Shacks are the new normal

Informal choice: An exhibition based on a University of Johannesburg study gives a rare insight into life in Marlboro South in Johannesburg.

Informal choice: An exhibition based on a University of Johannesburg study gives a rare insight into life in Marlboro South in Johannesburg.

An architectural exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg invites viewers to reassess their ideas of what housing means in South Africa’s rapidly expanding cities, to understand the tension between organic growth and state regulation, and to ask how we can work with what already exists in informal settlements rather destroying what is there and replacing it with the vision of some distant city planner.

The exhibition, Informal Studio: Marlboro South, documents a course on in-situ upgrading conducted by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) for  seven weeks last year at an informal settlement that is wedged between the township of Alexandria and suburban Marlboro Gardens, just five kilometres from Sandton.

Few outsiders ever get to see what lies behind the walls of the abandoned warehouses and vacant plots of Marlboro South, where a warren of shacks and rooms built on many levels serves as home to more than 1 500 households.

The course co-ordinators struck a deal with the community – volunteer community planners would assist the students in their research and, in return, the students developed proposals for spatial and infrastructural strategies that the community could take to the city’s housing council.

The exhibition gives an intimate look at the lives and homes of the people. It is a half-ethnography, half-design exercise.

Maps, models, photographs, drawings and four mini-documentaries outline brief histories of the residents and explain the challenges of communal living without the benefit of adequate infrastructure and under the constant threat of eviction.

Breaking the rules
Thorsten Deckler, co-founder of 26’10 South Architects, an architectural practice that collaborated with the university on the project, has described informal settlements as a type of “spontaneous city building”. “This is how cities grow – informally,” he said. “It’s not a benign process because a settlement breaks every rule in city planning.”

Although the government is beginning to recognise this fact (it rebranded the department of housing as the department of human settlements), it has yet to trickle down to local law-enforcement authorities.

Police and private companies routinely evict residents of informal housing without going through the correct legal procedures, leaving families on the streets while the matter is tied up in the courts. Last year 390 households were evicted in Marlboro South alone.

The government has built  three million formal housing units since 1994, but there is still a backlog of 2.3-million. Meanwhile, people have to live somewhere and, among the urban poor, that somewhere is usually a shack with no services, built on vacant land.

The exhibition shows not just how people live in Marlboro South – the complex negotiation that allows scores of people to share one tap and the compromises that sacrifice privacy in favour of fire safety – but how they came to be there.

Khanyisile, who applied for an RDP house in 2008, left her mother’s home in crowded Alexandria to find a living space for her husband and baby. Daniel, a resident of 15 years, has an RDP home in Limpopo but won’t move back there until he has saved up enough money.

Alex Opper, an architecture lecturer and the course co-ordinator, said: “You can’t continue as if it’s going to be temporary and the occupants are going to be moved some day.

“You have to ask what else is possible outside the norm – the so-called norm, because informal settlement is becoming the norm,” he said.

The students have proposed design layouts that include “re-blocking” or shifting some of the shacks to make existing courtyards between shacks larger and at the same time allow more natural light, wider pathways and more communal space.

Proposals for double- and triple-storey shacks would allow for development without compromising on safety. Providing for fire breaks, water, electricity and sewerage and space for economic and recreational activity could lead to formalisation over time.

New focus
The government had set itself the target of upgrading 400 000 households in informal settlements by 2014, but Opper said there were not enough architects with the experience and skills in participative planning needed to facilitate the ­transition.

He said building something new, from scratch, on an empty tract of land, was often seen as successful architecture.

Recognising that working with communities to upgrade settlements might be the only route to decent housing for thousands of South Africans would need a concomitant shift in how architects view themselves and their work, he said.

“We need students not to be obsessed with what an architect ‘should be’. We need more engaged architects who are more connected to communities.”

Is informal housing all the country can offer the urban poor?

“It is the best you can do if you can’t do anything else,” Deckler said.

The exhibition at the Goethe-Institut, Johannesburg, runs until May 9

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live. Read more from Faranaaz Parker


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