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We would like your professional contribution for the above annual FOCUS feature which makes the first issue of the New Year.

Please answer the Q&A concisely, but add other information should you deem it necessary.

Is contemporary architecture the best way forward – and why?

I take it by contemporary you mean “in the moment”..? If you are not “in the moment”, you are somewhere else, in someone else’s branded fantasy, braced against the pain and pleasure of who you are, what you are afraid of, and what you might want, or truly think, NOW.. “In the moment” means being conscious, both critical and creative. Being ‘in the moment’ is challenging. It forces you to re-evaluate, continuously, and to maintain relevance. I suspect , however, that you are actually talking about ‘style’. Style is an outcome, not a generator.

In the current global recession have the parameters changed insofar as workable solutions in architecture?

Since I have never had the luxury of a client without a limited budget, I have always tried to make the minimum move to achieve the maximum effect… A bit like chess. It was ever thus.

However:

The current global recession is essentially creatively challenging in terms of energy saving/generation models and materials. There is real potential here that this pre-requisite holds for potentially revolutionary architecural futures.

Insofar as the population migration to the cities, how can architects contribute to a solution?

Architects’ contribution to cities will only come via a commitment to operate on the line between their critical and creative faculties .They are the very specific holders of a highly specialized spatial intelligence.

Architects always used to be the visionaries of the city. These days architects have too often allowed themselves to becomes reduced to a service industry in thrall to any master’s voice. Architects need to take back their positions, to take responsibility for the effects that design has upon the city and society.

Compromises – discuss them as far as developers and their control of design?

Developers are not particularly interested in society or its well-being. Developers are interested in money and all the artifice that money encourages. Public space has become confused with the spaces of shopping and consumption. Architects have abrogated their responsibilities.

Define what constitutes good architecture in 2013?

Healthy. Relevant. Feel good. Minimum means to maximum effect. Fair. Encouraging of democracy, of free speech, of self-hood, of honest ambition. Allergic to pretension. Aware of its effect upon social dynamics. Aware of its environment both in form and in function. Conducive to growth and inspiration, in all terms.

Outline the new methodology and any key materials?

I don’t take a fascist line. I am allergic to fashion. What can be shown to work, works. Creative thought, inspiration – these can be realised in many different ways –in as many ways as there are people, places and imaginations.

Eco-conscious design costs more? Is it a solution in a tight economic environment?

Of course. It just means less money for expensive knick-knackery at the higher end. Effectively it should encourage a more highly considered design philosophy that is based around economy of design and means rather than an approach based on profligacy. The relationship between architecture and landscape becomes important, for example, and even this simple design approach can change the way we experience space and place. In low-cost scenarios it defines a requirement for more revolutionary thought. It also means building in future conduits to technology that may be too expensive to lay in now.

What do you see as key elements going forward?

The ability to interpret ourselves with honesty and irony. Critical thought is a pre-requisite to creation whether in art or architecture . Architecture is an art – it frames us, and it frames our vision of the world. Us and them, you and me.

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The Paul Smith Shop, Joburg.
Culture of Display, Culture of Concealment

Photo credit: Barry Goldman

I see one of my more crucial roles as an architect as that of engagement with the city: I consider the attempt to identify, to play with, to extrapolate concepts built around conditions I see operating in this city as central to my occupation. Paul Smith is the story of one such attempt.

Joburg seems beset by ‘mall culture’. I find this most odd in a city with the most livable climate in the world: we are blessed with clear blue skies most days of the year, we have many leafy avenues and pavements and parks, and we are not subject to draconian Australian-variety parking regulations … yet. We are generally free to park anywhere, eat outside in the sunshine, wander from shop to gallery to office to shop to restaurant .… In short, we are theoretically free to conduct a street and park life. We have the ever-present option of enacting and creating a vibrant urban terrain.

Instead, and in the face of the perceived threat of the ‘public’ – often, it seems to me, conflated in the most paranoid manner with ‘crime’ – most shops have retreated into the quasi-public ‘safe zones’ of homogeneous blind box malls. And most citizens seem content to wander these endless maze-like circuits, confounded by artificial light, blinded by decoration and highly coloured signage, bewildered by the appearance of choice …

Inside the mall, you have ‘everything under one roof’, and no urban poor to confront. Your status as ‘citizen’ is reduced to one of ‘shopper’. Condemned to the franchise, the brain is bulleted to quick shopping death. In the most optimistic view, that frantic eye is glazed and anaesthetised by the comfort of the already known, the recognisable .… All roads lead to Pick ‘n’ Pay, to Shoprite, to Mr. Price. There is no danger to confront, nothing new to explore, no unexpected discovery to make, except the delayed toll on your credit card.

You have lost your rights as a flâneur – that foot soldier, that wanderer, that poet, that pleasure-seeker and pavement-philosopher who negotiates at will and at risk the complexities, the vagaries, the filth and the joys of the nefarious, multiplicitous and unpredictable urban jungle. In the mall and on its peripheries, the eroticism and enchantment and unpredictability of public life, as Achille Mbembe has put it, has gone missing. Presumed dead.

As for those actively excluded from the mall, the extent of what constitutes an urban domain is reduced to narrow pavements, traffic islands and the parking lot. Here you have very possibility of being arrested for “loitering” . Loitering is not allowed in this “world-class city”, I discovered the other day. There is, amazingly enough, a law against loitering that requires active enforcement. Apartheid has morphed seamlessly into a ruthless private / public divide.

Joburg has stated its aim to project itself as a ‘world-class African city’. What is a ‘world-class city’, I would ask? Is it a ‘cultural destination’ – as cities appear to market themselves nowadays — and if so, what exactly does Joburg have to offer, culturally speaking? Is it African? Is it a city? And what is its destination value? What are its destinations, for a visitor?

A multiple choice exercise ensues: Which of the following might constitute the term ‘destination’?
a) A continually unrolling car-bound landscape of malls, traffic islands, beggars and gated Tuscan villages?
b) A neglected and abused downtown offering tantalising glimpses (if you can risk it) into the ‘exotic’ and/or ‘dangerous’ lives of others?
c) Townships you can look at on an organized tour through a bus window? (More lives of the ‘others’.)
d) Museums to the multiple tragedies of our apartheid past, all of which more or less look alike? (Identify the differences between museums? An extra 10 points to be gained here.)
e) The joy of travel: Views of intensely ramshackle slums while flying in to land, or from high speed highways? A rapid road side view of an RDP housing scheme?
f) Your luxury Sandton hotel?
g) A small shopping street in one of the older suburbs, containing restaurants, galleries, shops, offices?
g) The home of a friend – heavily fortified, a cultural opportunity to learn the complexities of the alarm system before a late night out? (Also filled with friends and wine, on occasion.)
h) The Sandton City complex / Rosebank Mall / Melrose Arch / Montecasino?

Please note that the above is a trick question. Most of the choices involve being in transit.

Only four choices are ‘destinations’: places that you can negotiate and occupy for more than two hours by walking, by sitting, by talking, watching at leisure. By partaking.

Three of these destinations are made up of the sumptuous displays contained in malls, and the safe and luxurious hotels and homes all hyped up and isolated by the thrill of danger lurking beyond. What is culturally noteworthy about any of these destinations? These, too, are all exclusive interiors. The gated mixed use complex of Melrose Arch, significantly, is an exclusive interior, its back resolutely turned to the city and its lesser citizens. Are we really just that – a ‘world-class interior’? What of the city, then, beyond its vicarious existence as an ‘outside’ to be looked at from the window of a car, a tour bus?

There is only one destination listed above which might [deserve] the term ‘cultural destination’ beyond a two hour museum visit, and that is option g). Only this destination might have a feel of ‘community’ from which nothing except your time constraints would exclude you. Only this one has what might be called an accessible ‘local flavour’ in which you could make – as a visitor – a temporary home in the exterior of the city.

Joburg is going to have to re-conceive itself in terms of ‘cultural destination’ if it is to be perceived as a city that is ‘world-class’. ‘World-class’ must imply a peculiarly local consciousness that would act to distinguish Joburg both in and from the world. Joburg is going to have to decide who, and what, it is made up of, and which of these are capable of projecting exteriors that can be read by visitors as ‘city’, as ‘destination’. Joburg is going to have to pay itself some serious attention, pay itself some serious respect, both in relation to its pasts, and in relation to its future imaginations. It is going to have to excavate, and then play with/expand/extrapolate its ‘local consciousness’. In order to build on itself, to read itself into a noteworthy future, it is going to have to seriously and creatively interrogate the width and breadth of its ‘culture’.

This article represents a small attempt. This building – Paul Smith — represents a small attempt to read a culture of this city, and to play it at its own game.

Joburg’s not short on history. It’s not short on character. It’s not short on change. It’s not short on cultures. It’s not short on re-invention, which is a dangerous proposition in itself. It has demolished and rebuilt itself several times. It has changed its native savannah into the largest artificial forest in the world. It’s never been short on wealth display. It is not shy. It is, rather, ‘knowing’, in that it presents a convoluted twinning of both display and concealment. These are not either/or conditions – they are conditions of both/and.

Joburg has many different cultural enclaves, many of which deal in both display and concealment. Chinatown, Eritrea, Mozambique, Forest Town, Soweto, Sandton. This is a historic and contemporary situation. Private meetings, private rebellions have found their homes in private villas behind walls. Parties in the insides, away from the prying apartheid eye …. Parties in the insides, away from the poverty stricken public. Parties in the insides, away from the xenophobic attack. Basements, hostels, yards, boomed off blocks, walled villas, private gardens, eagles on the gateposts …

Joburg has always been a kind of underground city: its surface hard and glittering, tuned to ostentatious display, its cultures hidden and/or fortified. Devil-may-care, fuck you, lock-down. The extraction of gold kilometers beneath the surface, come what may, no cost, no lives spared. Man-made mountains dominate the skyline, toxic. A paradox: this city is fearless, and yet consumed by fear.

This city requires navigation, a knowledge of routes and entry points. You have to know where to find things in the unreliable city. Much of the suburban fabric looks the same, and much of it has become boomed off, exclusive, or perceived as dangerous, non-navigable except to those in the know. In both the inner city and the larger suburbs, Joburg requires of its citizens an ‘insider knowledge’. Its visitors are stumped.

Could we call this a culture? This recognition of both ‘display’ and the ‘hidden’ – this necessity for ‘insider’ knowledge? Joburg‘s surfaces are not particularly codified. In many ways, the surfaces of this city are unreadable. The innards are really what slowly give recognition to the surfaces …. You have to learn Joburg from the inside out – and this insight, I think, would apply across the social board – the stratifications and differences of which only amplify the condition. To me, this imparts a certain mystique to the city, a mystique that I think provides a creative key towards a renewal, a re-definition, a creative re-reading of ourselves.

It seems strange to me that we still call the unrolling extensions to the city ‘Joburg’. They represent only half of the entwined culture: they are shallow and showy, and cheap. But they allow no concealment, paradoxically, no privacy – in this most privatized of cultures. They leave nothing to the imagination except the imagination of inclusion. They give no possibility of depth, of depth of time, of depth of inhabitation. All interiors seem the same, gleaned from Mr. Price and the lifestyle magazines. In spite of their booms and security guards, the whole is tuned to display. Concealment, in these areas, means danger. Half the culture has been left behind.

Amazingly, it is only in the Mall that I see a remnant of this culture, and this is – perhaps – why we are beset with mall culture. Every new agglomeration of suburbs is mall-centred. Could we see the Mall as the most cynical and twisted referent of the twin culture? Concealment of display. Display of concealment. Cultural destination?

And with that, I return to cultural destinations, and option g): the possibilities of ‘urban experience’, or ‘cultural destination’ still held in the older shopping street. The few open ‘shopping streets’ left in Joburg are relics of smaller suburban centres: these were short stretches of commercial zoning within the larger matrix of colour coded domesticity. Joburg’s business flight from the inner city has operated on a few scales: on the high end we have Sandton City and the new mall-centred gated suburban rollout. At the lower end, we see a continuous conversion of houses to business. The larger traffic conduits are sites of extreme make-over, and the smaller existing shopping streets have generally expanded in a linear fashion through the fairly limited ‘frontal’ conversion of houses and gardens. Originally concealed houses are here turned to display, turned to the street – gardens brick paved for parking.

Paul Smith is an internationally celebrated British clothes designer. His first two shops in South Africa were opened by Anthony Keyworth and Richard Shaw in Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2007. The Johannesburg shop took the singular decision to exist outside of a mall environment, on the premise that – internationally – the Paul Smith brand has always occupied ‘urban’ premises. Its shops exist on the street, often re-using buildings to create a somewhat eccentric urban image which contributes to the culture of the ‘street’. The Paul Smith LA shop – on the contrary, is a new build, and carries an extreme architectural image, as it forms part and parcel of LA’s drive-by culture.

The site chosen for Paul Smith Joburg is on the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th Street in Parkhurst – a prominent position on the busy little shopping street. The building that occupied this site was a nondescript, many times altered house dating from the post-war mass build of Parkhurst, now sporting a fake Georgian portico and colonnade.

I was asked, one Friday afternoon, to do a sketch design that Anthony and Richard could take to Paul Smith in London two days later. My visceral design response, that Friday afternoon, was to take the roof off, leave the portico as a small scale gesture to the street, and to cantilever a large and uncompromising glass container over the top, partially visible through the trees. Originally the idea for the flush jointed glass box was that various decorative stickers (the trademark Paul Smith stripe / various decals appropriate to the collection of the moment, full colour textile type signage etc) could come and go in time across the glass façade.

As we proceeded, the glass became solid pink in reference to the giant pink box of the LA shop, the older cousin of Joburg’s drive-by culture. The structure was resolved as a singular system that kills all birds with one stone, allowing the pink glass box to cantilever off the original shell, floating free.

Several years previously, I designed the Gallery Momo – nearby on 7th Avenue. Being an architect concerned with thematic conceptual development through my body of work, I’d like to draw some parallels between Gallery Momo and Paul Smith. Apart from the fact that the buildings are near each other, and both derive from houses in commercialized suburban shopping strips, what interests me is the way that each messes with the word “container”, and with the words ‘display’ and ‘concealment’.

Momo, to some extents, is a suburban house turned inside out, its most prime contents turned to drive-by high speed display. A container, decipherable at speed.

Paul Smith, unlike Momo, is a kind of blind box – a mall prototype – a deaf mute — in bright pink glass, non-transparent. A floating mall in the trees. A branding exercise. No shop windows to speak of. The multi-coloured signage of the mall interior becomes here externalized in homogenized and uniform display – you could think of it as a largely blank billboard. Paul Smith has landed. A large pink wrapped parcel. A non-compromising gesture. A container. A sealed box. An exclusion. The interior and the wares are hidden, another Joburg secret.

I thought about Paul Smith in terms of the “imaginary of shopping for clothes”: the potential of the “new you”, the dislocation of that moment … mall blindness. Inside the shop you’ll find men’s wear at the ground level, a more prosaic space of belts and ties and shirts , and upstairs, the women’s wear hovers in a sort of ethereal pink glow … there is the possibility of a new world, a new me, a new you … all at vast expense of course. Exclusionary.

This is mall-ification – the myth, the dream world of the mall, the dislocated cyberspace of ultra capitalism. The language of the outer suburbs comes to town, comes to a small street, one where it is still possible to walk, to talk, to shop, to eat, to watch, to live. This building is not a solution – it is a game, played on an idea of Joburg culture.

This culture of Joburg: its knowingness, its insider knowledge, its mystique, its twin desires: display and concealment …. Its glittering, hard surfaces …. Its controlled entries .… Its paranoia …. Its hidden, and lush interiors …. Its mania for branding …. This building treats these things. But it treats them critically. It treats them in a way which does not threaten the street, which does not drain and suck the life out of it, which does not limit one’s access to one’s own city, which does not condemn one, endlessly, to the same. This building talks to landmark, to bearings, to navigation, to destination, to identity – to the eroticism of shopping, of flânerie. Of wondering what something hides. It speaks at once to its specific place: Joburg, and it speaks to the world.

This building exists in a global architectural reality of shops by architects. It speaks to individual choice, to the art of architecture, to a specific reading of culture, and the possibilities of place.

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A conversation between Sarah Calburn and Achille Mbembe on urban design and the post-apartheid city

Click here to open full PDF article

Achille Mbembe: I would like to start our conversation with a question on urban planning. Urban planning is not simply a product of the social organization of knowledge. How a society builds and arranges its urban space and environment also tells us something about the way it defines itself, its moral boundaries, its symbolic and cultural systems. When I first came to Johannesburg, having lived in Paris, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Dakar, it was as if the city was still paying the price of its originary congenital malformation, that is, its birth in the crucible of racial capitalism. It looked to me, then, as if apartheid urban planning was a mere translation of a dark public secret – Apartheid’s paranoia and primitive response to otherness. How would you characterize the state of urban planning or design in South Africa today?

Sarah Calburn: It seems obvious to me, as a spatial practitioner, that South African urban planning still acts largely to maintain our deep social divides, in the process rendering them increasingly irreparable. In the main, current development across the board is severely impoverishing our cities, our present and future selves. What we have currently in the guise of “urban design” appears merely as the progressive hardening of a calloused and damaged present that is inexplicably devoted to its calloused and damaged past. “Urban planning” in South Africa has not yet become “urban design”.

Could you elaborate on the difference between “urban planning” and “urban design”?

The act of “design” holds implicit the imagination of previously unimagined futures. If it is to be experimental and innovative, “design” demands the adoption of critical approaches that are able to open current problems to new potentials and solutions. One would think that the projection of a future scenario via “urban design” should be directed to the optimistic creation of urban space that can both frame and nurture a vibrant, diverse society in lively, meaningful and mutually respectful conversation both internally and in the world.

Crucially, “design” demands the adoption of altered points of view, of new ways of seeing and reading ourselves and our realities. It is only through these “recognitions” that we can start to imaginatively extrapolate ourselves, to build creatively on our own particular qualities and quantities. Urban design, thus, demands a re-imagination of who we are and who we might become. This pivotal attitude appears to be the missing factor in Johannesburg contemporary quest to be a “World Class City”.

What about planning?

Planning as we know it in this city is still directed to simplistic “problem-solving” via largely uncritical diagrammatisation of existing social relationships. It acts only to entrench historical spatial and societal divisions. The wide open flatlands of RDP housing (the Reconstruction and Development Programme initiated in the immediate aftermath of Apartheid) is only one of the pernicious examples that could be cited.

You speak as if nothing has changed since Meadowlands.

Indeed it seems physically as if nothing has changed except the quality of construction – which, terrifyingly, has worsened. The endless unrolling of the franchised urban environment is another example, made as it is of repetitive fortified enclaves and identical quasi-public shopping malls.

The net effect of these homogeneous and exclusive developments is that the public domain in Johannesburg has gone missing, presumed dead. Public terrain has been reduced to left over land; the traffic islands, the under-equipped pavements that make up the connective tissue of our cities. The very pre-condition of successful cities – a connective urban commonality – is so structurally weak that it cannot hold us together.

Without blaming everything on urban planning, could we then argue that instead of eliciting reactions of curiosity, astonishment and connectivity, the kind of urban planning we inherited from apartheid fuels anxieties, awakes aggressivity and fosters blindness?

It is clear to me that we still cannot see each other. We still do not know each other fifteen years after liberation. This is partly because there are no physical spaces in this city in which we can interact safely. There are no physical points of contact which are not considered threatening. We are eternally blinkered, both hiding and hidden from each one another in the franchised car-bound landscape, where the “public” is characterized as criminal simply because access is denied to everything except the left-over space. In these left-over spaces, you can be arrested for “loitering”, while the “private” glides seamlessly (windows tight shut) from guarded interior to guarded interior.

Spatially, politically, culturally and economically, it would appear that in the “new” South Africa, apartheid has morphed seamlessly into a noxious private-public divide. Separate development is alive and well in 21st century South Africa. It is dismayingly strange to note, now, the color coded parallel tracks in the visual metaphor of our failing “rainbow nation”.

Speaking of the public/private divide, historically we do have in this rugged and hard-edged city of Johannesburg a tradition of mass movements if not of “public-ness”. What do you make of this tradition?

The “public” in South Africa still seems to be characterized as “the Masses”. These are “the People” who, to a large extent, are still considered ungovernable, at least in their daily struggles for survival. The “private”, of course, are the elite – “us”. The language of both Apartheid and The Struggle, in equal and hideous measure, would still seem to pertain. Who are these people, these masses, if not us, the citizens who share this country, these cities, these suburbs and these roads?

Johannesburg managers have been trying to depict the city as a “world class city”. What is the meaning of this exercise?

This is in essence a febrile branding exercise that simplistically interprets an undigested fragment of received knowledge. A World Class City, I would presume, is identifiable as such: a unique externally accessible urban environment available to all; a city that is owned and made legible by its citizens; a city available to all whether from home or abroad.

Where in Johannesburg, I would ask, is this “World Class City”? In the walled-off-tree-lined streetscapes of Parkview? In the decaying and vibrant streets of the inner city? On the highways past ramshackle slums? In the lavish interiors of Sandton? In the abandoned industrial edges of Alexandra? In the paranoid communities of Diepsloot or Dainfern? In the flashy white elephants of our newly built stadia – these isolated icons entirely cut off from their surrounding communities? In the invisible streets of Soweto and Lenasia?

The carpet continues to be pulled from beneath our feet as whole areas are abandoned to decay, become subject to successive waves of immigration, are demolished or are radically and secretively redeployed. Previously accessible areas wall themselves off, become “no-go zones” to either “the masses” or “the elite”, and generally – in the wealthiest areas – give away, un-protesting, to all the hype and all the stereotype.

Let’s come back for a moment to the theme of urban design. You keep coming back to the question of accessibility and public-ness. You seem to suggest that apartheid has morphed into new forms of “separate development”. You seem to be gesturing to a different kind of city that would be a city of connectivity, a city founded on some notion of commonality and mutuality. Are you suggesting that urban design in our context and in view of our history is necessarily a political act?

If we aspire to some kind of common nationhood, it is time we find our “points of contact”, the clues that might allow us to build a common language, a common urbanity, a society in mutually sustaining motion. We urgently need to re-read ourselves out of our internalized attitudes of fight or flight. We need an exit strategy from the histories that continue to construct the urban landscape and the urban psyche through defensive tactics of aggrandizement and fortification and despair. Our task now is to find the mutualities that can open us out into positive, shared urban futures that can heal this divided nation.

You spoke of the quasi-absence of a public domain. But you also referred to Johannesburg as a city of “interiors”. Could you reflect a bit more about this dialectic of public-ness/private/interior and how it might help us to rethink the entire project of urban design in our own context?

When you think about it, it would be more accurate and productive to suggest that Johannesburg could call itself a “World Class Interior”. It is our interiors that form the spaces we consider safe. These are our historic spaces, hidden from the prying eye. These are the spaces in which we feel free to be who we are; in which we loudly voice our opinions. These are the spaces between which we are continually in motion, eyes wide shut. These are the spaces into which we usher, unctuously, our visitors.

Should we therefore re-conceptualize the notion of “public space” and re-invent public-ness itself as an extension or a refolding of the qualities of our interiors?

What stops us from considering urban landscapes as interiors? In my own work, I already conceive of interiors as landscapes. What stops us from changing our thinking to conceive of the public spaces of our city as large interiors in which we are all welcome? Can we move the strengths of our interior spaces out into the open?

Doesn’t this require some kind of shared language, knowledge or code? And if you are right about the density and richness of our interiors, wouldn’t this imply that part of what characterizes Johannesburg is something we could call its “cultures of the interiors” – a counterpoint to the negative definitions of the city we have dealt with so far in this conversation?

Spatially and architecturally, contemporary Johannesburg is a multi-layered polymorph of both visible and invisible cultures. Most of these cultures appear to exist entirely independently of each other. Interestingly however, the many identities of the city would seem to be characterized by what I would call simultaneous cultures of display and concealment. The city is not discoverable by its surfaces. Displays usually accompanied by security booms at varying scales of lock-out, and concealment requires either guts or the cultural/economic keys to penetrate. What is engendered in Johannesburg, then, is an exaggerated culture of “inside knowledge”.

This simultaneity is paradoxical, and witnessed by the following examples: the highly decorated entrances to gated villa complexes; the silence of a treeless field of RDP houses; the sign-dominated flat exteriors of shopping malls; the Ethiopian interiors of re-used CBD buildings; the impenetrable township maze; the no-expense-spared houses behind walls. The crux of the matter is that we, as a city and as a society, all deal in these coded conditions all the time. This is a common culture that once deconstructed and opened to critical scrutiny, could be used to beneficial strategic design effect in order to bring about a more balanced urban environment.

Concretely, how in your view could the culture you are describing form the basis of design strategies that could themselves help to reinvigorate the idea of the public and of the common?

This culture could form the basis of design strategies that take us towards new building form and space-making techniques that do not need to rely on the fence, the boundary wall or homogeneous zoning strategies as their only safe-guarding tactics. What needs to happen, then, alongside this kind of interrogation is a critical re-examination of the outdated Town-Planning regulations that still act to limit our urban forms and possibilities. Simply being able to build to the suburban street boundary using a mix of domestic, retail and public amenity could induce major urban strategic possibility. The public “pavement” sphere could undergo a major overhaul for the common good, while treating simultaneously both local conditions of display and concealment.

In our own work, Sarah Nuttall and I have defined Johannesburg not as a “world class city”, but as “an elusive metropolis” that nevertheless point to Afropolitan forms of urbanity. Could the trope of “Afropolitanism” become the other name of the kind of urbanities your own conception of design is pointing to?

We have numerous examples of a particularly Afropolitan urban commonality already in existence or in the making. The urban spaces of Hillbrow, Yeoville, Soweto and Alexandra all function at a number of levels simultaneously. Diverse yet integrated patterns of living, working and playing are all waiting to be identified and extrapolated into sustainable 21st century community-based urbanities. Depressingly, these patterns are regarded by most Johannesburgers as threatening, as uncontrollable and chaotic, simply because they are ramshackle and poverty-stricken and colour-coded. These patters appear hermetic and unreadable.

The fact of the matter is that these circumstances contain giant design cues towards the development of unique, Afropolitan and world-class architectural environments if only we could see them as such. Sustainable cities demand exactly these kinds of propinquities and feed-back loops, these “points of contact”, and we ignore our local examples at our own peril. The roll-out of RDP housing around Alexandra is nothing short of evil. It displays a crass blindness and disrespect shoved in the face of a community that has managed to maintain, against all odds, the rarest and most valuable inter-cultural, mixed-use core urban heritage.

You are advocating place-bound, local design solutions as a way to create the “points of contact” without which our cities will not be cities at all. Using the metaphor of “points of contact”, how do you evaluate the urban renewal strategies associated with the 2010 Soccer World Cup?

We have in fact had many of these opportunities in the last couple of years for the making of “points of contact”. The World Cup, the Gautrain and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transport) are the first truly “public platforms” that Johannesburg has consciously laid out in years. However, all these projects remain steadfastly independent of the adjacent available systems that might build urban commonality.

Why, for instance, does the BRT exist as a challenge to the taxi system? Why has it not forged adjacencies with parks, schools and public squares? Why has a study been commissioned to find out why the BRT doesn’t work? Why does the Gautrain end up re-fortifying the exclusive enclave of Rosebank? Why do the stadia leave the formation of ‘Fan Parks” out in the cold: panicky design solutions requested too late in the day to work properly? Why does the Street Soccer global event (free for audiences) held in Alexandra during the World Cup remain unpublicized? Why does the city not recognize that it is precisely through the solicitation of innovative architectural and urban thinking that we can build an Afropolitan World Class city?

Received models are not going to do the trick. We require some directed and lateral self-interrogation in order to rise above our general levels of mediocre expectation, lack of imagination and damaged selfhood into recognizable spheres of global innovation and design.

Do you see, in this current moment, any “point of contact” already in operation, or do we have to invent everything from scratch?

The main “points of contact” I see operating now are on the radio. On account of talk show hosts like Redi Direko and Tim Modise we have topical debates open for comment by all. And the “all” do comment, from their vastly differing points of view. A truly discursive society is a society in mutual motion, a society in mutual space. It can hardly be borne of societies contained in multiple landscapes of lock-out and threat, or cement itself through faceless individuals meeting solely in virtual scapes. Virtual discursive space is crucial, but how do we recognize each other in public? Without a conscious spatial construction of “points of contacts”, our cities can hardly be construed as cities at all.

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From Melrose Arch to RDP housing, from gated suburbs to shopping malls, SA architecture remains frozen in repressive apartheid-era paradigms. Sarah Calburn has had enough

When I look around at how architecture is making – or unmaking – the landscape of our cities and suburbs and townships, it is immediately clear that it is failing in what I conceive as one of its primary roles: that of the speculative, experimental and inspirational reframing of South African society post 1994.

From Tuscan villas to RDP houses, from gated housing developments to mall architecture and mock baronial office estates, the lack of an expressive and experimental architectural lexicon is visible across the board. If we are not condemned to brutally naked structure, we are beset by rapacious decoration.

Too often in wealthy South African suburbs, in the media and in the desires expressed by clients and developers, I see architecture reduced to the inane level of “style”, often warped beyond recognition – think “extreme makeover”. Architecture becomes “lifestyle” coupled with the lowest common development denominator. In the poor “suburbs”, I see architecture realised in the old and unacceptable paradigms: mute and repressive, anti-communal, anti-urban – an architecture unchanged, essentially, since the apartheid days.

In urban terms, architecture’s most complex – and simultaneously most basic – function is as the unit of urban strategy. But I do not see contemporary South African architecture addressing the wider community or expressing the legibility, accessibility and lively iconography that guarantee a world-class city. It neither actively encourages nor critically engages with the formation of an inclusive public domain.

The basic unit of urban strategy in Joburg seems to have become the palisade fence – considered acceptable because it is a “transparent” form of fortification. Architecturally speaking, these fences allow the current weak practice of architecture to continue unchallenged. Fences constitute an artificial separation of building from the urban domain. This separation acts to insulate architectural endeavour from the very challenging circumstances that might ensure its noteworthiness, its experimentation, its potential for formal and optimistic place-making.

I consider architecture an art, a complex technical and cultural and philosophical spatial language. Architecture is one of humankind’s most potent material manifestations, and is therefore extremely revealing of the way we conceive ourselves, the way we construct our particular places and selves and aspirations in time. As an architect, I see architecture naked and unashamed in its ability to expose our attitudes – both to ourselves, and to others.

If you think of architecture as landscape-forming and not simply as a container for style-driven interior decoration or as a fashionable (or not) means to keep the weather out, then you can see that it is not just the spatial medium in which we construct and house our desires and our necessities. It is also a kind of constant companion within and without which our very particular humanities are grounded and directed. Architecture quite literally frames our view, it conditions our seeing, it interferes with perception. It is, in other words, active in the formation of ourselves and our society.

This is why the RDP housing developments, the gated housing complexes, the quasi-public space of shopping malls and the endless unrolling of franchised and homogenised suburbs are so deeply cynical, so intrinsically dangerous to any real imagination of a new South African society. These architectures interfere with our seeing, they stifle our potentials as human beings participating in a democratic and public society.

Melrose Arch is possibly the most cynical of these developments. Presented as “public urban space”, it is essentially an unroofed and stylistically sanitised Montecasino. It is a theme park vision of Europe, a gated and exclusive alternative to the “dangerous” African CBD. The irony of the matter is that the African sensibility of the CBD is read as ungovernable. Yet it is built on flux, on flow, on connectivity, on trade – the very things on which the wider wealthy city builds itself. The wider city, that is – not Melrose Arch.

What we are still seeing in South Africa is a continuation of the historical regulating – an active crushing even – of the public domain. It was, after all, the overt relations between commercial and public interests that made the living urban landscapes of London or New York possible – both cities we continually defer to and long for in their evocation of what we think of as “cityness”. Ironically, these were the cities directly cited in the design campaign that generated Melrose Arch.

Architects in South Africa are generally seen to provide some sort of trade-related service, and they have handed over their historic prerogative as urban visionaries to developers and urban managers who rarely have any sort of architectural backgrounds or training. This is highly ironic given the contemporary global climate, in which architects have been raised to the highest profiles as makers of public art and public place.

South Africa has experienced a rapidly weakening public debate in architecture. As the philosopher Jean-Pierre de la Porte has put it, South African architecture has been put into the difficult position of “a public art without a public realm – other than in the imagination of the universities. Every imaginative revolt in art has been a strictly private matter: Battiss harbouring a republic in his backyard, Preller painting cosmopolitanism in private while Hlungwane addressed the multitudes in heaven. For most of their history, the South African state and the economy have been too tightly woven together to bother about legitimacy through public opinion.”

For all these reasons, it is time to challenge this particularly South African problem of “private vs public” – to put an end to complicity via private rebellion, to restore to architecture its many potentials. To this end, the Gauteng Institute for Architecture has initiated a series of monthly architectural design masterclasses entitled “Rapid Thought Transport: Architects Re-imagine Joburg”. The series aims to deliver a landscape of critical thinking, action and debate around future scenarios, alternative strategies and optimistic experimentations with Johannesburg that can engage all its cultures.

We would advance the idea – hardly new in the world beyond our borders – that architectural design should be considered a form of research. We need to begin some sort of experimental re-imagination of ourselves as “new” South Africans, of ourselves as thought-makers against (and in) the world at large. We are undoubtedly both, and have to read ourselves in both lights all the time.

ENDNOTE 1.The results of the masterclasses will be presented at public events held at David Krut Projects, Parkwood. All are invited. For more information, email sarah@sarahcalburn.co.za

ENDNOTE 2. Sarah Calburn is an architect in private practice. She writes as a committee member of the Gauteng Institute for Architecture