One of my earliest memories of navigating Johannesburg was a trip, accompanying my mother, to one of Edgars’s Red Hanger sales. It was a morning filled with uncontainable excitement, with the purpose of finding attire for our annual family Christmas picnic.
We entered the city from Soweto via Fox Street, and it seemed like the intimidating towers parted a path for our taxi as we approached. We had boarded the taxi at dawn and arrived at the corner of President and Joubert streets, in front of the then Oppenheimer Park. We were greeted by the famous steel sculpture of linked galloping impala and our destination faced us from the opposite end of the park.
We snaked our way through traders on the pavement and bought some fruit for the long day ahead.
Arriving at Edgars’s storefront, we were redirected around the building to what seemed like an unending queue. I recall waiting patiently next to my mother and listening to her striking up conversation after conversation about the political prospects of the country. This was in 1993, a year before South Africa’s first democratic elections.
By the time we arrived at the front, all the stock was lying in people’s trolleys or had been bought already. We left in disappointment, but stumbled across a trader who offered us wares that he claimed he had acquired from Edgars the day before. Given the circumstances, they would have to suffice.
That was my first memory of Johannesburg: the people, the traders and the possibility of striking up a conversation with a stranger. What seemed at first sight to be foreboding and towering buildings was an architectural language allowing life to take precedence – with grace.
Cleaning up Jo’burg
This was the early 1990s – a time when it seemed as if city managers had started slacking on the formalities of managing the city and seemed to be more concerned with strategic political challenges. People began using every square metre for commerce and socialising. The formal and informal started blurring and the project of reimagining Johannesburg was left to the citizens – mainly the disenfranchised.
Despite the challenges of service delivery, infrastructural neglect and the abandonment of buildings, the poor continued to move into the city because the city continued to work in other ways. Rent was cheaper, the cost of living was lower and access to opportunities was greater than in other cities in the Southern African region. This – combined with what was known as the “white flight” as corporate South Africa moved its businesses to the northern suburbs of Johannesburg – led to perceptions of the infrastructure being rendered “uninvestable”, with concurrent lamentations and longing for the past. But whose past?
Under the stewardship of Amos Masondo, who became mayor in December 2000, Johannesburg began a clean-up programme towards its goal of becoming a “world-class African city”. This period was characterised by the removal of informal traders and “illegal” occupants of “problem properties”. What ensued were bricked-up openings in some buildings, making parts of the city resemble scenes from Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner.
Although bylaws attempted to formalise the situation, contestation with informal traders continues to this day.
The city would later seemingly abandon the “African” in its motto as it repositioned itself for greater global appeal. The new Johannesburg declared war on the democracy of its streets; lingering longer than allowable would attract admonition from security guards and one would be instructed to move along.
This was in line with prevailing cultural hegemonies brought on by colonialism and neocolonial economic globalisation. This trend has seen developing countries try to accelerate modernity by imitating cities of the ideological West, best exemplified by the faux-Tuscan villas that are scattered across South Africa’s affluent suburbs.
Design liberated from context
The development of the city has increasingly been left to private developers, which has created a rather sanitised social life. The poor are encouraged to socialise with the poor, whereas gentrified areas offer a sense of escape from the realities of the inequality that continues to be a problem. Gentrified areas within Johannesburg’s city centre have established a new kind of “public” that has no relationship to its immediate context; rather, architecture can insert itself with total disregard to context.
The Maboneng precinct, an upmarket mixed-use precinct located on the eastern part of the city centre, best characterises this new form of architecture. The buildings have more in common with European cafés than the shebeens that lie on the southern Main Street edge of the eight-block development. Its name may borrow from a popular Sotho colloquial term for Johannesburg, but its contextual linkages, disappointingly, stop there. Even the surrounding community is excluded, both by the cost of commerce and by the overenthusiastic security guards posted to keep out those who don’t belong there.
This kind of development has introduced a new kind of public architecture to the city centre. The notion of public life is commodified and the street has become a private domain. These new forms are usually encouraged by the city attempting to modify its bylaws to allow for the eviction of citizens without complying with the Prevention of Illegal Eviction from and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act, a law that protects citizens from arbitrary evictions. The amendment of bylaws makes it easier for these buildings to be taken control of and put back in the market, which is entirely about enticing private developers to buy the buildings at discounted prices.
Despite this image presenting a sense of gloom, buildings within the city challenge the notion of architecture as a product of commerce and offer robust and malleable forms that are continually being appropriated by citizens to suit their needs and demands. These buildings, rather than trying to erase the informal, propose alternative ways of reimagining the “African city”.
Robust, malleable architecture
An example of a site that best exemplifies this notion of working for the citizens is the Faraday transport interchange (by ASM Architects with MMA Architects), located on the southern edge of the city centre. These spaces represent an architectural process of collaborating with citizens in collectively reimagining the form of an African city that is inclusive, democratic and contextual. Although these buildings do not answer all calls, they go a long way towards creating alternative ways for architects to explore the city and its relationship to its residents.
The precinct is located between the southwestern edge of industrial buildings and the city centre on the northern edge. It is designed to integrate intermodal transport – taxis, buses and the rail system. The site consists of a muti (herbal medicine) market with full consultation rooms on the semipermeable northern edge and the taxi terminus on the southern edge, marked by angled shed roofs on steel space frames supported by steel girders. On the eastern edge, a series of trade stalls forms a solid edge that doubles as a noise barrier to the high traffic along Eloff Street.
Although the taxi typology has become synonymous with the South African city, what stands out about the Faraday transport interchange is how it has managed to preserve the essence of the original site. The architects managed to restrain themselves from starting afresh by introducing a new structure; instead, they approached the design as a
palimpsest and minimally intervened by integrating activities that were already on the site. The architecture also proposes new ways to conceive of activities that belong in the public versus the private domain; the spiritual practices of traditional medicine are juxtaposed with the banality of commuting in a delicate dance.
The appeal of the Faraday interchange is in the subtlety of the architecture and how it allows the user to take priority over the built form. The trading stalls spill on to the walkways and, by not having counters in the stalls, the hierarchy of public and semipublic is blurred. This new form of using space takes cues from the practice of visiting a traditional healer: there is no spiritual or spatial barrier and new methods of “cityness” are explored for an African context.
Johannesburg the disrupter
Contrary to popular perception, the city of Johannesburg thrives – even if it means you have to alter the method with which you measure it. A classical Vitruvian architectural analysis might prove difficult to uphold.
Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe in their 2008 essay Afropolis suggest that Johannesburg “disrupts” these traditional conceptions of modernity premised on the “structure of international economy” and that it offers a uniquely functional “African city” that contradicts “meta-narratives of urbanisation, modernisation and crisis”. Johannesburg offers subversive methods of urbanisation; it confronts head-on any attempts to formalise the informal, and functions outside the formal.
When one stops and opens up to the possibility of multiple ways to interpret architecture, one realises that, just like society, architecture offers material ways to reconceive the relationships we have with one another and how we conceive of our society.
Architecture is the material practice of our values and currently tells us that those that are disenfranchised belong on the fringes. Like Chandigarh (post-independence India’s first planned city, known for its architecture and urban design) and the Greek temples, our architecture is the capsule we will be handing over to our descendants. It will speak volumes about our values.
Mxolisi Makhubo is a Johannesburg-based architect.