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NAIDOO, Karuni



BArch 1988 (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Karuni NAIDOO is the Principal of CNN ARCHITECTS, based in Durban. She was the first black woman to graduate with a B.Architecture from the University of Natal in 1988. In 1992 she registered with the SA Council for Architects and enrolled as a member of Institute of SA Architects. She belongs to the first generation of black architects, whose opportunity to practice became a reality only after South Africa's first democratic elections.

As an activist, Karuni was influenced by leaders who made great sacrifices, had exceptional intellect and commitment to fighting apartheid and building a new South Africa. Her activism and studies under apartheid made her acutely aware of her responsibilities as an architect. She has worked on many projects which have led to the development and upliftment of communities in South Africa.

In 1995, she established CNN Architects in Durban, combining resources with two partners, who have since moved on. She led their first project for the Ministry of Defence from the DPW Pilot Roster. Whilst receiving some work due to affirmative action policies, CNN Architects broke stereotypes by proving that they, as black architects, possessed superb capabilities and through merit soon won commissions and architectural competitions, had work published, and received prestigious awards.

Now in its 21st year [2017], Karuni continues to lead CNN Architects through trying times. The profession and business environment have failed to transform, and competitive tendering further limits access to the architectural work denied during apartheid.

Karuni's parents are her role models in terms of work ethic, study and sacrifice. In terms of architecture she is influenced by the work of Charles Correa and others from developing countries, where social responsibility, access to the economy, development issues and the environment all merge. She understands her responsibility of being a role model to the women who follow.

Having faced both racist and sexist attitudes while studying, Karuni found that this continued into practice, being continually denied access to work from various clients. Although initially benefiting from affirmative action policies, she soon established her own credibility and was awarded projects on merit. Today, looking back at Karuni's work, we see her projects stand proud and open to scrutiny.

Karuni's challenge has been to build and maintain her own self-confidence. After an apartheid education, and ministerial permission to study architecture at a "white" university, she was unprepared for study, the profession, and practice. She pursued studies in housing and lectured for six years. Her confidence comes from a combination of: experience, believing that she has what it takes, not comparing herself to others, being comfortable with herself, and leading effectively. She remains very involved and visible in practice.

Karuni has found that by understanding how patriarchy plays out in the architectural profession, is liberating. It provides solutions to challenges she faces with associates, colleagues, staff, students, contractors and clients. She believes that women make good leaders of teams and project managers, yet most men in the construction industry find it uncomfortable to be led by women.

Karuni believes that maintaining a work-life balance is key to surviving the profession. It is the daily challenge of knowing what you need to do, having sufficient flexibility, and being able to stay grounded. She manages her practice in a disciplined manner, rarely works late into the evening and doesn't take work home or work weekends. This involves managing time, work, client expectations and her team work to complete deadlines.

To keep centred Karuni meditates each morning, manages stress and stays fit at the gym. She travels frequently, and enjoys adventures into wild and unspoilt landscapes. She is a ceramicist, having won a few awards for her hand-made, organic and free-form objects. They aren't made for any particular purpose, but give her the creative energy to take the edge off the stress of architectural practice.

Karuni grew up without limitations imposed on her in terms of what she could do. As the first architect in her family and community, she is called on to advise parents and children on architecture as a career. Since 1995, CNN Architects has employed 47 students in structured practical / in-service training. She finds that women students benefit the most from her mentorship. She provides ongoing support to architectural education at both DUT and UKZN.

Karuni comes from a community where "social service" is an extension of spirituality and culture. As a teenager, she has worked with grassroots civic organisations and affiliates of the UDF, later organising youth, women and students. As an architect, this extended into transformational work within progressive professional organisations, like BEAM and SABTACO.

She has worked on gender issues within the construction industry. She is currently driving the Women in Architecture initiative through the SAIA Transformation Committee and SAIA KZN. This is done through publications, presentations, Women's Month Programmes, professional development and workshops.

Her advice to young graduates is "understand where you come from, have a clear understanding of the profession that you are entering, and gain experience at a good practice. The construction industry is hardcore, tough, white, male and not transformed. Be professional constantly, complete any task to the best of your ability, produce good architecture, manage your team well, and show responsibility to society and the environment. It is also crucial to trust in yourself, find support, collaborate with others, remain grounded and don't try to be superwoman". Karuni also believes in taking architecture to communities who have not been appropriately introduced to the Profession.

Karuni's vision for the profession is one which is inclusive and diverse, where all can thrive and produce good architecture, where we understand, respect and support each other, and behave in a socially responsible manner. It is also crucial that women are empowered, able to assert themselves and lead, and the profession is supportive of them in the different roles they play. While equality in the profession is crucial, ultimately good architecture will be measured in terms of client satisfaction, and the impact architectural projects have on those who inhabit the buildings, society and the environment and thus the legacy left by the architect.

(SAIA SAIA Women in Architecture, August. Submitted by William MARTINSON)