Stefan van Biljon: Tapping the urban unconscious

This young South African architect is intrigued by the untold stories that lie beneath the city's fabric.
Posted 4 Aug 14 By Design Indaba Duration: 00:03:53 African DesignArchitecture & Interiors Interviews / Video Interviews Comments

South African architect Stefan van Biljon employs the methodology of using stories and drawing to reveal the unseen. Like an archaeologist carbon-dating ancient ruins, he dissects the city by stripping away its layers to reveal the stories beneath.

"When we look at very complex systems such as cities, it is often useful to find a small idiosyncrasy – a detail such as a personal story – and to use this as an MRI scan to see how it flows through the system," says van Biljon. In his drawings, he explores the geographic, political, social and historical influences on the built environment that combine to create layered maps of the city.

Van Biljon holds double master's degrees in architecture from the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Cooper Union in New York. He presented both his graduation projects as part of the Pecha Kucha session at Design Indaba Conference 2014. 

Both of his research projects used drawing as a means to reveal the invisible in the city of Cape Town. His UCT thesis, Ghost Ship, earned him the Corobrik National Architectural Student of the Year award and the South African Institute of Architects’ Best Student award, both in 2010. He focussed on the KL Berth, a section of reclaimed land in the Cape Town harbour.

This state of transformation from water into land became the guiding light of the project, he says. 

Van Biljon wanted to create a structure that reflected the movement of nature and the impact of climate change. He envisioned a building on the site whose sole purpose is to return the land to the sea through systematic flooding, ultimately self-destructing. 

For his Cooper Union graduate project, Military Urbanism, he unearthed the unconscious aspect of Cape Town's urban divisions. "The scars of Apartheid's social engineering are poignant reminders of Cape Town's troubled past and with the enactment of the Group Areas Act in the 1950s, the city was carved into segregated sectors and cut in the image of the Nationalist government," he says.

Van Biljon explored the Apartheid city model's antecedents in Cape Town's history, which included looking at the impact of vegetation, climate, early migratory patterns of pre-colonial communities, war and disease in creating divisions in the urban landscape. 

Beyond architectural drawing, Van Biljon is also an aspiring fiction writer and comic book illustrator, who loves graphic storytelling: "Comics are quite an interesting medium because they bring together a massive amount of information in an arresting way,” he says. “Ultimately for me, whether it is writing, drawing or making form, it is about finding ways of revealing the invisible. It is [about] things that might have been there already but only by putting them down on paper and filtering them through your nervous system, do they become apparent and can you learn from it.”