Gita Goven, Founding Partner & CEO ARG Design, Cape Town, South Africa
Words of Wisdom: “There is a depth of dignity, reliance and wisdom and huge generosity in the spirit of African women. Bring it out. Stand together and work together.” – Gita Goven
Interview with Gita Goven, Founding Partner and CEO of ARG Design, South Africa
Gita Goven, Founding Partner and CEO of ARG Design
Gita Goven is one of South Africa’s foremost sustainability thinkers. As Founding Partner and CEO of ARG Design, she has pioneered a practice of socially and environmentally transformative design that includes landmark projects such as the MiCiti Bus Stations, Joe Gcabi Transport Interchange, amongst several others. ARG Design engages the disciplines of Urban Design, Planning and Environmental Management, Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and Water and Food security systems. ARG Design and Gita Goven have received numerous awards and accolades for their work in sustainable built environment.
Gita was the second black woman in South Africa to qualify as an architect, and remains the only black women to head an interdisciplinary Architectural and Urban Design Practice.
She currently chairs the team of the Wescape regenerative settlement design project to build 200 000 households in a regenerative city extension to the city of Cape Town. The Wescape flagship project brings together globally renowned partners, concepts and technologies together with local knowledge and experts into the city-making project of our lifetime.
Gita chairs the following:
- The Sustainability Institute Board
- CommuniTgrow, which is a joint venture between Bellandia, ARG Design, Ariya Projects and Pact Developers created to build regenerative communities and settlements.
- The private sector driven Wescape regenerative settlement project in the City of Cape Town for 200 000 mixed income households
Gita serves on the following:
- Provincial inter-ministerial advisory board of GreenCape
- The climate change think-tank process of the City of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities
Gita Goven, Founding Partner & CEO ARG Design, Cape Town, South Africa
Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.
What was the catalyst to becoming an Architect?
I grew up in small Apartheid town and grew up quite aware that the architecture in the poorer parts or the black parts of the cities and towns was much poorer then CBD (Central Business District) and other places. I saw the opportunity to be involved in the daily lives of people to make it much richer by engaging in the form in which the place was made, the landscape of those places worked and how one could feel comfortable in really great places.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was looking for the kind of creativity that could begin to create those spaces and create those opportunities for experienced well-being.
You mention creativity; there is a lot of creativity in Africa. I have had not had the pleasure of meeting someone who marries creativity with architecture. Often we hear about creativity in textiles. Being the second black woman to be an architect, what was it about architecture beyond creativity that drew you to this profession?
Now when I think about it, its about the opportunity to get the understanding between what creates the parameters for people to experience a great city that enables them to do the things they are doing. When I started in architecture, I thought it was about drawing and making beautiful buildings; certainly I did that for a period. But as I grew older, I realized that you could draw a building one way or another way. I started understanding better how to make buildings in a really interesting way that you could understand people and their spaces. That is the creative part that is really interesting. How the spaces influence people and enhance the opportunity for living and playing and living great lives.
Before the interview you were eluding to being of Indian decent. Being an architect was probably not the path that was set out for you by your parents. You alluded to that it was planned that you would have a prearranged marriage. I just had the opportunity to meeting your lovely husband who you selected. How do you go from that reality to the reality you have today?
The reality that I grew up in was one where I was told to keep quite, listen, and be good wife. Learn all the skills to fit into society and live within the rules. From the time I was very young it became quite clear to me that that was not going to satisfy my yearning for learning and exploring and being curious to find out how the world works. What I started doing is reading a lot from a very young age. From being locked in a small town where there wasn’t even a public library that I could access, I had access to this incredibly big world of ideas and opportunity. My parents started to see my interests, and fortunately my parents where committed to education. My dad said: “I will not leave you with wealth necessarily, but I will stand with you until you find your own space to stand on your own two feet and fend for yourself in the world in what ever you choose.” That belief in me was the biggest gift I could get and that is the gift I have carried with me.
It hasn’t been without difficulty with my family, they would have liked me to settle down and follow the rules. It took courage on their part, but even more courage on my part as a young woman to say I am going to stay out of the comfort zone of my family and I am going to apply for university. I was the first black woman to apply to that university for architecture and do what it takes to get there.
At that point I did not have access to transport, to a drawing board. I shared a bedroom with four other people. I had to learn within these circumstances to learn what I need to know to ensure I achieved.
There was no way I was going to settle down and be in an arranged marriage, not that there is anything wrong with that. I just had this yearning for learning, to grow and to be active in a different way. I followed my passion.
What is interesting is that you say you had to change the mindset of your parents, and they did change it based on your commitment.
Why do you think there are so few women that are in the leadership role in Architecture?
When I started studying Architecture it was very much perceived as a man’s profession. There were not a lot of women that I was aware. I knew of no women in any profession because I came from the context that all women where who where in professional positions where teachers, nurses and there was one person in our community who was a doctor, however, she had studied over seas. For many women in Africa we come from lives where our exposure to people in the professional world is very limited. More broadly speaking, people who have had the opportunity to be in the more affluent or professional society may have seen more professional people. The social norms had dictated what was a man’s profession. I do think that is changing a lot now. For many young women it is still the case.
I also think there is a concern for what it will be like when you get married and have a family and how to manage. If I had worried about that at that point, I wouldn’t have done what I have done now. Going through everything I had to deal with, motherhood, having a family and still be a leader in my profession – you work it out. You put together a plan, and then put support in place so you can get done what you need to do. It is not easy, but if you are doing something that your interested in you will do what it takes to make it happen.
Do you think that there is an opportunity in urban design and architecture that women may bring naturally to a situation?
It is very difficult to answer. My perception is women often come from a much softer space of understanding the way people respond to their environments, the way they interact with relationships in a professional or domestic setting.
For me it is more helpful to think about it from the terms of whether we bring feminine energy or male energy into the work that we do. I work with a lot of men that bring in some great feminine energy into the work that we do. The leadership is bringing more feminine energy in the work that we do. Looking for the opportunities to connect with people at an individual level and to bring more nurturing, love, courage and wisdom into what we do.
It is not only about the money it is about appreciating those qualities of human beings, those softer qualities of society, those softer qualities of spaces and places that really allow people to experience the joy of being alive every day and engaging with each other and having fun doing what we do. That is the kind of stuff that women can bring, but it is more about the feminine energy that we can bring. Which is not a hard edge, although good but it has its place.
It’s knowing when you draw on that famine energy and when you draw on that male energy. When I need to be straight and forthright, I can be a real dictator, when that is necessary. For most of the time we can achieve a lot with love and courage.
I like what you are saying. I have a theory that I like man with a little ‘woman’ in him. That is true in all leadership. That is true in any project. You need to balance that male and female energy no matter if you are a man or a woman.
What are some of the core competencies to be a successful Architect?
You need to be interested in what that world of architecture is about. It is important to see how the world of architecture works.
For example, I am very good at conceptually understanding problems and linking special solutions to problems. I am not necessarily interested in the technical detailing of buildings.
Some architects are interested in the technical detailing of buildings. I would really encourage young people to go out and work in an office and job shadow wherever you can. Go and find all the different roles that are played in the building.
There is a suite of disciplines that work together: Architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, urban design and planning. Each of these has different strengths and different perspectives that work together in the building environment. When you start understanding what each role does, you can see what fits for you that really excites you. One of the women I work with loves Policy. She loves understanding how policy and regulation can create the building environment. When I need to have something done in that arena. I will ask here “how do we do this, how do we work out the creation of this space in the framework of the policy and regulations and push the boundaries to make it really amazing.
When I want advice about urban design, I talk to someone else in my practice. I will ask: “How from a urban design perspective can you share with me the making of this space that will really create a urban room that will be vibrant and amazing with a fantastic public space?”
I will talk to the landscape person: “How do we bring the qualities of landscape into the urban design thinking so when we make place where you are the jewel of the city?”
Make the space memorable and very human connected.
I love urban planning, and I would imagine there is more money coming into the country to support infrastructure. Is this a great time to get involved in this field?
It is a perfect time to get involved. For example we did a small project in a township, we had a small budget that was linked to the 2010 world cup budget. It was only two million Rand. It was funded by Architecture for humanity. They wanted to create a small facility to stimulate football in the township and an amazing partnership came together from various people. We won a competition to design this little building.
What was phenomenal about this project was to make space work within a township context. We were creating an urban park with an astral turf field with a tiny building, which create the space for a lot of activities to happen. From early in the morning to late in the evening seven days a week it was busy. Early in the morning you get the little children coming to use it; then you get primary school kids, then late afternoon you get the older kids and later in the evening the young men. They are using football as a medium to create fun and recreation and life skills learning. It is teaching them about HIV/AIDS, it is teaching about tuberculosis, which is a really big problem; it is teaching about gender relationships, relationships between boys and girls and men and women. It is creating the kind of engagement that is keeping men away from alcohol, substance abuse and violence.
It is really that quality of not just making the built environment, but the purpose of the built environment that I find very exciting.
Do you think that planners and Architects have a responsibility to have a social consciousness to create these opportunities?
We have built buildings that we won international awards for and in some of the cases are uninhabited still. The purpose for what they were designed for was not realized because the community in that instance was funded by a donor fund, and that fund came to an end for various reasons.
For me it is an empty glory to have an accolade for a building and the reason for which the building is built is not realized. So we went back to the community to help regenerate their program. The building that we designed was a green echo-center and it was a tin building. We asked, “What could this building do?” We used two concepts to design the building, one, if we can demonstrate in this building that you can use recycled material from your local area and reclaim it from the dump and build a really amazing and beautiful building, what would that do? We did that and the people from the community said that: “We always thought these were poor man’s materials, and we now realize they can actually make really beautiful buildings.” A lot of buildings are now being built in townships in that way.
Second, lots of materials that we used were grown in that area. Again, when people see the buildings they now understand that they can use these materials in the buildings. What has happened now is people are realizing the way in which the building is made has a relationship to the environment in which they live.
The idea of the building having a direct play of its climate, its people, its physical context as sustainable resources and becomes exciting for people in their everyday lives in a township context.
For me there isn’t really a formula about architecture, there isn’t a prescription about architecture. It is the ability to find the deeper purpose, or the deeper experience in any building be it an office or any other space.
Is there anything that you would do differently to ensure the building gets used toward the purpose it is intended?
Something we have started to do now, is I realized just building buildings is not enough, especially in the African context, especially if it is public building. Our passion is to design really great public buildings. Through the public buildings you really can change the agenda of what happens in the community. We realize that through the building alone you can’t change the agenda; you have to be able to create partnerships that allow you to intervene in the actual programs that happen in those buildings. So now ‘Community Grow’ which is a new agency in which I am Chairing and the Founder of, and there are five partners working on this together, are bringing those skill sets that we can begin to infuse those pillars that are able to build community. The challenge in Africa is in most cases you are rebuilding communities, and how do you do that?
- We are looking at first, how do you stimulate the local economy.
- We look at governance, what are the rules of the game that make that make things workable.
- We look at education. Education is not just the schools; one of the things we battle with particularly in the very poor communities is teenage pregnancy. How do you create the kind of education system that firstly will reduce that problem, and secondly, not close options for this young person who has fallen into this life circumstance and they are able to complete their education and fulfill really great lives.
We have a youth bulge in Africa, and that youth bulge is currently unemployable. How do we change that game so they become employable and be the economic force of this continent because they can be?
- Heath underpins this all completely. We have children who go to school that don’t get three meals a day. How do you expect to educate a child that doesn’t get three meals a day?
Building that building that did not fulfill its position, I can now go back and say, “How can I bring this building, the program, the operations and the governance all together?”
It sounds like you are not only building the building, but you are filling it with the programs that will help the community.
Yes, however, the community is filling it, we are supporting that process.
That is going beyond architecture. So how do you think of yourself?
I have stopped trying to label what I do. I do what is important. I do recognize the skill sets I have.
The life experiences I have had have been so phenomenal. I grew-up in a community where there was very little external supports for accessing education. The education I got was from a great community of fantastic leaders, many of which didn’t speak proper English, my mother being one of them. So learning is not a function of education, but a function of wisdom. It is being able to look at those life lessons and be able to access those indigenous knowledge systems. It is to use the people who are able to enable them more. In addition to that to still give them platform so they can get the qualification to advance.
It sounds like you would not be satisfied just building a building anymore.
No I wouldn’t.
Do you see any obstacles for women to become planners or Architects?
Over the course of my life I have learned that we often have more space than we realize to grow and learn. Those obstacles are often what we are willing to listen to the negative message of our society. If we stay committed to what we believe and push the bounders of our own learning, nothing stands in the way. It doesn’t mean you wont encounter the obstacles. So when I designed a building down the road for a building for the Olympic bid in 1993 we the Chief Architect for the City of Cape Town said to me “You didn’t know how to design that building did you?” Not only did my practice with me as the lead design that building, we empowered the ‘white’ company that was suppose to be empowering us with the computer programs. They had invested so much in old technologies. Our company got access to new technologies and were able to leap frog them with the new ways of thinking.
My job was to bring the experience and the young energy together to get the best from both worlds. We created a wonderful building with a third world budget, for a first world competition.
Do you see any barriers for women in mid-size organizations and growing them?
I think a journey from a one-person practice to five, to ten to twenty-five has had some very interesting steps. What I did for myself is I interviewed some of the best practices in the city and got acquainted with the leaders of those practices and asked them what it took for them to build their practices? Asking them to share their lessons of building their practice.
I came to realize that there were some really interesting tools they used to structure their businesses. They were willing to share them with me, which was great because they didn’t see me as competition. They were doing Architecture with a capital ‘A’; I wanted to do architecture with a ‘c’ for community. I was able to learn from them and they were willing to share with me. Many people asked me how I could ask something like that, and I said: “why not?”
I wanted to know:
How do you run your systems in your office?
How is your office manager trained?
I got that from them, and in addition I have this incredible business coach. I realize at this stage of the game it is less about what I do, but more about what I cause to be done. I have to invest in my leadership team and ensure I create the space for them to be really great. When they are really great then they shine and they feel they made it happen, I have won. I have to cascade that down my practice to the person with the least amount of skill and make them shine as well.
Much of my time is focused on how my two partners and myself can work together as a team. I am the trailblazer, who goes out and creates really interesting projects. My partner, who is my husband, brings the strategic perspective and keeps the whole operation strategy in place. Our third partner is a gifted designer who takes the concepts and puts them into tangible designs. That team together along with our second leadership team and those working on the projects works very well.
We work really well with our clients and they come back again because they have fun working with us.
It seems that sustainability and building communities is where you focus your attention. Do the Architectures that focus on building pay more?
Perhaps, but a lot of the Architects with the capital ‘A’ are now focusing on the more community projects. That is where they need is especially in Africa.
That’s why we want to share what we do, because I think we bring a very socially and economically embedded perspective, which is about how to use ‘appropriate’ solutions. How to use appropriate materials? How do you bridge the divide of people who have lived outside the economies, outside the formal systems for generations and the people who live inside it? That bridge is a really important. For people like me if we can build those bridges, that is important thing for us to do.
Do you have to consider a different leadership style to motivate your team since they are highly educated? Can you share any of your leadership strategies?
There are moments in growing the organization when you stretch yourself, and you have to think about how will you stay connected to your team? You can’t assume your team is following you.
- What we have done as partners is communicate what we want as our vision for our lives as individuals and for the firm. Getting each team member in our practice to think about what are they committed to and what are they passionate about? We identify that common purpose? And to drive that common purpose we look at the skills that we need? On one hand it is providing the support and on the other hand also challenging.
- Right now we just had a review of all our team and they are saying: “Madame leader, you are way up there and we are not getting your light.” Great you will get my light, but you will have to come to me too. I’m not the only one who is going to do the coming to you. It is a two way process and I want to see what are you going to do to raise your game? I will create the space for you to be really great in that game. The support I will give you and I will bring the coaching personally. Not until recently did I have a door. All our partners work in the studio with everyone. We encourage everyone to overhear every conversation. There is not enough space in a day to be able to share the wisdom you have.
- Secondly, we do have an open door policy. So anything that you are working with you have to work it out straight away.
- We use the buddy system, where you work with a team member.
- We have a Friday program where we invite people in the community who are doing interesting things and get them to share their work that may be of interest for us to understand.
- We encourage everyone in the Practice to participate in conferences, to give presentation in conferences. I tell my team that when you have the opportunity to present, I don’t want you to present on what you did, but on what you did differently and what you didn’t get right and you still have to get right. That is how we challenge them to raise their game and engage in what they are doing.
- We encourage everyone to challenge us about what we do. If there is a gap between what I am saying and what I am doing and much of the benefit of what I am currently doing is with my external partners, I am saying to my team “I am creating that future space that you are going to have to fill. So what are you going to do to start filling it? What are you going to demand as support and I will provide it. “ You are going to have to do the thinking.”
Every Monday we have a team leaders meeting which is themed. The first Monday of every month we do a three-hour session with the entire staff and we do something inspiring so share the values of some of projects we are working on so even the juniors gain insight into what we are dealing with. Now we have started a formal tea session where we come down to the social space everyday for fifteen minutes. We use that time to share going on. What hasn’t worked and what has worked.
Especially with team leaders we need to keep challenging them, because we all have to evolve in the way in which we work. We need to first understand who we are, and how we work and transform for the game we are playing. We bring in the highest quality coaching from the market to do that.
If you were to reflect on you career what do you feel is the most significant impact you have made is to date?
Five year ago we realized that we would have to create the projects that we want to see. The projects that are emerging from the market, and the circumstances of the market are not adequate for the transformational game we want to play. That’s is the impact we made. Five years ago my partners and I decided that we are going to start defining the projects that we are going to make.
It was just about that time that I met the gentleman who was driving the Wesgate project. I told him I don’t want him to have undue expectations of what I can do, because I am not a super woman. He said to me: “Are you passionate about making the difference in the way the urban fabric and in the social fabric of cities work?” I said yes. He asked, “Do you think you know a lot about it?” I probably do know a lot about it, more than most because I make it my business to read and to engage. I only engage in activities that open that space for me. I travel a lot. I am engaged around the world with people around those themes and subjects.
So when he came to me and asked “Will you be my partner in this project?” I told him I would not be his partner because it will compromise my professional integrity, what I will do is Chair this process, because in that position I can ask all the difficult questions, and at any point if you don’t answer my 20 terrible questions then we have something to work out. He has been really great, as the entire professional team.
I am not interested in sustaining the present, which is unsustainable. I am interested in creating evolutionary futures. That is the space you need to engage me at and I will show you what that looks like. I will dream it up and make it happen.
We talk so much about partnerships, but as you suggested, there is so much political jockeying you need to do in order to be perceived that you are working together. From a position of authority you can challenge and question.
Setting up any project it is really important to set-up the parameters in which it will operate. It setting up the expectations, you know that you have to meet these expectations. I will challenge you. These are all really good lessons of learning how to manage a project.
Is there one thing that you would attribute your success to, a point in time, a decision or a personality trait?
I am really intrigued at who people are. I have an ability to ask the questions. My partner has said: “You always ask that kind of question that gets us to think about who we really are.” When I understand that, it creates the bases of what we can create something.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your career?
I think it is all the different mind-sets and world-views that people come from and how you work to bring that to one page for the purpose of what you are doing. It is around what I call: creative conversations and common focus conversations and how you begin to facilitate that. At the end of the day so much of what I do is about creating that creative conversation around what we are dealing with from a space of inspiration, not from the space of fear. When we get to the root of what is really important to us we can really become excited about what we do and really work it and push the boundaries and be willing to where ever we need to go to make it happen.
Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself discovered when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?
What has made me the most uncomfortable in my career is when this developer approach me to work on this project, and I had really been struggling for about two decades working in the conventional training and culture of planning and architecture that says there is certain ways, and certain constructs and conceptual things that hold true for what you work with. In my gut I was feeling that the world is not working in the way these things say it should be working.
When the developer challenged me about idea about creating a paucity place that went completely against that grain I had to pause and really rethink so much of what I believed in. I had to look at it hard and ask: “Am I doing this because it is a project opportunity, or it is really offering an opportunity? Even though I thought I was trying to push the boundaries I was trying to find the same solutions in the same paradigm as the problem and what I was doing previously. That freshness of someone and really challenge where you come from and step out and say: “Maybe there is a different way to think about this.” And then suddenly I realized there were a whole lot of possibilities. It was like a logjam got unblocked and a while lot of possibilities started to surface. That started opening up the opportunity to have different conversations. Instead of having the same conversations about how we think we are going to solve the problem and we have done it for twenty years and we haven’t solved the problem. We are now seeing the unfolding of a whole range of possibilities that are coming out. We are now thinking different how we can solve some of those problems: rapid urbanization, and informal settlements, which are the only way cities are being form in African largely. How we can begin transform that game.
Every now and then you have to think, you have to think again, look afresh.
If there were one thing you would do differently in the pursuit of your success, what would you do?
I would share more. I would spend the time to share more. Definitely share more about what we are trying to do. It is in the conversation of sharing that you widen and expand opportunity for contribution.
What does success mean to you?
Success means to be able to play the big game, but to still have the balance. My children are still getting from me what they need as a mother and I am able to be a community player. I can fulfill a role that when my friend is suffering from breast cancer I can really be there for her. I can be part of her fundraising team so she can get the treatment she needs. At the same time still be in that boardroom and challenge and engage with the highest leaders in the city and have the conversation that we all have the role to play.
How would you define leadership?
Leadership is about, really pushing the boundaries while making things work better and pulling together. At the end of the day it is about people. Pushing the boundaries and creating that space of likeness, inspiration and fun and pull people into processes with you, because you can’t do it alone.
You have mentioned this word “fun” a few times throughout the interview; I want to explore that for a moment. People may not perceive that a professional service practice as ‘fun’. What does fun mean to you and how does that play a role in your practice?
I was involved in a different practice before this practice and I worked very hard, I had fantastic results and I was completely the dictator. Not very loved by my staff. They like the fact that we were successful and that we were a leader in the market. If you wanted to get the job done you came to me. I paid for it personally, with my energy and my well-being. At end of that period after my child was born and I took a pause, and I looked at how I had been operating. I had a very wise counselor at that point. I was exercising that male energy in order to succeed and that was not supporting me or other people around me.
So I went on journey to look at all the other women leaders in the world; I read all their biographies. I was trying to understand who were those who that worked in a way that has nurtured and have built community of people who were willing to work together to go the extra 500 miles we need to go.
That is what I discovered in the last 13 to 15 years.
Can you name a couple of those biographies?
Subsequently I have been able to interact with great women to see how they use male energies and female energies. Also with the men I work with I have been able to make these observations. I can now understand for myself.
Often when I work with men they see the way in which I operate as a weakness, but then they experience the ‘fun’ of working with my team, and me then they understand.
The fun is really about doing serious things, but doing it with the lightness of being. You can create that lightness of being.
If there was three pieces of advice you can give to a woman who leads a project, initiative or a team what would that be?
- Look what you are doing, what is really the most important thing to do now, and do it.
- Believe in yourself.
- Stand your ground
- Do everything it takes to make it happen i.e. what support do you need? What do you need to learn? Etc.
Q. What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?
To be unafraid of what anyone thinks of you. To connect with what you think is important. Find all the people in your community who are kind and generous and are willing to make a contribution to other people’s lives and go be with them. Learn from them what they are doing and how they are doing it. From those lessons you will see the things that are worth cultivating in yourself. Then live that.
Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?
That I was beautiful, gorgeous and amazing! I was told at 10 years old that I was ugly, too black and no Indian man will marry you.
What is next for you?
Building cities. Building communities.
Words of Wisdom for African women
“There is a depth of dignity, reliance and wisdom and huge generosity in the spirit of African women. Bring it out. Stand together and work together.”