The fine art of moulding the essence of cities

Earlier this month, shortly after presenting a talk about two architectural projects in Benin and Chad to an audience at the 25th world congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in Durban, Franck Houndégla flew to Cape Town. A Beninese architect and designer living in France, Houndégla was curious to find out more about Cape Town’s tenure as the 2014 World Design Capital (WDC).

Navigating the city mostly on foot and by bus, he visited the District Six Museum, made a pilgrimage of sorts to the offices of literary magazine Chimurenga, and spent some time in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest black township.

“This allowed me to begin to understand this fascinating city a little,” said Houndégla after his visit.

Canadian Trevor Boddy had a very different experience. A large bear of a man, the Vancouver-based architecture critic and curator was mugged on Bree Street while visiting Cape Town before the UIA congress started. The fuzzy programming of WDC-related activities and events also disappointed Boddy, just as it has many foreign visitors and local residents eager to make sense of the city’s prominent yellow branding for the event.

Boddy was invited to attend a guided bicycle tour of the city. Organised by Open Design, a collective of design-interested professionals whose annual design festival was a WDC-listed project this year, the itinerary for the press tour included a visit to the city centre’s first skate park.

Boddy declined the offer, perhaps wisely. It was a lacklustre affair, not so much for the tour’s content – the city has made good strides in nonmotorised transport and has a large cycling culture – as the organiser’s inability to make sense of what they were showcasing, and why. Cool largely trumped rational explication.

The new skate park was the tour’s showpiece. Situated beneath the Jutland Avenue Bridge, adjacent the Gardens bus interchange, the skate park was designed, funded and constructed by the City of Cape Town’s department for spatial planning and urban design. Officially designated as a WDC project, the park last year received a Playscapes award for its design from the United Kingdom-based charity Building Trust International.

According to Marco Morgan, a planner with the strategic and integrated planning directorate in the Western Cape government, the park was built by the City after complaints from residents about vagrants using the flyover as shelter.

Morgan, who attended the tour in his capacity as a member of 20sk8, a decade-old collective of skateboarders from the Cape Flats, said the City has vetoed graffiti inside the fenced-off park. Only approved “vendors” may decorate its surfaces.

It was a curious admission since the tour was explicitly organised to foreground street culture – including graffiti – and its vital role in shaping a city’s cultural mix. It also effectively neutered Mitchells Plain-born graffiti artist Mak1one’s sincere demonstration of his spray can skills, which ended the tour.

There is a direct feedback loop between the Cape Town skate park and the work Houndégla does as a professional. Speaking at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban, a bland utilitarian building, Houndégla showcased two recent projects, one an upgrade of a marketplace in Benin’s second-largest city, Porto-Novo; the other involving the creation of formal amenities around a water collection point in Ndjamena, capital of Chad.

Common to both projects was the interplay of architectural problem solving and developmental goals. Houndégla explained how in many African cities, public spaces – “outdoor spaces for common use” as he qualified the term’s meaning in Africa – have fallen into neglect, despite often being the most used.

Working under the French design and development agency Liaisons Urbaines, Houndégla has refined a site-specific approach that is inexpensive (each project is capped at €50 000) and quick. Collaboration is key: in Porto-Novo, Houndégla worked with Liberian-born architect Francis Sessou and a team of local artisans to create an unpretentious structure that mimicked the modest lines of the old informal market it upgraded.

Although worlds apart in form and function, the Porto-Novo market shares with the Cape Town skate park a common attribute: modesty. Neither site aims to be more than it is. Community-focused, their purpose is palliative, not remedial (the vagrants in Gardens have moved up the road). Although unlikely to win their makers global renown, they are nonetheless valuable makers of “architecture otherwhere”.

Each UIA congress is presented under a distinctive theme. Durban, the first sub-Saharan African city to host an UIA congress since its inception in Lausanne in 1948, developed the knotty rubric “architecture otherwhere” to focus on informal and overlooked sites of architectural thinking.

Time and again during the congress, which drew 4 500 delegates from 96 countries, speakers emphasised the value of modest architectural interventions as a way of addressing social crises, from earthquakes to slum settlements.

Diébédo Francis Kéré was praised for his small-scale projects in his native Burkina Faso, where a primary school he designed won an Aga Khan Award for Architecture. “Try to do something at home, in a small space,” he commented. “You will see that suddenly great architects will see your projects.”

Speaking to a far smaller audience, many of them enthused students, Thorsten Deckler and Anne Graupner, of the Johannesburg practice 26’10 south Architects, gave the smallness meme a local resonance. Working with partners at the University of Johannesburg, nongovernmental organisation Ikhayalami and cultural agency Goethe Institute, Deckler facilitated a “re-blocking” initiative in an informal settlement in Ruimsig, on the western periphery of Johannesburg. Re-blocking denotes the formal reorganisation of space in informal settlements.

Deckler mentioned the team’s difficulty reconciling official prescriptions on road sizes with the narrowness of the site. A local councillor pointed out that variances were allowed. Public officials, elaborated Deckler, far from being antagonists in urban upliftment processes, often possess the necessary technocratic insight to make things happen.

He also spoke about the need for community liaisons, explaining how eight “community architects” were appointed from among local residents to advise Deckler and his team.

Similar to Houndégla’s, Deckler’s talk set out to show that it is possible to think and work past traditional antagonisms – between client and architect, citizen and state, architect and public officials – and work collaboratively in local communities.

During his keynote lecture at UIA, Rahul Mehrotra, a Mumbai architect and professor of urban design and planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, emphasised the virtues of intervening at the “micro level”.

By way of example, he discussed his practice’s attempts to create dignified sanitation in a Mumbai slum – human dignity being another key meme at the sprawling UIA congress, which at times felt like it had many otherwheres one couldn’t be.

Toilet design
Mehrotra prefaced this part of his talk by saying that few architectural practices take on toilet design, leaving it to city engineers to fashion solemn bunkers for the hasty evacuation of pee and poop.

Working with existing government specifications, Mehrotra designed a communal toilet that takes into account gender and safety issues, not unimportant considerations in India. His design includes living quarters for a janitor and an upper-floor terrace for community functions.

The project’s success was however short-lived, said Mehrotra. The upper floor of the slum’s landmark building was shortly hijacked and turned into a male-only drinking establishment – with a view.

Closer home, in Cape Town, flush toilets are also a work-in-progress design project. Last year the South African Human Rights Commission described the portable flushing toilets installed in poorer, predominantly black settlements as essentially the same as the hated bucket system.

A recent inspection of four Khayelitsha informal settlements by the Social Justice Coalition (SJC) found that a quarter of its toilets didn’t work.

Toilets are an “emotive issue”, conceded Western Cape Premier Helen Zille in a rebuttal note to the SJC’s findings. At no point did she propose that they were a design challenge to be solved. She may be reiterating a popular bias, particularly in relation to the ambit and meaning of design as a verb.

Last year, when the WDC organisers put out an open call for project submissions, they received 1 249 entries. In an interview at the time, Alayne Reesberg, the chief executive of Cape Town Design (the WDC-organising company) told me about the overwhelming volume of bicycle projects she had received.

Among the 460 projects selected – 40 of them for an exhibition, the rest for promotion as accredited projects – four that I can intuit deal explicitly with toilets, arguably one of Cape Town’s most volatile social and political problems.

One is a prototype refinement of a pour-flush latrine (a type of toilet that requires water to be poured in by the user). Known as Micro Flush and funded by the Water Research Commission, it is an adaptation of an earlier project and a refinement of similar devices used in South East Asian countries. It is yet to be pilot-tested.

Another WDC poo project is Micromune, an organic sanitation inoculant used to treat sewage in septic tanks, pit toilets and polluted waterways like rivers. The product is the outcome of collaboration between local company Sanitation World, Unilever and Singapore-based NGO World Toilet Organisation.

The nuts and bolts of these two projects, neither of which is market-tested, stand at the far end of the design championed at Trevyn and Julian McGowan’s newly launched Guild Design Fair, or Ravi Naidoo’s long-established Design Indaba festival. This is because these projects have very little to do with design, that fetish of the middle classes, and everything to do with innovation.

Mercenary commitment
Innovation is a more capacious word than design. It is capable of not only uplifting livelihoods, but also reinvigorating a flagging economy. Apple’s success, to use a easy retail example, is not a design story. It is about a deeply embedded – even mercenary – commitment to innovation, overlaid with a savvy consumer focus. Cities are not commodities, but they operate in similar terms: be sexy, but remember it is war.

Among the many foreign visitors to Durban in early August was Eric Le Gal, a balding Frenchman who heads up sales and development at MCI France. MCI is a Swiss-based global consulting, live communication, congress and event management company with offices in 30 countries. Le Gal was business managing Paris’s bid to host the 2020 UIA.

“It’s a business absolutely,” quipped Le Gal, while showing me his €2.5-million budget were Paris to win. Rio de Janeiro ended up winning the right to host 2020 UIA, beating rivals Paris and Melbourne, but Le Gal, whose budget included a €750-000 licensing fee payable to UIA’s general secretariat in Paris, had good reason to think the French capital would win.

According to the latest rankings released by the International Congress and Convention Association, Paris rated as one of the top five destinations for international association meetings, with 204 meets in 2013. A strictly quantitative global index, Cape Town ranked 53rd (with 45 meetings) and Durban 97th (25). Herein lies a part of the story of how UIA came to Durban.

While the initial idea to host UIA in Durban came from its International Convention Centre, for Nina Saunders, a city architect in the eThekwini municipality and Durban’s UIA bid co-coordinator, this is a negligible backstory. The local architectural fraternity ultimately pitched for UIA, a decision that has reaped them rewards.

According to Saunders, the direct engagement that occurred between architectural professionals and central government has been one of the best outcomes. The department of public works, which loaned the South African Institute of Architects around R5.5-million to pay the hefty licensing fee for the UIA congress, was a key rainmaker in the UIA process.

This may also explain the excessive kowtowing to government at the start of the four-day conference, when a cavalcade of political dignitaries replaced poet Mongane Wally Serote on the opening day.

The group included Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, who yielded his speech as an instrument of blunt truths.

“We cannot be complacent that 20 years into democracy, only 24% of built environment professionals are black; 9% are female,” said Nxesi.

Exaggerated decorum
Where the opening ceremony, with its exaggerated decorum and political jockeying, left Boddy wondering if South Africans were more interested in politics than architecture, Saunders was unfazed. Things that needed to be heard were aired, she said. Saunders added that government is now also more aware of the “why architects are necessary on infrastructural projects”.

“One of the things we came up against a lot is the perception that architecture is an elitist profession,” agreed Karen Eicker, a Johannesburg architect and writer who moved to Durban briefly to serve as commissary general for the UIA event.

“It has taken two years of hard work for an understanding to be reached, that architects are interested in getting involved at a community level. That it is not just about the building, but the social, economic and built context of the buildings.”

Will Cape Town be able to claim the same result at the end of this year? Early indications are not positive. In June, Minister of Human Settlements Lindiwe Sisulu rubbished the WDC accolade as a “scam”.

“Millions are spent by the City of Cape Town on a scam called the Design Capital,” she said. “These millions could have been spent on shelter and proper sanitation.”

Millions, yes. Cape Town Design was allocated R40-million, over three years, to cover its operational costs (salaries, rent, travel, events and other sundry costs), marketing and the programme. The bid preparation and submission cost R600 000 and licensing fee €150 000, which is a sizable step down from what the UIA right cost. The total cost of UIA was estimated at around R25-million.

But Eicker said it is unhelpful to compare UIA and WDC for two reasons. The first has to do with the fact that the architectural congress was an association event bid for by a professional body, whereas in Cape Town the motivation to bid for WDC came from the City.

“The second is that ours is a very intense, focused event for a particular audience that happens over a week, whereas the WDC appeals to the general public and runs over a year with a series of interventions,” said Eicker. “The fact that they both deal with design is almost irrelevant. The business model is completely different.”

Different, yes, but these two events also have much in common: shared dialogues around similar themes, and shared aspirations around the role of place making and the value of human dignity in the contemporary city. They are similar too in their underlying faith that cities are branded properties – some more desirable than others.

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Sean Otoole 1
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