Fall wall confronts fear and paranoia of city users

In May 2009 the Goethe-Institut approached the department of architecture at the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of art, design and architecture, with an invitation to participate in the larger framework of the institute’s Cracking Walls project.

We were excited by the project’s extraordinary learning possibilities and gladly accepted the invitation. The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) role in the project is linked to its strategic focuses of research and community engagement within the context of Johannesburg.

The Goethe-Institut gave the 2009 class of third-year students the task of reconsidering and reimagining the existing suburban wall surrounding the institute.

The design process was accompanied by security-related inputs from staff of the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). After the initial design phase, 13 potentially strong ideas were selected for further development.

The jury, which met for the initial judging in mid-June, consisted of Alexander Opper and Suzette Grace from the department of architecture and a group from the institute.

The latter must be commended for choosing and believing in the promise of design ideas that would not necessarily be easy to realise, qualifying the institute’s motto—“Attempting Utopia”—relating to this part of the project.

Each of the short-listed designs was rewarded with a prize.
A month was set aside for the refining of the designs. The aim was to select a winner from a broad range of approaches to a potentially borderless Goethe-Institut.

This was easier said than done, though and, on July 17, when the jury met again, two of the short-listed designs were equally favoured.

The only just thing to do was to allow the respective authors, with the support of a small group of enthusiastic supporters, to collaborate on developing their respective projects into a possible synthesis.

This team effort was seen in the same experimental light that had defined the project up to that point.

Lynette de Sousa’s project employs a sensitive terracing and ramping of the site. Her emergent landscape approach is complemented by the use of reed-like screens that guide circulation and provide light at night.

The other joint favourite is by Tshidi Tunguma. It manifests in an “unfolding” and reconfiguring of the generic wall model into a series of crescent-shaped screens. In their careful arrangement these allow a porous flow through the site.

Thanks to a focused collaborative process the two designs have been successfully fused to achieve a sophisticated and cohesive whole.

The end result resembles a shapely product that would give a team effort between Brazilian curve-masters, architect Oscar Niemeyer and landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx a run for its money.

The final student design proposes that the demolished material from the current Goethe wall be “woven” into the surfaces adjacent to the Goethe-Institut.

As the definitive building block of an arabesquelike public promenade, this reinterpreted brick surface allows for short cuts where there were none before.

There is a powerful gesture embodied in the transferral of the wall’s matter from its current manifestation as a vertical barrier into one of a democratically traversable surface; new users of the Goethe-Institut will literally be able to walk on and over the former wall.

This becomes an apt translation of the name that was given to the project, namely Fall Wall.

The fallen wall represents a freeze-frame of the performance that will result in the taking down of the first part of the existing wall on November 9 2009.

This gesture might seem more tentative than the euphoric demolition of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, but it represents a move that is no less important.

I’m not going to cite the famous quote by an even more famous astronaut, but the smallness of this, hopefully first, step should not be underestimated.

For the third-year student group, the project represents a real opportunity for the reconstruction and re-identification of Johannesburg.

UJ is the locus from which these future architects and designers are fostering their attitudes and responsibilities towards architecture and the built environment.

In the case of the remarkable Cracking Walls experiment this project offers us architecture in reverse, an open approach that directly confronts the automatic and unquestioned fear and paranoia many users of this city cling to.

The exhibition embodies the individual and collective effort required to topple and rethink the many preconceptions Johannesburg, and South Africa at large, suffers from.

The Fall Wall project has allowed for a taking back of sorts, of the fore, middle and backgrounds from their hijacked state within the unforgiving flatness represented by Johannesburg’s unrelentingly bland wallscape.

The project throws up interesting new debates that reconsider much older discussions of the notions of public and private and the definitions of property and ownership—the one-sided histories with which this country is still all too familiar and comfortable.

The removal of the Goethe-Institut’s boundary-defining wall results in the revelation of an elusive in-between—a difficult space, granted, but one so worth grappling with in the context of our so-called democracy.

Alexander Opper is an architect and the third-year coordinator in the department of architecture at the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of art, design and architecture

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