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Johannesburg Transition: Architecture & Society from 1950 by Clive M Chipkin

A startling urban landscape of township, mine dump and high-rise

The shimmering misty photograph on the cover of this book shows the startling urban landscape of township, mine dump and high-rise that define Johannesburg, built neither on coast nor hillside, but upon a river of gold. Chipkin mines the city’s origins in a virtuoso tour through politics, theory, art, life and language itself, introducing words from the French lexicon which became irreplaceable in describing this city: speculator, careerist, rentier, profiteer, entrepreneur.

Weighing in at around 500 pages, Johannesburg Transition is nearly 200 pages longer than its predecessor, Johannesburg Style (reviewed AR, March 1995), and well worth the wait. One reader describes it as ‘protean, like the city, and incredibly rich and abundant’, as it unpacks both scholarly architectural influences and the vibrant culture of the city from modernity through the dark days of apartheid into a new urbanism for a new millennium where South Africa hosts the World Cup.

This is not just a book about architectural style, influences, tectonic or form, this is about the people and the forces who made these architectures: their backgrounds, passions and relationships as well as the impact professionals dedicated to change could make.

Curiously the photographs are often at odds with the lucid text. In many places, vibrant passages are not illustrated - images of the architecture of Kliptown settlements and stills from William Kentridge’s beautiful animated film Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City After Paris are left out and there is little of the curious energy of the Johannesburg I have grown to love.

Visually, it perhaps misses the transition into the new context of a truly African city selling ‘African’ blankets made in China from Victorian shop fronts; noisy, dusty taxis, hawkers and muti (medicine) men all reflected and distorted in the blue glass chill of the CBD.

That said, the text is so rich and informative I would recommend it to every student of architecture and urbanism, not just those interested in Johannesburg vernacular. Chipkin gives a fascinating insight into how ideas prosper and connect intellectually, materially and politically from their roots, via the gold, to the people who made it all possible.

Johannesburg Transition: Architecture & Society from 1950

Author: Clive M Chipkin

Publisher: STE Publishers, 2009

Price: £92.50

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