Spotlight South Africa: Three Designs Instilling Dignity & Defeating Stigma

Spotlight South Africa: Three Designs Instilling Dignity & Defeating Stigma
Mamelodi Pod, a home and temporary soccer club with solar electricity and rain water harvesting. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change

How do you undo centuries of inequality? How do you overturn an inequality so ingrained in a culture that it manifests itself physically - in the architecture of its homes and in the misshapen nature of its cities?

This is the question post-apartheid South Africa has been struggling to answer for the past twenty years. And while the government has made many concerted efforts, for far too many the situation has remained largely the same.

However, there are currents of change afoot. Many who have been marginalized are now working to defeat the stigma and legitimize their communities, and they are enlisting architects to the fray. From an organization in Capetown that aims to transform the role of the South African designer, to another in Johannesburg that uses design to legitimize informal architecture, to a project in one of the most violent townships in South Africa that has transformed a community, the following three projects are making a difference for the users who have the most to gain from their designs and design-thinking. All three represent not only the power of design to defeat stigma and instill dignity, but also the power of communities to incite these projects, make them their own, and enable them to thrive.

1to1 Agency of Engagement

Twenty years ago, in the wake of apartheid’s recent end, the South African government made great promises to the community of Slovo Park, an informal settlement ten kilometers south of the township of Soweto in Johannesburg. It promised to provide them with resources; to provide the services necessary to construct homes; to - perhaps most importantly - recognize this informal settlement as a legitimate, formal community. When those promises fell flat under mismanagement and “an alleged corruption scandal,” the blame was placed - not on the government - but on the community members themselves, who were described as “criminals” and subsequently threatened with eviction.

In the early 2000s, the situation remained largely the same as ever. The 4000 residents of Slovo Park founded the Slovo Park Community Development Forum (SPCDF) to combat the stigmas surrounding them, take their development into their own hands, and force the outside world to recognize theirs as a legitimate, humane community.

Plans for Slovo Park Community Center. Image Courtesy of Slovo Park Project Student Group 2010

In 2010, a small group of architecture students from the University of Pretoria began working with the SPCDF in order to facilitate design-build projects as part of their post-graduate studies. After an intense six weeks of participative research and discussion, the students and the community settled upon a design. From one on one discussions, one to one interviews, and, finally, 1:1 scale participative design-building, a community center and civic area was constructed on the site of a dilapidated Election Station, used in the election that ended apartheid in 1994. The design was intended to be a multi-phased incremental development, providing the immediate use of the meeting hall and public square, but to also allow for adaptations and additions to be developed over the long term. The 1to1 Agency of Engagement was born.

Models of Slovo Park Community Center. Image Courtesy of Slovo Park Project Student Group 2010

Today, according to director & co-founder Jhono Bennett, 1to1 “has evolved into a fully fledged non-profit entity that provides spatial design solutions to organised residents of poor or unsafe neighbourhoods in South Africa.” And while development in Slovo over the last four years has been slower than Bennett and his team would like, in the meantime, “the hall has provided a symbol of the unity that Slovo Park represents, a symbol to government bodies that often regard informal settlement communities as ungovernable criminals.”

Exterior of Slovo Park Community Center. Image © Jhono Bennet
Detail of Materials, Slovo Park Community Center. Image Courtesy of Slovo Park Project Student Group 2010

But while the organization certainly strives to identify issues and help residents improve their communities, what makes 1to1 unusual is its overall goal and strategy for sustainability: to tap into and transform the design community in South Africa. In Bennett's words:

“South African schools of architecture have a tradition of service learning projects in poor or unsafe areas dating back to the politically charged atmosphere of 1980's in South Africa such as Ian Louw's work in Lesotho, Lone Poulsen's projects in Gauteng (old Transvaal) and Rodney Harbers work in Kwa-Zulu Natal,” says Bennett, “Spatial design students we have been in contact with are hungry for ways to engage with our country’s larger re-development […] with 1to1 we hope to institutionalize the development of empathetic, effective and better equipped ‘socio-technical' design practitioners in South Africa.”

Slovo Park Community Center. Image © Jhono Bennet

Video of Waterborne © Ingmar Buchner, Alexander Melck, Jhono Bennett

Architecture for a Change

Anton Bouwer, Dirk Coetser and John Saaiman - the trio who make up Architecture for a Change - are just such practitioners.

“Our passion for architecture and the profession grew from experimental projects we did as students, getting our hands dirty and learning from experience,” Coetser tells me. 

The transition unit is designed to suit its context, but to be an improved contemporary version. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change

The three concentrate their efforts in the dense, informal settlements of zinc shacks surrounding Johannesburg, where infrastructural facilities - such as electricity and running water - are shared between homes. Due largely to the high levels of unemployment, the settlements suffer from high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. “Our goal is to create change through architectural intervention. We believe that the people who can benefit the most from design are the people who can’t afford it.” 

The philosophy, Coetser says, is about “learning from the informal environment instead of imposing ideas onto communities.” 

Because of this, and also to instill a sense of ownership of the interventions, the trio relies heavily on the community’s input and participation: all designs are presented to the community for their feedback and finished only when consensus is achieved.

But many community-led projects follow a similar protocol — what makes Architecture for a Change unique is how they manage to manifest their philosophy into the designs themselves, incorporating the language of the local, informal architecture into their designs in order to legitimize it. As Coetser told me: “There is a stigma within informal housing in South-Africa that ‘real’ buildings are constructed from masonry. Our designs challenge that notion by using materials that are readily available and easy to use in informal settlements.” In one of their projects, a solar-powered bakery, community members were paid to bring glass bottles to site and then taught how to make bricks from them (a technique that has since been reproduced by community members for other projects). By making shack-like, locally-sourced structures that both perform far better than many mason constructions and fit into their context, Architecture for a Change’s designs implicitly suggest that the local context is just as legitimate as any other.

Bottle bricks were manufactured by the community to construct some of the walls of the solar-powered bakery. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change
The building was designed to accommodate a solar oven for the purpose of baking bread. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change

Moreover, the designs incorporate inexpensive sustainable innovations. Most of Architecture for a Change's projects include solar panels and rainwater harvesting devices, which means the structures can exist without needing to plug into the local (insufficient) infrastructures. “People mostly don’t have electrical power, which then leads to shack fires and many other health hazards (due to the use of fire for light and heating). A simple solar light completely eliminates these possible hazards. People usually share communal taps for water. The supplement of a water harvesting system provides much ease for occupants as they don’t have to carry buckets of water for long distances…these features provide the users with a sense of pride.”

And although Architecture for a Change has completed only four projects so far, the trio has many more on the horizon, including a school in Malawi and a community church currently being crowdfunded (with XX days to go) on Make Architecture Happen. We “take on a range of projects,” Coetser explains, “not refusing an opportunity but regarding every project as a challenge through which we can experiment and set new boundaries in the world of design.”

Render for the Community Church of Zandspruit, currently being crowdfunded at Make Architecture Happen. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change
Render for the Community Church of Zandspruit, currently being crowdfunded at Make Architecture Happen. Image Courtesy of Architecture for a Change

Architeture for Humanity & VPUU

Like Slovo Park’s community center and Architecture for Change’s solar-powered bakery, the Khayelitsha community center uses design to make a difference. What sets it apart, however, is its participation in a larger, long-term strategy of urban transformation.

Khayelitsha Football for Hope Centre. Image Courtesy of Open Architecture Network

Football for Hope is a large-scale alliance, established by FIFA and streetfootballworld and supported by Architecture for Humanity, targeting education and public health issues (via football-oriented developments) in socio-economically challenged neighborhoods across 14 countries in Africa. But despite its scope, Football for Hope functions locally, sending architects to live and work on-site to collaborate with reliable grassroots organizations and work with the community via focus groups, charrettes, public meetings, and exhibitions.

Tarrafal Football For Hope Centre, Cape Verde. Image Courtesy of Open Architecture Network

Darren Gill, Regional Program Manager with Architecture for Humanity, explains, “When good design, and construction, is included, it ... creates places that people can be proud of. The immediate impact is dignity.”

For the community center in Khayelitsha, one of the most violent settlements in Capetown, Football for Hope paired up with the Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading Program (VPUU), an organization that had been working in the area since 2005. Implementing a strategy of ‘urban acupuncture,’ they worked with the community to carefully determine and map the hotspots of violent crime - the places where design could make the greatest difference for the community. Thus, the Khayelitsha Centre, constructed in 2010, is just one of a number of community hubs, open 24/7 thanks to community volunteers, that run every 500 meters along a relatively safe, well-lit and paved route throughout the township.

The long-term impact in Khayelitsha has been tangible: in almost ten years, the township’s murder rate has dropped 33%. While crime rates in general have decreased, access to health, education, and economic opportunities are on the rise.

Kimisagara Football for Hope Centre, Rwanda. Image Courtesy of Open Architecture Network

The lesson Darren Gill, and Architeture for Humanity, take away from this success, is that the architect’s role in these projects must be to facilitate - ultimately, it is the community itself who must take ownership of and ensure the longevity of the design. And this means taking the time to listen to what the community wants, needs, and will be able to maintain. As Darren reminds me:

“The right answer is the one that comes from the people on the ground, and getting to the right answer can take time. Many architects are accustomed to a client that makes demands, whereasin this environment you need to invest time to build trust and harness ideas. Yes, it will consume more time now when everyone is screaming at you to just get the damn thing built, but ultimately it will save you time, money and disappointment later.

Plus, at the most basic level, having the users actively involved helps with ongoing building maintenance, i.e. when something goes wrong or breaks or needs to be expanded - and it will at some stage - the users have a better appreciation for the design intent and how to go about fixing, expanding etc. As architects we need to embrace the continued development of our work rather than pretending that our work will be fixed in time once the construction is complete.”

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Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Spotlight South Africa: Three Designs Instilling Dignity & Defeating Stigma" 06 Jun 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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