She became an architect by applying for the wrong course! And turned out to be a fabulous one despite numerous challenges including cancer, divorce, global recession and lockdown. How does Cape Town architect MINETTE BELL navigate her challenges? She spoke to NANINE STEENKAMP
Minette (58) is the youngest of three siblings who were born and grew up in Ermelo, a corner of South Africa’s ‘mealie triangle’. Her father was a dentist, farmer and repeat mayor of the town, and her mother a housewife. Minette heads up an architectural practice in Observatory. She is the mother of two adult sons, Luke and Matthew, and lives in Mowbray
IN MY FINAL YEAR OF SCHOOL, all my friends applied to Afrikaans-speaking universities. But my dad, a bit of a rebel, said, ‘Why don’t you go to Wits [University of the Witwatersrand]?’ The two of us sat filling in the forms. I wanted to do a BA to become a teacher. He looked at my form and said, ‘You’ve filled in B.Arch. You’re good at art, how about it?’
‘You’re good at art, how about it?’, Minette’s father Piet (above) said, when she accidentally applied for architecture. Today, Minette heads up a successful architectural practice that’s weathering recession and lockdown
Architecture was far more exciting than I ever would have thought. It’s a constant journey of discovery, of finding out how things are connected. It’s as if you’re learning to see for the first time: you look at a bathroom and your mind’s already trying to work out where the pipes come from and go to. The learning process is wonderful and vast, I love it! It’s problem-solving. From macro issues – how your client moves through a space – right down to how a gate lock works. Once you know how to see, life itself is an inspiration. Leonardo Da Vinci said: ‘Develop your senses, and especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.’
I once worked out that you’ve got to make over a thousand decisions when you build a house. With that come municipalities and contractors and finances and people’s personalities. Every site’s different. Every client’s different. It’s a tough profession but I feel privileged to have such an exciting vocation! Client satisfaction is the most rewarding aspect of my work. You’ve got to be serious about what you do, but you also want to be quite light about it: be playful but serious. Your building will affect people’s lives, both privately and publicly, for a long time to come.
Homes in Greyton and Betty’s Bay designed by Minette and her colleagues. ‘Playful but serious’ is the attitude she brings to her work | Photo: Urbanest
I started my own practice – domestic and commercial – 14 years ago, after a period of working in the US. The challenges have been enormous. A pre-lockdown study by the South African Institute for Architects revealed that, thanks to the tanking of the South African construction industry, around 80% of architectural firms were struggling to make ends meet. Covid-19 was another huge blow.
I’ve learnt just to put one foot in front of the other. There are so many people in the same boat. Forge forward and trust that you’ll come out at the other end, stronger. Believe it, or you’ll just sit in a corner not achieving anything. Tough as it is, we have to remain open to learning – even during challenging times. So our creativity keeps evolving, and our lives are more innovative in the long-term.
More of Minette’s creativity: Salt Orchard, a commercial development in Cape Town’s Salt River, plus a home in Stanford. ‘Architecture was far more exciting than I ever would have thought,’ she says
Architecture has provided me with many lessons, including that you can never be the ‘lone genius’: you need help and lots of it! I rely a lot on the brilliance of my dedicated team to keep our work – and sometimes me – together! This lesson helped me when life took a dark turn and I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
A dear friend arrived with her husband at my doorstep with all kinds of amazing stuff for me: special goodies and gowns for the hospital, a TV and myriad of DVDs for my bedroom afterwards. I was so embarrassed as they were actually clients! But he said to me, ‘Learn to graciously accept the support you’ve been given. It’s other people’s turn now; don’t deprive others of stepping up.’ That taught me to say: ‘Thank you, I need you now.’ I realise I function best in community: whether at work or in my private life, I need people!
My cancer journey was one that went on and on. It started when I went for a mammogram. When I arrived for the appointment, the receptionist said I’d missed it. I was meant to be there the previous week! I was so busy work-wise that I thought, ‘I’ll just go back next year.’ But a little voice, which I believe to be the Holy Spirit, said to me: ‘Turn around. Listen, turn around now.’ So, I rescheduled for a week later, and that’s how they discovered cancer. It’s shocking to be told you have cancer, and difficult to take it all in at first. But my husband helped me process it. He was incredible: very, very, supportive.
It started going wrong in the hospital
The cancer was diagnosed at an early stage but during surgery they discovered a tumour. Unfortunately, a lot of stuff went wrong. It started going wrong in the hospital where we discovered I was allergic to morphine. On top of that, I got a terrible infection. I had a few other complications, far too technical to get into. This was followed by another operation. So it became a very long journey.
Another added complication was a frozen shoulder, thanks to long surgery. It’s the one thing in life I never want to face again. People say it’s worse than childbirth. Honestly, it’s the most painful thing to go through. Typically, it lasts nine months: the shoulder freezes for four-and-a-half months and then ‘defrosts’. I couldn’t lift my arm or sleep properly and anti-inflammatories didn’t work. Nobody can see it from the outside, so they can’t understand. Ultimately, I went on an anti-depressant, which told my brain I didn’t have that much pain. This helped somewhat. I suppose you just come out the other end. I’m so thankful I have.
Minette paddled for three years with a team of remarkable breast-cancer survivors called the Amabele Belles | Photo: John Tee
Obviously, I was incredibly sad about my cancer. Plus, I found that it wasn’t just me going through it. Everybody’s affected: your children, your family, your friends, and you want to spare them. It’s not easy being the one on whom the attention is focused. Also depending on others when you cannot work, drive, and just get on with the ordinary things in life. Your family gets exhausted as well and you’ve got to make sure you give them a proper break. I know I didn’t always get this right.
One plus was that I could be there for other women afterwards who were going through the same thing. I have a friend who recently went through it, and I could walk that journey with her. I did dragon-boat paddling at the V & A Waterfront with the Amabele Belles, remarkable women who are all survivors. So, you share what you go through. You see the woman who’s gone through five times what you’ve gone through: you realise how strong suffering sometimes make people. Passing the five-year milestone was wonderful. Today, seven years on, I’m absolutely at peace.
Why would I be exempt from pain?
In my life journey I hardly ever asked, ‘Why, God?’ For me, it was kind of, ‘Why not?’ Why would I be exempt from pain and the rest of the world suffers? Now it’s your turn, now you deal with it. I don’t think God has ever said we won’t have pain. In fact, it’s the opposite. He said He’ll go with us: through the river, through the fire and whatever comes our way.
But at times I believe it’s okay to ask why: I like what Christian author Beth Moore says: ‘One of the countless things to deeply appreciate about God is that, while He steadfastly maintains the right to conceal certain explanations, He doesn’t forbid the right to ask why.’
Even when we lost our first baby, due to a strep infection she picked up in the hospital after she was born, I didn’t ask too many questions. But with my divorce, I did. Because this is the one I didn’t expect. The interesting thing is, I used to judge other people who got a divorce. I used to think, ‘Ag, they just didn’t try hard enough’ or ‘How could they? What about the children?’ Look where I sit now!
‘Post-divorce, you’ve got to redefine yourself,’ Minette says
I met Mike 40 years ago on the first day at varsity and we got married in our final year. He’s a fellow architect and we were married for 32 years. If you’ve been together for that long, that person honestly becomes your other half and tearing that bond is impossibly sore. Crushing loneliness. Always having the gift of having somebody there and then suddenly now, you’re on your own. There’s also an enormous sense of guilt, shame and failure. My heart goes out to all the women and men who find themselves, at an advanced age, in this difficult and lonely space, whether through divorce or death or any other kind of separation from a loved one.
Eventually, you have to take responsibility for your part, so that you can get going with forgiveness as soon as possible. It may not be obvious in the beginning, but you still played your part, you were right there. A pancake definitely has two sides, even if it’s very flat. I found it so helpful to spend time with an amazing Christian therapist who helped me through that.
Minette and ex-husband Mike met at Wits University, where they both studied architecture. ‘I’ve never stopped being sad that my marriage failed, but I take with me many years of a good life with Mike and I wish that for him too,’ she says
Post-divorce, you’ve got to redefine yourself. There were and are moments, especially in the beginning, where you find yourself in a foetal position on the floor. You’ve got to scrape yourself up again, wake up the other half of you to realise your full strength. Once you manage to do that, you start realising you can actually extend yourself. You can become a new, fuller and self-sufficient person. A kind of rebirth starts to happen, a second childhood! I started realising I am a survivor, not a victim. I’ve never stopped being sad that my marriage failed. But I take with me many years of a good life with Mike and I wish that for him too. It’s a different journey now and I’m embracing that.
My family looks very different now. It’s definitely not the picture I had in my head! But it’s still very special and I’m just busy redefining it. I think that’s the other big learning curve: to be authentic in the way you mourn something. Where there’s death of anything, amputation, loss of a relationship, be authentic about it. My friends know I’m an excellent crier. I can cry so quickly, loudly and desperately! I’ll never stifle a cry. It’s helped me a lot. I now see it as a gift.
‘Therapy helped me understand I’m a survivor, not a victim,’ says Minette. ‘Once you start realising you can extend yourself, you can become a new, fuller person. A kind of rebirth starts to happen, a second childhood!’
I also have amazing friends and family, honestly! So many dear people who counselled me with such wisdom and empathy. I call them my long-suffering stretcher bearers! Part of this essential inner circle has been my children’s unwavering love and support. I never knew when they were tiny tots that I would be learning so much from these incredibly wise young people.
I don’t think you can ever underestimate the power of gratitude: I do think that’s the key. Look for a simple thing before you start your day to make you smile. Before you even get up out of bed! See what makes this messy life wondrous. Even if it’s the impossibly beautiful colour of your spaniel’s furry coat. Rather than giving too much space to your inner critic, look at something beautiful in yourself. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made.
Don’t let fear dominate your thoughts. Where fear lives, there’s no room for gratitude. When I allow fear into my heart, I quickly spiral downwards. I know gratitude is a buzzword. But I think it’s essential to recognise life as a gift, never mind what the package looks like. If you start with truth, out goes fear!
UK family holiday. ‘My family looks different now,’ says Minette, pictured here with sons Luke and Matthew and their other halves, Gill and Ali ‘who are now my children too,’ she says. ‘I never knew when they were tiny tots that I would be learning so much from these incredibly wise young people!’
I want to embrace life as a gift – whether it comes in a package that doesn’t seem like it’s a gift, like tragedy, or whether it’s a joyful package. I’m busy doing a Bible study by Beth Moore. It’s called The Quest. One of the things she wrote is: ‘In all the mess, in all the mundane, you are a living, breathing miracle.’ I think it’s a treasure for me. I said to a friend the other day: ‘I have never, ever been disappointed in a Bible study. Never ever! But I have been disappointed by media, Netflix, books! For me, the treasure of God’s word, the Bible, is where truth and wisdom lie. So little wisdom I have, other than this.
I don’t always surrender to God’s love or His gift of grace. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I fight it. I soon learnt that it’s not the way to go, and I usually scurry back as fast as I can.
Work in progress: Minette and her Urbanest colleagues drew up plans on a voluntary basis to renovate this home for disabled children in Cape Town’s Philippi township. It is finally nearing completion after lockdown caused delays. ‘To find a place where you feel you make a difference is priceless,’ she says
I always search for a way to somehow contribute. Always looking for ways to improve that, whether contributing in my friendships or in my workspace. I think elderly people start feeling life has no more purpose when they feel they’re not contributing to life in general. By contributing, I mean just being part of other people’s lives in some form or the other. I also volunteer with Shine, an NPO helping schoolchildren learn to read. It’s enormously satisfying.
A few years ago, I volunteered with Engineering Mission International in Kenya, where I helped redesign a school campus. I made some really good friends. I think it helped me recover in some way from my divorce, to be genuinely valued by these strangers from all over the world. My practice tries to do a pro bono project every now and then. We recently drew up plans pro bono for a children’s home in Philippi. One can always, always do more. But to find a place where you feel you make a difference is priceless.
People who confront suffering can find freedom
None of us would choose suffering willingly. But we can’t expect not to be faced with it some time or another. We’ll all either lose somebody or our work, or face illness, divorce, whatever. It’s how you work through it that makes you stronger, which makes you more resilient. It gives you empathy. I believe having empathy makes you less judgmental. Philip Yancey wrote a book, Where’s God when it hurts?, expanding on this wonderfully.
You get people who run from suffering, who never make peace with it and probably ask ‘Why?’ forever, and you get those who confront it and find freedom in that confrontation because they understand things more.
‘I feel it’s essential to make peace with mystery because there’s so much of it,’ Minette says
I feel it’s essential to make peace with mystery because there’s so much of it! I believe that the great mystery of life is encapsulated in God through Jesus. I constantly feel God’s nudging in my life: the same voice that told me to go back for my mammogram also wakes me up in the night and reminds me of something that completely slipped my mind – something that may even avoid a disaster on site! I think He nudges both those who are believers, and those who aren’t.
There is still so much mystery, and ultimately I think life is about making peace with it. You try and demystify God. But as soon as you do that, you put Him in a box. You think you can control Him and turn Him into Father Christmas! Quite the opposite is true: He is the great mystery. I am totally captured by His love and His light.