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Jaime-Lee Gardner
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Louise Martin
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Recognising innovation and creativity

By Di Brown

, |

Recognising innovation and creativity

By Di Brown

, |

5 min read

CMAI Architects of Knysna has won two International Federation of Landscape Architects awards for the AAPME (Africa, Asia, Pacific, Middle East) area.

At the 2018 World Congress of the International Federation of Landscape Architects (IFLA) in Singapore in July, CMAI Architects won two awards – one for Thesen Islands in the category Wildlife, Biodiversity, Habitat Enhancement or Creation, and one for Crossways Farm Village in the category Analysis and Master Planning.

Thesen Islands

Thesen Islands is CMAI Architects’s flagship and multiple award winning project in the Knysna Lagoon on the Garden Route in the Western Cape. The development is, according to the judge’s citation:

“a great example of the restoration of a brown field with historic ecological values. What has happened in this project is the innovative transformation of a sensitive site with respect to social and environmental aspects. This project is an example of how a development can be designed and constructed to be commercially viable but also co-exist with and enhance the environment. The aesthetic content is as remarkable as the process.”

The history

Built on the extraction of timber and gold, Knysna developed as a rough-and-ready town with an industrialised waterfront. The gold was short-lived but, even after the town evolved into a major tourism destination, the timber industry continued to dominate and, from the 1920s, Thesen Island was the centre of the timber processing industry. The power station, which was built on the island in 1939, was fuelled by the sawdust and wood chips generated by the sawmills. Not only did it provide jobs for the local community and power to Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, it also fed into the Eskom  ational grid. By the late 1990s this island was 96 hectares of underutilised and somewhat degraded land – but in a prime location in the biodiverse Knysna Estuary.


This presented any potential developers with a range of challenges, and Dr Chris Mulder, a modern-day pioneer who has embraced the adventurous spirit of this seaside town, rose to the challenge, and achieved the triple bottom line of social, economic and ecological integration and sustainability in the design and development of the Thesen Islands project. The design work commenced in 1991 when the then owners, Barlows, asked CMAI what could best be done with the island. Seven years and 26 design concepts later, approval of this environmentally sensitive project was obtained in 1998. Construction started in September 2000, and eight years later the entire project of 605 residential units and the commercial area with two hotels and five restaurants was completed and sold out. No wonder CMAI claims this project as their flagship after 15 years of constant design and construction implementation.


As a result of decades of industrial activity, the low-lying island was polluted by chrome, arsenic,  creosote and copper. This highly contaminated soil was encapsulated and sealed with sodium bentonite cut-off walls and blankets, and capped with topsoil and replanted. The area was rehabilitated by creating wetlands and planting trees, shrubs and grasses along the 11 kilometres of canal bank.


Ecological rehabilitation and conservation


The Knysna Estuary is an important and diverse one, with mudflats, sandy areas, rocky sections, deep water, extensive saltmarsh areas, and subtidal sea-grass beds. The island harbours endangered bird,  plant and marine life including the Knysna seahorse (Hippocampus capensis).

The solutions to the ecological issues were pure genius. Before any construction was done, a complete assessment of the status quo of the lagoon was done. This baseline assessment gave the developers something against which all construction activities could be assessed and measured. Only then was the system of canals dug, based on the approved CMAI design. The excavated soil was used to raise the level of the newly created islands by 1.8 metres to a height of 2.8 metres above sea level.

The canals were constructed using rock mattresses and gabions to establish the canal edges and bottom lining. Fortuitously, this created an ideal habitat for the seahorses, whose population has subsequently increased. The water flowing through the marina is open to the estuary so it moves with the tides, thus ensuring constantly changing clean canal water, providing an ideal habitat for a host of marine creatures. This habitat and biodiversity creation contributed immensely towards CMAI  Architects’s winning the IFLA award but – even more importantly – it has also resulted in Thesen Islands’s ever-increasing and enduring property values.

Community inclusion

The sawmill had been a major employer in the area so, in order to create as many jobs as possible, the CMAI design team adopted a design approach that favoured labour-intensive construction methods – like the gabions – and encouraged innovative local procurement and manufacture of all the street  lights, street furniture, boardwalks and paving. In total 1,800 local workers were upskilled, and were employed for six years during the project implementation. The street lighting, bridge handrails, bollard lighting and walkways were constructed by small local enterprises and artisans using local, sustainably grown timber.

The extensive new commercial, retail and hospitality elements of the marina have created additional employment opportunities for local people. Today there are over 800 people employed in the commercial area of Thesen Harbour Town alone.



The Thesen Islands Marina celebrates the rich and fascinating history of the island through a heritage trail walk marked by information boards. Wide paths promote a pedestrian lifestyle and an appreciation for the natural environment by way of constructed beaches, bird hides and gardens. The Marina is situated within the Garden Route National Park, and SANParks has their main office on the island. Outdoor living is further enhanced with parks, a clubhouse, tennis courts, squash court, kilometres of walkways, and a boating club. Most residents own a boat of some kind, ranging from kayaks to luxury powerboats or ocean-going yachts, and they are often to be seen quietly cruising the calm waters of the canals. This world-class marina is well deserving of its Blue Flag status, and it  beautifully complements the magnificent Garden Route National Park.


Just over 200 kilometres east of Thesen Islands is Crossways Farm Village, which also garnered an award for CMAI Architects at IFLA this year. Unlike Thesen Islands, which is situated within an established town, and even within a national park, Crossways is a stand-alone development that is intended to create a whole new community. But it’s not in the middle of nowhere – it’s a mere 40 kilometres from the city of Port Elizabeth, so it has the best of both worlds: rural quiet and, when needed, urban access. CMAI Architects’s thinking behind Crossways Farm Village (CFV) was to create:
“the first contemporary rural new town based on commercial agriculture in South Africa where anyone, irrespective of race or creed, could purchase a plot and build a home, create a living, participate in the economy, and benefit from what a sustainable modern rural new town can offer.”

CFV extends over 540 hectares of land, of which 120 hectares are under permanent irrigation with registered water drawing rights out of the Van Stadens River. A full-scale analysis of soils, vegetation, the degree of slopes, hydrology, climatology, and existing infrastructure was conducted to map out the site’s opportunities and constraints, and – ultimately – to identify optimal locations for the three basic land uses, namely agriculture, nature conservation and human settlement.

The IFLA award vindicates CMAI’s vision of creating a workable contemporary rural community in South Africa, and, according to the judges, ‘demonstrates that villages can be alternative enjoyable places for people to live, work and play,’ and that it has the potential to help resolve ‘conflicting issues  f agriculture and urbanisation.’

What is particularly heartening about these two awards is that they recognise – as does CMAI – that it is only when we start to put as much effort and creativity into creating affordable and sustainable  communities as we do into creating luxury estates that we will really start to redress some of the inequalities plaguing our beautiful country.

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