National

Design won't save the world ... or will it?

Verashni Pillay

A designer builds a "kennel-like" shelter for a homeless woman and liberals cry foul. But is it a helping hand or an assault on human dignity?

There is a T-shirt that has raised the ire of those who understand the mentality of those who wear it: “Design will save the world,” it reads, in caps.

It wasn’t long before a rejoinder started doing the rounds on the internet.

“Design won’t save the world,” it said in similar large black letters. A helpful tip in smaller type added: “Go volunteer at a soup kitchen, you pretentious fuck.”

But Cape Town designer Luke Pedersen (29) may have just managed to do both. His “design solution” for Sina, as the homeless woman on his street is known, has seen Pedersen both commended—and criticised.

The 2000mm x 900mm shelter made of plywood and corrugated polycarbonate was built by Pedersen in a single day in 2009. For a year after the death of her husband left Fransina Porter alone on the streets of Woodstock, a revitalised suburb some 3km from the centre of Cape Town, Pedersen mulled over what he could do for her. He couldn’t afford to rent a room for Porter, but he thought he could still provide her with a small space, somewhere dry and warm to sleep as winter approached—and help her store her things.

Design of the times
Two years later, and Pedersen’s structure made it onto the website set up as part of Cape Town’s bid to win the title of World Design Capital by 2014. The DA-run city’s bid for the title, which it later won, was itself contentious—with questions raised about the costs of the venture and whether it was truly inclusive.

And the article itself has attracted its share of disgusted comments online, becoming a symbol for some of the city’s attitude towards the poor and marginalised.

“Am I the only one to think that this is unbelievable??” read one comment. “Seriously! This is Capetonians at their best!? Designing a dog box for people ... wake up, this is dreadful! If she was that loved by the neighbourhood, you would all have chipped in and made a plan for her to get a decent house: with a bathroom and so on.”

“Very subtle indeed. A dog box for human beings. With weeping neighbours who won’t have to look at shacks whilst watching Top Billing on the terrace,” said another commenter, referring to remarks that the neighbours wept when they saw what Pedersen had done for Porter.

The Mail & Guardian received similar complaints about Pedersen’s venture, including a comment by an outraged reader in response to a piece on racism in Cape Town, submitted as further proof of how removed white Capetonians were from their situation.

But on closer inspection, the concerns appear to be emanating largely from middle class critics far removed from the situation.

High praise
Those closer to the issues had more praise for the initiative than reservations.

“We must commend the designer for [showing] such initiative,” said S’bu Zikode, the former president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organisation that campaigns in the interests of the residents of informal settlements in South Africa.

The ANC’s spokesperson on human settlements in the province, Khaya Magaxa, was likewise positive. “This is a lesson for all of us to learn and appreciate and love our neighbours, especially these very poor neighbours,” he said. “How do we sleep peacefully in our homes while some of our neighbours are wandering around outside in a very cold weather?”

Lofty praise coming from a firebrand politician, usually quoted lambasting the middle class and the opposition DA.

Zikode did point out that while Pedersen had been big-hearted in building the shelter on his own property, there were other basic rights—such as privacy—that were not being served. “But still, this is better than to be on the road without any shelter.”

And that seemed to be the consensus from experts on the topic: a pragmatic approach that overruled the delicate sensibilities of liberalism.

One of the most cutting comments beneath the original article zeroed in on Pedersen’s image. “I guess gentrification isn’t so bad, if you can get hipsters building doghouses for the homeless.”

Shallow hipster?
It’s easy to mock Pedersen as just another shallow hipster. In the photograph that accompanied the story online he confidently stands next to the tiny shelter sporting wayfarer sunglasses, skinny shorts and a V-neck shirt that might as well have a logo saying: “Design will save the world”.

But one of the first things he said when invited to explain his project to the M&G is that he “wasn’t trying to solve the problems of the world”.

Speaking frankly about the issues Porter faces, he explained that he did what he could: “As a designer you’re taught to do what you can with the materials you have.”

By day Pedersen and his partner James Lennard, with their furniture shop and factory, are big names in the burgeoning Woodstock art and design scene in Cape Town.

By night he is part of the sort of community of artists that becomes a familiar sight in once-industrial neighbourhoods after gentrification begins.

With such upliftment of an area often comes the accusation that the poor and unseemly are being ousted as a trendier middle class take over. This has taken place the world over, and in Cape Town has been typified in the historic Bo-Kaap area, where soaring rates are slowly driving out the Muslim Cape Malays, who gave the neighbourhood its distinctive feel.

But Woodstock’s situation may be unique.

Welcome in Woodstock
“This kind of intervention is possible in Woodstock because street homelessness is possible in Woodstock,” said Professor Marie Huchzermeyer, from the Wits School of Architecture and Planning. “In many South African middle class neighbourhoods, even if they aren’t gated, street homeless people are not tolerated. Security guards, high walls and fences, even spikes on low walls, all make the streets unwelcome to anyone not in a car and not on their way to a middle class address.”

Hassan Khan, the chief executive of the Haven, a homeless shelter in Cape Town, said that he supported “all practical measures at reintegration”.

“This homeless person was accepted as a member of the community and provided with the most basic shelter,” noted Khan, but added: “I hope she will come to the Haven or another shelter to begin her journey back to a home, family and or community.”

Porter doesn’t seem likely to take him up on that. According to Pedersen, she has lived on the streets of Woodstock for over thirty years. It’s her home.

Pedersen said he hoped the shelter would have afforded her some of dignity, but there is more to Porter’s situation than simply needing a roof over her head. In the two years since the shelter was built, Porter, who is a heavy drinker, has not chosen to seek employment, or “come off the bottle”.

The shack itself is little more than an enclosed bunk with some storage space, which was built in consultation with Porter. There are no ablution facilities and according to Pedersen, who now lives across the road and rents the property out to friends, she uses buckets to keep water and wash herself on the property very early in the mornings when no one is around.

She uses public toilets around the corner. And while she can sit up while sitting on her bed inside the shelter, at 1 600mm high the structure is not big enough for her to stand up inside.

Not so tall order
“I am disturbed by the height of the shack in the picture,” noted the DA’s spokesperson on human settlements, Butch Steyn. “It appears to be no higher than the individual standing next to it and must therefore be uncomfortable for the inhabitants if they cannot stand up straight when in the structure.”

Reflecting on the public’s response to the structure, Pedersen said: “I accept all the criticism that there is, as there should be dialogue on these issues.”

“For me, one of the greatest outcomes is that it’s caused a stir for people and [could drive] them to come up with a better solution, or one that fits their community.

The story of one homeless woman’s small shelter in Woodstock stands against a larger backdrop of a complex political and social reality. Cape Town, the country’s postcard-perfect city, was wrested from the monolith ruling party in 2006 by the opposition DA, who used the opportunity to showcase their governing skills and go on to win the province.

Since then, the ANC has been reduced to an internally weak opposition in the province, which has picked away at the city’s stark racial segregation and poverty in an attempt to show up what it calls the hypocrisy of a party often criticised for being predominantly white.

But the housing backlog the party faces is by no means exclusive to the province it runs.

Last year, Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale said more than 12-million people were affected by the housing backlog by the end of last year. He’s admitted the burden is too much for government to bear alone, and has appealed for assistance from the private sector.

“Under my watch the housing backlog has grown from 2.1-million houses to 2.3-million, but we’ve been building houses at a rate 200 000 per annum. So what’s going wrong?” said Sexwale. “I believe that every South African can come aboard to assist a fellow South African to find a home.”

Meanwhile, Steyn noted that “with current numbers of housing provided for the poor, the backlog will not be eradicated”.

The ANC’s Magaxa took the opportunity to lambast the local government for the situation.

“I would love to call on the [provincial minister] for human settlements, and the DA to prioritise and take seriously the responsibility to build houses for poor people, especially those who have been marginalised on racial grounds by the apartheid regime,” he said.

The city’s mayor, Patricia de Lille, noted at the end of last year that the waiting list for houses was around 400 000.

A spokesperson for Bonginkosi Madikizela, the province’s housing minister, told the M&G that the department “is committed to providing housing opportunities, and to supporting the creation of housing opportunities”.

The ‘E’ word
And while he commended Pedersen he, too, voiced concerns over sanitation and privacy. And then he mentioned the “E” word: Eviction.

“Once a person has been living as a backyarder for a period of time, it becomes a complex legal process to evict them, if that were to become necessary,” said Madikizela. “Anyone allowing another person to live on their property should be aware of this.”

Steyn pointed out that Petersen’s idea was similar to that of a backyard dweller. “There are many existing homeowners who currently have shacks in their back yards and there is an initiative to encourage ‘planned’ additional outside accommodation on erven that can accommodate such a structure. Obviously, one doesn’t want this to lead to further sprawl within suburbs.”

A pragmatic government response. But as Huchzermeyer points out: “A caring state should take an interest and respond with safe and accessible public toilet and washing facilities, which are also key components of a person’s dignity—and then assist from there.”

Meanwhile Pedersen has been approached to duplicate his structure for others wanting to help in a similar way. Design won’t save the world, but it can try in the debilitating absence of a government unable to meet its responsibilities.

“I agree it can look like a kennel from one perspective,” he said. “But from another—what are you doing about it?”

A previous version of this article incorrectly put the measurements of the shelter at 2000cm x 900cm. This was corrected on January 24 2012. We apologise for the error.


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