Y Tsai

​The Architect:
Y Tsai 

Words: Roger Young
Photography: Sydelle Willow Smith

Cape Town as World Design Capital 2014 has focused attention on designers of all stripes. But not all design is flashy, or even visible. The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

Tension breeds creativity, and Cape Town does not lack for tension with the most expensive real estate in Africa squeezed between picturesque mountains and pristine beaches, a vibrant emerging pan-African community, a dominant creole-Malay Muslim culture, hipster creative industries, and low-income ghettoes that encircle the city, themselves a poisonous legacy of political spatial design. When Cape Town was named World Design Capital 2014, the function of design itself was thrown into question. But many of the contradictions highlighted by the award were already being focused on by Cape Town’s brightest re-thinkers: designers who see contradictions as an opportunity for re-imagination, a chance for the city to create a new way of experiencing the world. 

The Red Bulletin meets six Mother City brains who are re-imagining how the city sees itself.

Next up: The architect Y Tsai 

Tsai’s office is a shared space in a central Cape Town office building, and his shelves are a bustle of proposals and models for new projects. He works on a unique principle: he builds solutions to problems before his (often NGO) clients have raised the money for the project. The rationale is simple: design freedom. 

“A container is not a quick fix. It comes with its own problems. It’s a design challenge.”

 “Because funding is led by a design proposal, once it’s accepted, that is the vision they go with,” he says. “There is no compromise in creativity.”

Tsai has an appetite for situations that require radically innovative thinking. Gaining a reputation for his modular designs around unused shipping containers, he has now moved into shopping centre architecture, a circus school and furniture – all informed by the challenges present in Cape Town’s unique contradictions. 

His design for the new Bridges For Music school in Langa is one such project, as is his Zip Zap Circus School – the design of both is informed by lessons Tsai learnt through working with shipping containers, something he has gained a reputation for but is quick to challenge.

“I’m not a container architect. I don’t want to be a green designer. I want to be a good designer,” he says.

Working with containers, firstly a clubhouse for a sports field, then a school in Visserhoek, and most recently a community centre in Ceres, Tsai has developed a modular approach to design.

“Instead of designing a unit, we started designing details. In the sports centre, we perfected the roof. The school was all about the windows. The next project was two containers with a roof between them creating a classroom, with the containers acting as storage spaces: a teacher’s room and a secure computer room. The community centre in Ceres builds on these details. Once you start developing these tools, you have a bag of tricks that you take into the next project.”

Tsai started working in containers when his modular bunk bed system caught the eye of Safmarine, who at that point were donating shipping containers as a solution to housing shortages in the townships of Cape Town.

Says Tsai: “The issue is not the space inside the container, it’s the image of the container. It’s not about sardine tins, packing everything in. It’s not about putting hundreds out there. It’s about spending money on less and making sure they are done right.”

Tsai’s modular thinking has led to his own projects feeding back into his design ethos. For instance, to create more space in the Visserhoek school, he took on the teachers’ suggestions and designed a unique pony-style desk for the learners.

Tsai relishes his work. “The details I work with are responses to specific challenges from the environments I work in. Nothing is conventional. I’m constantly prototyping. That’s the fun part.”

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12 2014 The Red Bulletin

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