Taking local marginalised neighbourhoods as urban laboratories students at UJ are encouraged to design radical schemes rooted in context
Three kilometres east of Sandton, Johannesburg’s centre of wealth and commerce, is the township of Marlboro South. Since the fall of apartheid in 1994, the former industrial zone has been progressively occupied by squatters, some building shacks on vacant lots and others ‘hijacking’ neglected warehouses, subdividing the largespan structures into three-dimensional labyrinths that call to mind Piranesi’s haunting Carceri d’invenzione etchings. These makeshift dwellings are home to hundreds of households.
But recent evictions, prompted by increasing demand for land in the city, contribute to the insecurity and marginalisation that characterise life for those who live there. Enter Alex Opper of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where he leads the MTech in Architectural Technology, a professional preparation programme broadly aligned with RIBA Part 2. Environments such as Marlboro South, which provide the subject matter for the programme’s seven-week ‘informal studio’, are symptomatic of South Africa’s urban inheritance: a legacy of racial and economic divisions. Similar spatial conditions can be found in many expanding cities in the global south, butfor Opper, Johannesburg ‘is the perfect laboratory, precisely because it is such an imperfect city’. By testing their ideas in contexts that could not be more real, students learn lessons more relevant and effective than those imparted in the classroom.
With the help of practice colleagues Thorsten Deckler and Anne Graupner, whose Johannesburg firm 26’10 south Architects highlights the interface between housing need and informal urbanity, Opper’s programme is developing a pedagogy that combines studio exercises with almost anthropological immersion in the field.Student teams survey and map the conditions of the settlement, pairing up with local residents allied to community-based organisations who act as guides. Together they develop ‘site-specific ways of seeing’ that not only provide insights into the priorities of those fighting to establish rights to live in the city, but also inform methods of construction and communication suited to a client group often overlooked in top-down housing delivery processes.
A key dimension of these methods of mapping and making, of seeing the city from street level and developing designs on its future, is participation. By treating the siteas a social milieu rather than a blank slate, students learn that meaningful architecture has to address the conditions that make it possible for people to establish a foothold in a place: to belong in a way that feels secure, and over which they can claim ownership. The programme has been operating as an exercise in team-building, bringing together not only students and residents but also diverse stakeholders − including Johannesburg’s Goethe-Institut which sponsored aspects of the project including a follow-up travelling exhibition − with the aim of collectively building a vision of Marlboro South transformed into a legitimate urban neighbourhood.
This iteration of the ‘informal studio’ at UJ engaged not only master’s level students but also third-year undergraduates, and one student − Jaco Jonker − decidedto present his proposals as a comic book. He linked his spatial designs on the future to a narrative about the district’s unfolding scenario, providing a contextual summary that recognises how local people have sought to establish a claim on the site. Jonker’s proposal incorporates subtle adjustments to the informal urban fabric, introducing two- and three-storey walk-ups that release space for communal use, and housing new services by upgrading rather than demolishing homes already in place. In Deckler’s analysis, this strategy promotes ‘the devolution of decision-making power to residents, recognising the community’s capacity as home-builders’.
The studio’s emphasis on how practice in the context of urban informality should be strategic rather than limited to spatial solutions, naturally has an impact on the MTech students preparing their final-year projects. A proposal by Daniel Lyonga reconfigures the main Johannesburg office for the department of Home Affairs, a government institution guided by implacable bureaucratic protocols that deals with visa applications and citizenship eligibility. To counter the anxiety caused by long waits and piled-up paperwork, Lyonga’s design guts the building’s corridor-crammed ground floor, installing instead an inviting and transparent public foyer. Similarly strategic in its thinking, Dirk Coetser’s redevelopment of several metropolitan mine sites uses land remediation processes to address ground-water contamination caused by the industry that underwrites Johannesburg’s historical economic base. His scheme is centred on phased machine-like purifiers which, over time, transform into housing.