Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Prototyping low-tech, low-cost housing solutions in Shanghai

Stephen Lamb building the structure in Shanghai

Self-taught social designer Stephen Lamb of Touching the Earth Lightly together with artist Andrew Lord created a mesmerising upside-down bamboo forest sprouting mushrooms for the Manila-based Litre of Light Foundation’s pavilion at the 9th annual Shanghai Biennale. The pavilion is a prototype of sorts for some of the low-tech, low-cost and more sustainable housing solutions that Touching the Earth Lightly wants to pilot in Cape Town.

How did the invitation to exhibit at the Shanghai Biennale come about?

I met Illac Diaz, founder of the Litre of Light Foundation from Manila in the Philippines, at the COP 17 pavilion that Touching the Earth Lightly built for the Climate Smart Cape Town Campaign in December 2012 in Durban. I told him our dream of creating temporary outdoor mobile classrooms in rural communities that were off the grid, and could be places of dignity and safety. We clicked immediately and undertook to stay in touch. Eight months later Illac emailed me and told me that he had been asked by Qui Zhijie, the chief curatorof the 9th Shanghai Biennale and professor at the China Academy of Art, to exhibit the Litre of Light at the entrance to the biennale. He wanted us to design and build a pavilion based on the concept of the mobile classroom.

Can you explain the design concept of the pavilion?

The concept is informed by the founding principles of Touching the Earth Lightly and prior work we’d done in conjunction with other projects and people. Both Andrew Lord and I are very proudly South African, and we want our design collaborations and creative energies to link directly to local social problems in Cape Town as much as possible. The design therefore exploits opportunities for food security, looking to the sun as a source of renewable energy, using low-tech building methods that can be duplicated and taught simply to people – duplication by low-income earners in rural communities is of paramount importance. We also wanted to show that the “wood and corrugated iron” aesthetic in South Africa does not need to represent oppression and poverty. We wanted to show that we can build low-cost structures that look contemporary and that offer light-filled spaces in which to think and grow plants, families and healthy communities. On a more conceptual design level, the idea for fruiting mushrooms out of bamboo came from my fascination with observation of the many “forgotten” spaces in cities, the overlooked, the unexamined and the in-between spaces. These are seen as dead spaces or non-spaces but they still represent useful space. I believe that traditional architecture has created these spaces and that non-traditional architecture must rediscover them. I speak here of the spaces between fence and wall, wall and gutter, window and windowsill. Inside these spaces are growing spaces or spaces of opportunity – for creating food systems using low-tech methods and the labour of those who are currently unemployed. We also aimed to celebrate the transformative power of light by using Litre of Light solar bulbs in roof of the structure. We wanted to build a structure that had, as its crown, the source of all living things.

Mushrooms and myst (c) Stephen Lamb

Why did you decide to use bamboo and grow mushrooms in it?

Simply put, I wanted to further the argument for the large-scale roll-out of rooftop gardens in Cape Town. Within this context, I wanted to promote the principle of using local natural materials, local technologies, local foods and low-tech methods. Bamboo thus became an obvious choice. Instead of having one horizontal growing plane,we created 50 growing areas by “volumising” one area: The bamboo lengths were split open and filled with mycelium, and then bolted back together again with drilled holes through which the mushrooms could fruit. These were hung from the roof with a timed misting system keeping the garden moist and the Litre of Light lamps giving off a dappled light in which the mushrooms could fruit and flourish.

Was the technique of growing mushrooms in these conditions well tested before you installed it?

No, according the mushroom growing community in Shanghai, it had never been tested before. We spent a month in China developing techniques that we’d researched and ideas conceived in Cape Town. We collaborated with a small village three hours outside Shanghai who sourced, cut and split the bamboo and a large-scale local mushroom farm who helped implement our concept of “fruiting” a variety of local, organic mushrooms out of vertically hung bamboo lengths. After exploratory work done on the farm (most ably done by local environmentalist Justin White who joined Andrew and I in Shanghai to build the pavilion) we were thrilled to find that this concept could actually work. Since installing the bamboo lengths in the pavilion we have received formal confirmation from the mushroom industry that this method of mushroom production has never been tried before. We have also received word that the farm we developed the concept with would like to develop this further, in conjunction with Touching the Earth Lightly, with a view to testing commercial applications and establishing formal links between our two operations. I am excited about the bearing that this could have on rooftop gardens in Cape Town.

Mushroom forest grown on asphalt

What were the challenges of building the pavilion abroad?

Undoubtedly the toughest part was communication, as we spoke very little Mandarin. Even with an interpreter, it was very challenging. Under the intense time pressures we were given to work with, we really had to focus on efficient methods of communication. We were very fortunate to have a supportive and understanding first-year art student (from the Chinese Academy of Art) Wei Xiaoyang acting as our interpreter. She went above and beyond the call of duty, sitting for hours, day and night, while we built the pavilion. She was on hand for the simplest of translations, and was absolutely invaluable to the project. The design parameters were also changed halfway through our stay. We had to incorporate several changes (mainly in size and scale) because the mayor was arriving on the first day and there were logistical and safety issues associated with that. The timelines were also incredibly tight. We worked through the night for the last three days, without sleep, and made the opening time of 10h00 on 1 October 2012 with four hours to spare. We walked home with sun rising over Shanghai at 06h00, on a beautiful morning, on a natural high, with a sense of joint achievement – and went back to hotels and slept for the entire day. When we returned we found the pavilion overflowing with people, cameras out, abuzz with excitement and wows. It was a very satisfying feeling and a true privilege indeed. I never thought that the pavilion would receive such a warm and heartfelt response from those who visited it.

Visitors at the mushroom forest in Shanghai

What do you hope people take away from the experience of the pavilion?

A sense of beauty of the natural world; the overwhelming simplicity and complexity of nature and the need to conserve it. The importance of trying and creating new things and ideas. The need to have visions and to realise them. That you don’t need a university degree to think. To see that there are other ways of doing things. That we have the ability and the power to change the way we do things for the better. That it all starts with a very simple drawing. That it’s easier than we think. That when nature is introduced to temporary spaces they become magical. That design can bring people and nature together in beautiful and unexpected ways, and in this space of surprises we can celebrate life and the gift of being alive.

The Litre of Light pavilion is on show in Shanghai until the end of March 2013. If you are unable to see it, make sure to:


Text by Alma Viviers. Images by Stephen Lamb.