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Writing the City into Being: Essays on Johannesburg 1998-2008 by Lindsay Bremner

Bremner speaks of a way of being in the world that is nomadic

Lindsay Bremner’s central thesis is that a city becomes a city analogously to the way in which a book becomes a book. Reading is to a book what dwelling, walking, playing, working and the rest is to the city. City dwellers are like readers. Just as anonymous readers assert the uniqueness of a work, so anonymous citizens, through their inattentive, distracted, careless daily lives assert the ‘citiness’ of a city. For this there are no words, only routines, gestures, desires, textures, sounds, shadows, light, glamour, noise and money.

This is the concept of the city asserted by Benjamin’s flâneur, Kracauer’s mass ornament, Debord’s dérive, de Certeau’s walker, Rendell’s rambler, Mbembe and Nuttall’s migrant labourer, and Le Marcis’ AIDS sufferer - a city accessible only through the practice of walking, of knowing with the feet, a city that runs like a thread through Bremner’s own work on Johannesburg, in her attempts to reveal the manner in which it constitutes itself and its citizens as modern, urban and cosmopolitan.

The book also quite literally records Bremner’s own walking about, between archives, urban theory, critical theory, government offices, party caucuses, community meetings, gated enclaves, shopping malls and city streets. The volume speaks of a way of being in the world that is essentially nomadic - and perhaps part of a feminine topology - and that through movement, seeks to make connections among things.

Writing the City into Being segways into a discussion of the work of Clive Chipkin, as Johannesburg makes the transition from apartheid city to ‘world-class city’. Attempts to redistribute resources and to confront the separations of apartheid have caused lacunae to open up in the bureaucratic processes of planning, leading to uncontrolled speculation, opportunity and crime. As a result, Johannesburg has become one of the most written about, photographed, exhibited, globally-circulating and contested cities in the world.

South African cities, as instruments of the apartheid political economy, were not easily assimilated into the general urban discourse. However, this is not to say that its urban scholars were not engaged, as Bremner elegantly demonstrates with her whirlwind tour through the key players on the global stage, ranging from the beginning of the twentieth century to the four primary sites of architectural urban research today.

Bremner then challenges her readers to consider that African cities might serve as starting points for cities generally, since they remind us that urbanisation is a complex, constant process with no single predetermined end point: all cities in Africa are works in progress, driven largely by the creative inventiveness of ordinary people.

Three themes conceptualise, theorise and bring into relation a number of conditions of radical uncertainty, unpredictability, ethereality and insecurity that characterise contemporary city-making: ‘Smooth Space’, ‘Immaterial Architecture’ and ‘Terror’ serve as the titles to photographic essays forming the central section, followed by 10 essays and an extensive bibliography with endnotes on pink paper - this is a modest volume, but satisfyingly dense and beautifully produced.

The essays, both written and photographic, present a facsimile of Johannesburg, which is at once complex, instantly recognisable and compelling. ‘Six Ways of Being a Stranger’ describes six characters haunting not only the delicate postcolonial project in South Africa, but also, Bremner argues, everywhere in our globalised world.

‘Remaking Johannesburg’ reveals the logic of the city’s past performance and theorises the strategies of the present, analysing the architecture of fear, in between and landscapes of desire, in which highly defended public realms of the new city are invested with meaning through their configuration as little bits of Italy. Anyone familiar with the architecture of Sun City, photographer David Goldblatt’s recent work, or indeed any number of luxury hotels around the world, will recognise this intermingling of consumption and fantasy, which allows the reality of a place to be temporarily forgotten.

As a young architect, grappling with issues around identity, authenticity and truth to materials, I was mortified by an established commercial architect’s assertion that there were three types of architecture in South Africa: lightly themed, medium themed and Sun City. But as it turns out, he saw the future, or perhaps even built it.

It is a relief therefore to find that this volume offers so much more to those seeking to understand the relationship of architecture to cities in a rapidly changing and fragmenting world. And engagingly, Bremner does not try to present this vision all as her own. In parallel, Le Roux, Judin, Vladislavic, Weizman et al’s explorations are all carefully cross-referenced in this book. Perhaps Bremner’s real triumph here, aside from writing with depth and authority, is to bring such a multitude of voices into a single coherent work, evidencing the fact that she has written a new Johannesburg into being.

+ Authoritative work
- Fast-moving subject

Writing the City into Being: Essays on Johannesburg 1998-2008

Author: Lindsay Bremner

Publisher: Fourthwall Books, 2010

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