Fixing a Road in Johannesburg: 26'10 South Architects on Informal Architecture

This interview first appeared in Assembly, a new magazine that ArchDaily contributor Sarah Wesseler is working on.

According to the United Nations, 1 billion people currently live in slums. Over the next two decades, this figure is expected to double. In recent years, slums (also known, more neutrally, as informal settlements) have increasingly attracted positive attention from academics and design professionals impressed by their efficient deployment of scarce resources, community-based orientation, and entrepreneurial vitality. Architect Rem Koolhaas celebrated the slums of Nigeria in his 2008 book Lagos: How It Works, while Teddy Cruz has become well known for his work with shantytowns on the U.S.-Mexico border. And no less a traditionalist than design enthusiast Prince Charles, prone to harsh public attacks on contemporary architecture, has championed Dharavi, the Mumbai neighborhood portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire, praising its “underlying, intuitive ‘grammar of design’” in a 2009 speech.

Detractors claim that these and similar attempts to examine the slums through the lens of design romanticize poverty and ignore the sociopolitical forces responsible for their creation and proliferation. However, although some projects involving informal design are doubtless better conceived than others, in general there can be no real question that it is appropriate for architects and planners to concern themselves with a phenomenon fundamentally tied to design-related issues such as land use, infrastructure, and materials. And given the failure of so many top-down modernist schemes for housing the poor over the past century, it is logical for the profession to turn its attention to a housing model which continues to mushroom organically around the globe: the shantytown.

An ongoing research project being carried out by 26’10 South Architects, a young South African firm headed by husband-and-wife architects Thorsten Deckler and Anne Graupner, provides an interesting look into this type of work. The couple have spent the past year and a half studying the spatial dynamics of Diepsloot, a Johannesburg suburb created in 1994 to house the poor. Today, approximately three-quarters of Diepsloot’s residents live in slums.

The interview after the break.

Graupner, a native South African, and Deckler, a Namibian transplant, divide their time between work with informal communities and conventional design commissions for a middle-class clientele. With the second-highest income distribution inequality in the world, South Africa provides sufficient opportunity for both. Although the nation does possess a strong, albeit small, middle class, half of South Africans live below the poverty line. In Johannesburg, the nation’s largest city, some estimates put the number of families living in shantytowns at over 200,000.

South Africa’s housing troubles have deep historical roots. The apartheid government enforced geographic separation between ethnic groups, forcibly relocating nonwhites to undesirable areas without basic infrastructure or services. Grim tracts of dormitory-like dwellings were erected for a portion of the population, while the remainder was left to fend for itself. When Nelson Mandela came to power in the mid-90s, the government pledged to provide adequate housing for all citizens. Through the Reconstruction and Development Programme, it provided subsidies to developers to build homes for the poor. Although the program has moved over a million families out of the slums into buildings known as RDP houses, its reputation is mixed. There is an enormous backlog for housing, with waiting periods of over a decade not uncommon. And even for those lucky enough to obtain a house, quality of life may or may not improve substantially. Not unlike the government housing that came before them, many RDP houses are tiny, barrack-like structures located far from transportation and employment centers and lacking in social amenities. Poor design and construction practices have been endemic throughout the program’s history; a 2000 study found that only 30 percent of new dwellings complied with building regulations. And even with the subsidies, limited employment opportunities mean that many residents struggle to pay for utilities and maintenance.

For 26’10 south, the failings of government housing are most productively examined from the perspective of South Africa’s informal communities. Because their residents have built the shantytowns themselves, making their own decisions about how best to meet their needs using available resources, the communities provide valuable insight into what actually works for Johannesburg’s poor.

I spoke to Graupner and Deckler in January.

Can you give me a brief overview of your work with informal architecture?

TD: On many levels it’s a thing you’re just confronted with. I think any architect or urban planner anywhere in the world needs to deal with informality. What makes cities really exciting and amazing is that they have people in them who are unpredictable and just do stuff. In a sense the city is a formal system, but the informal is an equal part of it. That makes the dynamic of a city.

In South Africa, this form of informality is viewed with prejudice. There are many emerging cities, many new emerging realities, that have arisen parallel to the modernist city. We have all these incredible, vital living environments that are self-constructed to a large degree. They’re not without problems, but I think they just make South African cities, or African cities, more interesting. There’s good weather, people come outside and they trade, they talk, they eat, they play, they sing, they dance. It’s got that kind of vibrancy that to me is part of informality.

The informal should really give city planners and architects strong clues about how people, within their limited field of choice, make the best decisions for themselves. People are incredibly resourceful in exploiting the lack of formal control, making ends meet with often minimal means. I think there’s quite a malaise that we as professionals suffer if we believe we know what we’re doing after a certain period of study or work. I’ve not physically built my own house, whereas some people have already reconstructed their own home several times over in the informal economy. There’s incredible potential for more of an exchange without so much prejudice between formal and informal modes of operating. In a sense, the state just illegalizes the informal because they see it as backward, something that needs to be eradicated—that’s the language they use. Meanwhile, people have, at hardly any cost to the state, constructed their own city and housed themselves, which is quite incredible when you think about it.

How did the research project in Diepsloot come about?

TD: The particular project that we’re busy with grew out of previous projects. We got a reputation as architects who create cultural events, or cultural meaning. So we were approached by a German cultural institution, the Goethe Institut, in Johannesburg. Two years ago they had the theme of urbanism for their cultural activities, and they heard about the stuff we were doing and said, we’ve got some money for you to do a project. We didn’t really know what to do, so we eventually just said, okay, we’ll record a piece of an informal city in minute detail, as architectural drawings, to represent it back to the professional fraternity—a provocation of sorts.

And now it’s evolved into quite a big research project with various other members and institutions—the University of the Witwatersrand and a social housing institution, SHiFT—that are collecting data on formal housing approaches and analyzing it in terms of the dynamic of an informal city. The informal city has a certain density, a certain flexibility, and a certain economy, and the formal approaches that are currently being implemented struggle to deal with this. We’re doing a study on how well they are dealing with it.

How well they’re dealing with formal housing, you mean?

TD: Yes. A few years ago, in 2001, the backlog for government housing was 2.5 million houses. And almost ten years later, the backlog is sitting at slightly more than 2.5 million, but 2 million formal houses were constructed in that period. There’s one picture that I sent you that shows a typical formal approach to housing by the state—not much different than the housing projects that nonwhites were forced to live in under apartheid, and perpetuated now in a democratic dispensation! It’s the easiest thing for the state and consultants to do, and it also ties into aspirations of people that have previously been marginalized—the El Dorado of success is a freestanding house on a piece of land. So that’s kind of what we’re stuck in at the moment: shrunken mansions.

And so you’re making recommendations for ways to improve the formal program—is that the ultimate goal?

TD: Yes, ultimately what we’d like to do is to have a very public platform to raise public and professional debate. We’re working on a Web site as well as an exhibition for September, when there’s a major architecture festival after the 2010 World Cup. We’d just like to raise the level of debate with institutions that educate architects as well as the public and the government role-players. In the process we are also educating ourselves.

Are you working directly with the city in your studies?

TD: Yes. Currently—you’re going to laugh at this—the Department of Housing has two official housing types, and they’re not very dissimilar to the picture I showed you. So we are working with the Johannesburg Development Agency, the implementing department of the local authority, on urban renewal projects.

The research that we launched came out of a frustration of working for the city on some projects in an informal settlement. The particular project which led to the research was a commission to fix this road going through a squatter’s settlement. It was eroded and people had settled in the road reserve. We realized that the washed-away road was just a symptom of all the things that were wrong with the place, so fixing the road was like putting a plaster on a festering wound.

This is where it began—just a struggle to figure out what the hell you’re doing and not trusting the client’s brief because it felt really dubious. And so we stalled the project from our side and then got involved with the Goethe Institut in this parallel research.

Can you tell me more about the road?

TD: The road is one of the busiest movement routes through what is known as Reception Area, a dense informal settlement. A lot of businesses have sprung up along its edges. People have been quite resourceful at making a living, and they’ve happened to locate themselves within the road reserve. That’s illegal according to our client, the city. We explained to them that if they would fix this road in the name of economic development they would disrupt this quite delicate economy that has grown over several years, possibly a decade. And once they fixed this road it would not last very long because the storm water and sewage that flows through this area collects on it, and that’s why it has become eroded. So we essentially said we don’t want to do a politically expedient project that’s not going to last.

The solution—all the things the city actually has to address: the question of housing, the question of services, the question of storm water, really basic infrastructure questions—will take much longer to coordinate. So that’s the reason the project has stalled. But this has led us to be appointed to now do a framework for the entire Diepsloot area, which comprises about 150,000 people. So by being a little bit, how should we say, principled, or a bit hardcore—or naive—we ended up with a much bigger project that we’re trying to figure out how to do. This could quite possibly be one of the most difficult projects in South Africa.

What was your methodology for the research?

TD: We sort of just made it up as we went along. In order to do the drawings, we established a contact person and he accompanied us everywhere we went. We worked with some young students from the local university. They went in and spoke to people, interviewed people, asked them if they could take photographs and draw their houses. That was the first phase. The next phase was a studio-type environment where we worked with various senior planners and architects, as well as a development consultant for the World Bank and other young, interested architects. We came up with three new housing typologies which incorporated lessons learned from the dynamics of Diepsloot.

AG: The initial goal for the project was to explain to the client why we felt we couldn’t just do a surface treatment, because it would have an impact on the economy and individuals and families and people’s livelihood. By showing them how a seemingly chaotic fabric actually works, and that it’s actually highly organized, we could convince them that there is a different strategy to be taken.

TD: And that different strategy is what’s up in the air right now. We’re busy writing a set of recommendations that have to be finished in March this year. We’re fortunate in that a development forum has been set up upon our recommendation, meaning all the relevant city departments are sitting around one table to try and coordinate their efforts in addressing the problems of Diepsloot.

Were the Diepsloot residents you approached for the study enthusiastic about participating?

TD: They were a little bit apprehensive because a lot of them have an illegal status in terms of citizenship, so they’re—I wouldn’t say persecuted, but they’re not really welcome in South Africa from an official point of view. So we had to try to explain what we were doing quite carefully and put them at ease. The people were amazing, just incredibly open and generous. That is a key thing I find in living in Johannesburg, which is a fairly harsh environment: the people always surprise you with disarming openness in sharing things.

And you stayed primarily on one street?

TD: Yeah, it was a one-hectare area around that street that we were supposed to fix {Ndimatsheloni Street}.

Can you explain the image with the toilet?

TD: There’s that image, and then one that shows the whole area that is affected by these types of communal toilets. Those lines are actually streams of daylight sewage—if you add them all up, they come to about seven kilometers. And there are about 25,000 people living in this area.

This project is something we just did on the side. We heard about this competition called the First Fix Competition, and we entered to try to generate some other approaches for this project that’s been a little bit frozen because of the complexity of it. We were aware that Johannesburg Water, which is a city department, was going to rectify the situation of the daylight sewage by replacing the broken toilets with new ones—essentially perpetuating a failing system.

We found that people who take care of the toilets in their street would sometimes charge a fee to people not from their street. So we came up with the idea of looking at infrastructure as more than just infrastructure, as a business offering additional services such as light (by burning bio gas), hot water, social space, retail, etc.

We developed a hierarchy of three scales of intervention. The small one went around the existing toilet pods, which, with two solar collectors, would be able to sell hot water, which would cost marginally less than it would cost to heat using coal or paraffin. And then the next one was essentially two bathrooms with a shop, and again hot water. And then the bigger one was really like a little city which has a gym and a nursing point and shops and proper bathrooms where you can soak in a bathtub. So what we’re trying to do is create an economy around that service point that would also provide jobs for people in that area—and ensure the maintenance of the facility, which is actually the root cause of the problem.

This project was very much informed by how the neighborhood works spatially and programmatically. I can show you a few examples. If you look at this image carefully you’ll see a little plan, a little door. It’s almost just one meter by one meter, so four feet by four feet—that is the shop, and the rest, about five times that, is sheltered public space. If you go there, you can meet with your friends, you can sit in the shade, there’s furniture, there’s conversation—you know, there’s wit and jokes. But you have to buy something from the shop. So in the absence of a defined, functioning public realm, people have created it. Maybe like an extreme form of capitalism at the end of the day, but they’ve taken on ownership of it. So we’ve tried to see it that way, with people taking on ownership of the service facility.

And then another one, Eunice’s snack stall. It’s really small, but this lady’s putting her kids through school. She’s built this herself; she’s created a minimal shelter. I’m not saying it’s great—she’s complaining about not having a secure storage space and having to take her wares home after business hours—but the ripple effect that it has for a family is of a mother actually being able to provide for her children’s education.

The next one is what we call Sydney’s yard, which is the actual building block of the area—they’re called yards, and people have settled sort of around the perimeter of the yards in a communal setup. In a quite violent and desperate society this communal yard is a fairly effective way of living because of the defensible space you’re creating. So we also looked at that in terms of creating the bigger bathhouse. It has a mixed function of a small shop, but also once you’re inside you’re in a fairly safe, controlled environment.

And from what you were saying I’m assuming that the government plan with the one-house, one-plot approach, doesn’t have that sort of protected space?

TD: No, not really. It does eventually happen, over time, when people construct rental rooms in their yard. But this isn’t very usable space because the formal house is situated in the middle of the plot, actually specifically in order to prevent accruement of informal rooms.

In the 60s in Zimbabwe, outside Harare, by some strange fluke of British town planning they built the usual little houses as semi-detached cottages, so they shared a boundary and a wall, leaving a large space around three sides of the house. And that enabled people to construct the most amazing communal spaces for their extended family or for tenants. If people made enough money and stabilized their income through the rents, they would demolish some of the shacks and extend their houses. The interesting thing is that Robert Mugabe has had this crusade, Operation Murambatsvina, in which he destroyed this suburb because—well, it was like a slum in his eyes. But I went there before, and it was absolutely fantastic.

Had you worked with other government bodies or policy organizations in previous jobs?

TD: We work with a range of government departments. There’s the Provincial Department of Housing, the city’s Housing Department, and of course the JDA, Johannesburg’s implementing agency, a department which develops and constructs mainly urban renewal and critical infrastructure projects. On smaller projects we work directly with community organizations.

The work Anne does on frameworks engages the relevant city departments and local community organizations in a consultative process. Anne, do you want to explain what those are?

AG: A lot of the Johannesburg Development Agency’s projects involve deciding what needs to be done in certain areas. So normally one starts out with urban development frameworks, and within that one has to give guidance to the JDA as to what projects could be catalytic in the area to spark local economies and uplift the communities. So you almost define a brief for all the departments that would potentially get involved as to what has to be done. You create a holistic vision for a certain part of the city, and that goes through the mayoral committee. They then decide how much expenditure will be done in the next financial year and link it out for new tenders, resulting in some of the projects being implemented.

TD: On your question of if we work with policymakers, we are starting to. The irony is that the housing policy is actually not that bad. It has recognized that this one size fits all or one house per plot approach is not working. But the scale, and the role of the industry in collusion with politicians, has resulted in a certain type of housing approach. It’s very difficult to sway the boat. They’re on a course we call the size race. A government official in one province would say, hey, I’m now building a subsidized unit of forty-five square meters, and a guy in another province will go, well, I can actually built this at fifty.

AG: The one-house, one-plot approach is so entrenched that a lot of education has to be done with regards to higher-density living in order to deal with urban sprawl. Johannesburg is very much based on the one-house, one-plot fabric. Not the inner city, but all the suburbs. Especially if you go to the north of the city, we have a very big problem with traffic—one house, five cars or one house, four cars. So we’re really dealing with these problems as well.

In the inner city of Joburg, now a lot of old buildings that used to be office buildings are being converted to new housing. To have new housing developments in the inner city is very new for Johannesburg.

Who’s living in the new downtown developments? What’s the overall demographic and geographic spread of things in Johannesburg? Are the slum areas all in the suburbs?

TD: We got this amazing map from a book called The Atlas of Apartheid. It’s a diagram made of Johannesburg during apartheid. This whole book is images of how city planners visualized the segregated city. Joburg in a sense is still living through that history. New upwardly mobile African people are moving into previously white areas, but largely the demographics of apartheid are still in place. But the inner city’s really the melting pot, and that’s where the kind of wholesale handover or exchange took place. The city was previously white-inhabited, by white businesses and white apartments, but is now almost exclusively black.

And is it middle class, the city center?

TD: It ranges. You have a block that some creative developer’s now marketing for really wealthy individuals, and two blocks down you have a squatted office block with fifteen people living in what was a modernist bachelor flat. So it’s very much in the sway, in this sort of crazy period where there are incredibly jarring contrasts.

AG: Yeah, there are parts of Joburg where you’ll just hear French. It’s people coming from central Africa; the whole of Africa’s represented in Johannesburg. And it’s block-wise and street-wise, so you can go to a Congolese area, you can go to a Nigerian area. That’s really what’s happening downtown. And then there are also parts where—the Johannesburg Development Agency, for example, has created something called a cultural precinct, and there are theaters and jazz venues and a big space where we have cultural festivals. And then everybody, people from the white suburbs or previously Indian areas or African people, all come together to enjoy music. That’s really where the sort of democratic city happens.

TD: And also in the northern suburbs, where the white enclaves were—you know, leafy, low-density, American-type suburbs. There’s an area we particularly don’t like to go to because there’s heavy traffic and it’s built in sort of a strange pastiche of Tuscany. But it’s really also where the new generation of South Africans, irrespective of their background or race, are settling. So it’s actually quite diverse. It’s very interesting. We still believe very much in the inner city, but if you look at these kind of non-places—suburb, office park, shopping mall—this is where the new middle class is emerging.

There is a recent shopping mall that was developed in that area. It’s modeled on an Italian square, but it’s got a roof over it, so it’s got this kind of fake sunset, a fake sky with painted clouds all bathed in a dusky twilight. Very, very artificial environment. I think they used a set building company from Los Angeles to do the final styling of the whole thing. So it’s a very weird way in which public space is being simulated there, but it’s also a place where the middle class is mingling, networking, and socializing.

AG: To go back to the diagram, I don’t know if you noticed, but there are sort of buffer zones and political barriers. Basically, with frameworks, a lot of the work we do is to reconnect roads and get rid of buffer zones, which are actually like servitudes, industrial zones, railway lines, etc. These elements were exploited to keep different cultural groups apart. And these buffer zones are areas of opportunity—that’s where we can connect areas together again. It’s land, and land is an opportunity. We’ve got a huge housing backlog, so if the piece of land belongs to the province or to the government, it can be used to fill a bit of the backlog.

TD: What’s also interesting is that those buffer zones in a sense are interstitial spaces that provide a lot of freedom for, let’s say, entrepreneurs in the informal economy. So this picture {see image with hubcaps}—well, it’s a particularly beautiful example of somebody having a temporary business. There’s a lot of this. You can’t romanticize it, but it’s people making a living, fixing exhaust pipes or cars or selling stuff, and they populate a lot of this kind of weird no man’s land.

You said that there were about 2 million people that needed housing ten years ago and that number is about the same today. Is that because of population growth, or because the housing that’s been built hasn’t worked out?

TD: It’s a combination of both: the continuation of an ineffectual housing model developed during apartheid and the tremendous population growth. There’s population growth as well as influx, particularly from southern African states—Zimbabwe in particular, because of the political situation. South Africa is perceived as a first-world place within Africa, with a first-world economy and opportunities, and as a springboard to Europe or the States. So there’s tremendous opportunity. Since apartheid ended, all the trade embargoes have also ended, so business has reestablished itself inside South Africa, including illegal businesses like crime. Joburg and Capetown have become focal points of the global drug trade.

And it’s my understanding that the government is obligated to provide housing for everyone—is that the case? Even immigrants?

TD: That’s a very good question, and it’s one that we’re currently banging our heads against the wall with, because the state subsidy system only applies to South African citizens. That is a big problem. For instance, in this area where we were supposed to repair this road, the majority of the people there are actually from all over Africa, and also Asia. And if you’ve heard in the news about a year and a half ago about the xenophobic violence, a lot of it happened in that area.

So there was a recent tender that the government wrote which was modeled on the big slum in Bombay, Dharavi. I met with the government official at the tender briefing and they were saying, “This is really an innovative new model and we’re going to give you the land and you need to eradicate the shacks.” That was the sum total of the briefing, actually. The government perceives that they own this land, although families have been living there for fifteen years. It’s all very, very heavy-handed. Even the kind of mentality or attitude is a continuation of what we had in the past—very authoritarian, very top-down. This approach comes from not really knowing what to do, realizing that there are too many foreign non-qualifiers.

Although in terms of policy, the intentions are really amazing. I mean, if you read project briefs you think you’re living in the most wonderful place on earth, because they’re so ambitious and open-minded. But on the implementation level, the people that have to deal with the everyday reality of their city tend to do so in a very authoritarian manner. There’s a huge lack of capacity across all sectors of society and industry through so many skilled people having emigrated. In addition, the apartheid state had a separate education policy for African people to intentionally keep them in a vast labor pool for white-dominated industry. The effects of this do not change overnight, even with affirmative action and black economic empowerment policies in place.

Is the situation in Johannesburg similar to other areas in the country?

TD: I would say it’s most acute in Joburg because it’s the biggest city.

Have you found a lot of support for what you’re doing with this project?

TD: We’ve found some interest. We haven’t been pushing it too much into the public life, but I guess this will happen now. We would really be quite happy to connect with anyone looking at similar problems in their own countries. The toilet project, for instance, was inspired by a communal toilet block in Kibera, Nairobi. There are local universities here doing interesting work. And the work of the Elemental group in Chile has obviously been an inspiration—{Elemental Principal} Aravena might be giving a symposium at the Architecture ZA festival being organized in September in Johannesburg. At this event we will be responsible for a small part of a bigger project called Habitat which deals with the question of housing. We’ve come up with an exhibition concept that we will be developing and trying to find more money for. That’s the next challenge. We actually found our initial funding from the Goethe Institut under the guise of doing an art project, because we’re not necessarily perceived as people who need funding in our context. Architects generally service a rich sector of the population and make enough money off that.

Does your work on the slum areas have relevance to similar spaces in neighboring countries? Is there a connection between the situation in South Africa and other African countries?

TD: There’s certainly a big similarity in challenges across the global south, actually, and into Africa. And the Web site we’re working on we’re hoping to link to a Wikipedia-type platform that the World Bank is developing. It’s a platform where a panel of experts drawn from across the globe addresses issues of housing and urbanism and urban renewal, specifically targeted at people having to manage African cities, because Africa’s one of the most rapidly developing urban scenarios in the world, obviously.

We have just started and we’re running this normal practice on the side, having to do houses for clients and shop interiors. The things that we’re passionate about are not all that rewarding in terms of money, at least for now. So we need to run this other animal on the side. But I think the most beautiful realization that I have made, personally—after studying architecture very much in the Western idiom, where you’re constantly referred to a library of great architects to whom you always feel inferior—is that none of the architecture that we’re busy with in this research study are award-winning buildings that would ever make it onto ArchDaily. Yet the environments created, spatially and programmatically, often surpass what the formal sector, aided by professionals with degrees, has managed to create.

Where our office is, Fietas, used to be one of the most vibrant areas of Johannesburg and one of the most tolerant communities. If you don’t go into its history to figure it out, it’s a big mystery why it worked. But once you look at it and speak to people about it, your point of view as an architect changes quite drastically. It’s quite liberating. Fietas was essentially bulldozed during apartheid, but we’ve had a lot of public events in our office, with the assistance of a local university, to figure out what made the area such an incredibly tight community. You realize that Fietas was special not just because of its diversity of cultures but that the relationship between people was influenced, positively, by the actual built fabric. The buildings were not remarkable, but they had positive scale, a direct relationship with the street with mediating thresholds. The area was dense and hence the street became public space. All the things New Urbanism talks about people already instinctively knew and constructed. We have forgotten, apartheid has swallowed this history.

Can you tell me about the cinema project you worked on in Soweto?

TD: Yes. And that’s the project we formed our working relationship approach around. It was really down to budget—basically there was just no money. What we were asked to do is reinvent or reimagine this building that was a cinema for many years in Soweto. For forty-eight years it was really a cultural meeting point, and also the social life of the community. It was burned down and the building was stolen, literally, in a couple of weeks. It was just ripped apart. Once it was set alight people just recycled the building into their own houses. The context that we had to work in was mind-boggling. You very much start to question your role as architect as you experience the fragility of the context.

We designed a scheme that was really additive, that could be done over many years, in phases, and tied to more cultural events. And even for that there wasn’t money. And we just thought, well, the sessions we had in our office, we’ll just transfer some of them to Soweto in order to recreate the place of cultural happening. And so weirdly, the site sort of regained its cultural significance. And then it got its own life again, and people started performing in it again.

Are they still using it?

TD: Not really. We had been lobbying the city government to at least secure the ruin, which they haven’t done, and the community itself has eventually decided to destroy it because at night it was a very dangerous place. So the front part of the ruin’s now collapsed.

It’s a spectacular failure in many regards, but it also taught us some very valuable and hard lessons—you know, the limits of architecture and how it can actually just become a big liability sometimes. The building has to be staffed, programmed, managed, and this takes skill and money, which was exactly the lack. So we realized that in this context buildings and institutions need to grow around people’s needs and capacity, they need to evolve and be more adaptable. This is a fundamentally different insight into architecture which is taught, practiced, and mythologized as timeless, fixed, and finite.

It’s not a problem unique to South Africa. We were at a conference in London where a bunch of artists complained about exactly that. The government-sponsored Bilbao effect requires this spectacular building and these grand institutions, but it swallows up so many resources that could actually be used to stimulate real cultural invention. And in the South African case we have some real new hybrid post-apartheid identities to be formed. It’s not in the Tate Modern where new culture gets created, or the Guggenheim. That’s where established culture is portrayed. But new culture is created in the very in-between spaces, the most unlikely spaces. And it’s created by people, not by buildings.

AG: The main concept of that project was that the architecture follows the program. It’s not like the white elephant where you first have the building and then you try and put the program in. The idea was basically starting with the artifacts that were found on-site, just securing the ruin and leveling the floor. We worked on a dance and film program over five years that would increase in density and that would also sort of emerge. But unfortunately we could not get anybody to sponsor the money to secure the ruin. In fact, available city resources were all tied up in the construction of a symbolic square being built nearby to commemorate the signing of the Freedom Charter in 1956.

Therefore we ended up just painting a wall white and having a mobile film resource unit projecting movies. And it was absolutely magical, and exactly what the community asked for—it was bringing the cinema back to the area. It didn’t actually need a building, it just needed a projector and a film. If we had waited for the funding that never arrived there would never have been another film shown on this site.

That was a very important lesson for our practice. Architects are all trained to design these icon buildings all the time, but in fact one has to take a step back and think, what does the community need, and what can actually have the biggest impact with the minimal resources to be spent?

TD: I mean, we’d love to do slick buildings. Actually it’s a great kick. But at the end of the day we want to do something that—

AG: Is relevant.

TD: Yeah. And you find that if you’re a professional, your obligation goes beyond putting something together on time and on budget. You need to make sure that you are really addressing the issue that led to you being appointed in the first instance.

About this author
Cite: Sarah Wesseler. "Fixing a Road in Johannesburg: 26'10 South Architects on Informal Architecture" 23 Jun 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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