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Giving Rise To Africa's Finest

The Carlton Centre in Johannesburg CBD has been the tallest building in the city for a while, but this has changed as Sandton is now home to the tallest building in Africa: The Leonardo. Malika Walele, architect at Co-Arc International Architects, talks about her experience as part of the female team that led the design and construction of the 55-floor skyscraper.

Architect Malika Walele.

Earlier this year, The Leonardo hosted a media launch together with Power FM. Attendees curious enough to view the top floors discovered that the building has two additional floors after the 55th floor. Malika explained: "The Leonardo is documented as 55 floors, as the 55th floor is the highest occupiable floor, and this is according to city council regulations. Floor 56 provides access to the back of house facilities and the lift motor rooms; it is not accessible to the public. Floor 57, also not an occupiable floor, will become a high-end bar and viewing deck in the future."

Inside one of the rooms at The Leonardo.

Talking to Times Live, Malika’s director at Co-Arc Catharine Atkins mentioned that she never took note that her team had a majority of females as opposed to males; they noticed this when they were afforded a picture opportunity. Malika shares that at Co-Arc both males and females are granted equal opportunities and her being part of The Leonardo design team is testament to that.


Construction underway at The Leonardo.

According to the South African Institute of Architects in the Eastern Cape, only 21% of registered architects are female; in Europe, the Architects’ Council records 31% and the US with 20% according to their National Associates Committee Report. “I remember during my application interview at Wits [University of Witwatersrand]; I was asked if I’m ready to give up my life for the next six years to pursue my dream. Despite the warnings, nothing could have prepared me for what I was getting myself into,” said Malika. “I lost count of the number of times I was ready to throw in the towel. As much as there was a mix of both genders, men still dominated the environment.”

Challenges of working in a man’s world did not end during her varsity years, Malika had to quickly accept that she was a young woman with limited experience in her industry. Adding to that, she had to navigate through sexist remarks and find ways to gain well deserved respect without looking like she’s ‘too sensitive’. “As a young architect I had the desire of wanting to prove my worth and like any young architect, I was faced with the rude awakening that my skills, expertise and knowledge are limited. While having to adapt to challenging environments it was difficult being a female on a majority male site like The Leonardo’s [construction] site. Women are dramatically underrepresented in the construction industry,” she added.


Construction underway at The Leonardo.

“Though the site employed close to 3 000 people at its peak, less than 2% of this number were females. The environment is tailored for men’s needs from the toilets, the safety gear to the oversized uniform. I had to find mechanisms to deal with the sexism in the industry.

“Being assertive and dealing with such incidents is crucial for women as this behaviour is typical in construction sites globally. The more I worked with male managers on-site, the more their mindsets changed. I do believe my experience has opened their eyes, made them more sensitive and appreciative of challenges women face in the industry. This may have a positive impact on how men treat women on future sites. The slow progress and change that is being made in the industry are just not good enough. Taking a stand as a woman and voicing our opinions is often seen as being ‘audacious’ but the same would not be said about a man,” Malika concludes.


Sandton skyline with construction of The Leonardo in view.

Outside trying to make her mark in architecture, Malika enjoys travelling and photography. She says her creativity in her work sometimes gets inspired by what she photographs and vice versa.


Author: Yonga Balfour