tour ended with an architectural open evening at the Danish Institute of Architecture where we viewed an architectural student presentation and enjoyed a relaxed evening.

Days 3 & 4:

Day 3 was the first day where I felt I could take a step back and be a conference attendee, walk around the venue, and engage with the exhibitions. I came across the Nordic pavilion which held several talks and engaging discussions sharing how Nordic architectural practice is choosing to approach sustainability and inclusive design concepts.

After having spent the last days getting to know some of the other South Africans who attended and were presenting at the Congress, I went to support them at the Roundtable: Community Architecture and “The Housing Ladder” where 15 delegates from around the world discussed community architecture and housing issues.

Day 4 was the wrap-up and consisted of the closing function, exchanging contact details with fellow delegates, and making plans to one day visit each other’s countries and, more importantly, committing to seeing each other at the next UIA Congress, taking place in Barcelona in 2026.

Key Take Aways

I would sum up with the following takeaways from the convention:

  • The planet doesn’t need humans to survive, humans need the planet. Approaching climate change-driven targets and goals is a matter of survival.
  • Collaboration and cross-pollination are key. The UIA Congress was a complex blend of architects in practice and academia, engineers, developers, creatives, entrepreneurs, researchers, activists and change-makers, all working to create impact. The work of creating a positive impact on the climate, fighting inequality, poverty, and displacement can only be achieved when a group consensus is achieved and worked towards.

Use the tools you have. Start where you are. A lot of solutions already exist in the information you are exposed to. Use data, use history and use the context to find solutions.

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