Zahira Asmal, director of The City, organised the academic studio of Harvard University’s Masters degree elective course on 21st Century Architecture of Africa and the Diaspora. The course explores post apartheid Johannesburg, as an ideal city that provides the opportunity for defining what African architectural identity can be in the 21st century. Architect David Adjaye traveled to Johannesburg with 13 of his postgraduate students and was accompanied by Okwui Enwezor, a well known figure in the global art community. He is Director of Haus der Kunst in Munich and editor of Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art.  Two architecture students at Wits University, Janine Adank and Julie-Ann Tyler, were invited to join the tour. Below is their report on the Harvard Architecture studio visit to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is a city richly diverse in class, creed and language. It is known globally as a melting pot of culture and has become the home address for a multitude of people from around the world. It is a city with great potential and a bright future. Today, designers and architects are faced with the challenge of understanding the resulting context in order to shape the city’s future. It is, therefore, not surprising that Johannesburg has become an interesting city for examination. David Adjaye and thirteen of his students from Harvard University visited our city for that very purpose.

The students, chose the elective course as part of their Masters degree to investigate 21st Century Architecture of Africa and the Diaspora. The course explores post apartheid Johannesburg, as an ideal city that provides the opportunity for defining what African architectural identity can be in the 21st century. David Adjaye, is responsible for the running and co-ordination of the course. Adjaye is well traveled on the African continent and has published a book, Adjaye Africa Architecture, based on the 53 major African cities he has visited. He has a long-standing relationship with the continent and the potential it holds for architects. He believes that there is a dire need for housing in Africa. The key aim of his studio is to understand the continent’s civic, residential, commercial and planning potentials across its diverse geographies and climate. The study begins in Johannesburg. David Adjaye approached Zahira Asmal managing director of The City to facilitate and curate the Harvard trip to Johannesburg. As The City works with all tiers of government, architects, designers, academia, the private sector and international stakeholders, the company has established connections with significant individuals in the city and provided the platform for engagement to take place. This made for a diverse and relevant programme for the short period the students were visiting.

The visit kicked off with a discussion at South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court in Braamfontein. The court and the adoption of the new constitution in 1996 was a turning point for South Africa’s history. South Africa was one of the last countries on the continent to achieve independence with the end of Apartheid in 1994. Zahira invited Justice Edwin Cameron who serves at the Constitutional court and former government Minister serving in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, Jay Naidoo to address the students at the session. During the height of Apartheid Justice Cameron was a human rights lawyer. Jay Naidoo served in the cabinet immediately after the dismantling of Apartheid and was responsible for the Reconstruction & Development programme in the 1990’s. He is currently the chairman of the board of directors of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He shared his insights into the struggles of gaining SA’s democracy and provided his views on how the democracy efforts can be advanced.

Justice Cameron was warm and engaging as he gave Adjaye and his students a brief history of the architectural side of the court. He described the court as being rooted both architecturally and physically in the Apartheid past. This can be seen in the court where the unfinished brickwork serve as a reminder of South Africa’s past and represent the principles of the new Constitution.

Jay Naidoo gave the Harvard group a unique perspective on architecture and South Africa. His talk focused on building a democracy after inheriting apartheid’s legacy of exclusion. He advocated that the court, the most sovereign instance of our democracy, is fundamentally important in the architecture of government, describing the way the constitution was constructed as a whole system of checks and balances. Naidoo stated that gated communities were probably the greatest architectural design failure, post-Apartheid, describing these as entire cities within walls. According to the former minister, in architectural terms, this means South Africa, Post-Apartheid, has gone backwards. He posed the question to the Harvard students, when confronted with this, what do you choose? He provided two choices where either we make a gated community even more gated, inefficient and cumbersome – accommodating only 1% of the population or we commit ourselves to something more visionary in order to create more open spaces. Naidoo makes a reference to listening to Steve Biko speak when he was fifteen years old, inspired by the words, ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains.’

You can choose to be a bystander or stand up and fight for justice. Naidoo suggests that the challenges faced, in the past 20 years of our democracy and still today, is the capacity to make ideas come to life, in order to improve people’s lives. He stated that we do have an imperfect democracy but it is a democracy nonetheless, with a constitution that gives you the right to participate. He questions what prevents the youth of today from participating and making greater change. Naidoo revealed that mistakes have been made with regards to housing in South Africa. He explained that the idea with RDP housing was that it was merely the start of the house and that individuals would be able to add to it as their requirements changed. In his view the housing sector should focus on densifying along the main transport corridors and creating mixed housing, allowing people to live closer to work. The trip continued with a tour of the court with questions and feedback session.

The second day started with a seminar held at the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) hosted by Sharon Lewis, the JDA’s executive for planning and strategy. JDA’s role is to improve public spaces by regenerating and creating a city that is livable and supported by sustainable and innovative infrastructure. As policy makers in Johannesburg, the agency was able to provide an essential platform for the discussion on housing. Thomas Coggin, a post graduate lecturer on Property and Introduction to law at the University of the Witwatersrand and founder of the blog Urban Joburg, served as the agent-provocateur for the seminar. Lauren Royston, from Socio-Economic Rights Institute, presented on the right to housing in South Africa and some of the rights, limitations and legal issues. Lauren was followed by Adelaide Steedley, from the Affordable Land and Housing Data Centre, who spoke about the housing market and design implications. Lauren Royston made powerful comments on the issues around RDP housing and the lack of this system in addressing apartheid spatial geography. She spoke about the good support programmes in informal settlement upgrade, but she explained that these are not implemented because of political and technical reasons. Royston’s focus was on housing in the inner city. She discussed how ‘affordable’ housing doesn’t deliver to the ‘poor,’ thus creating a huge gap in the housing market. This gap has led to people living in undesirable conditions such as living in abandoned buildings. Royston concluded by offering suggestions as to how the housing demand in Johannesburg can be met. She explained that what is needed is temporary accommodation that is part of a long term rental housing plan. This temporary response needs to bridge the gap. Royston mentioned that SERI has developed these recommendations to the housing strategy, which have been presented to the JDA.

Adelaide Steedley from the centre of affordable housing Africa, explained how one should always understand who is paying for the housing and who exactly requires it. In most cases this relationship is completely disconnected. She reiterated that understanding finance for housing is crucial for architects in order to achieve good design.

Over the last 20 years the South African state has granted vast amounts towards housing opportunities; this is the largest effort of housing delivery in history. Adelaide said that South Africa needed to provide more opportunities for housing for people in South Africa, suggesting that this can be achieved by government providing housing but also by individuals funding their own house. This needs to be achieved by state and private sector working together. These presentations brought about very fruitful discussions and many questions were put forward by David Adjaye, Okwui Enwezor and the Harvard students in order to further understand South Africa’s constitution and the approach to the court.
Simon Mayson, from the City of Joburg’s department of Housing, whose focus is on low income and informal rental housing in Johannesburg’s inner city spoke briefly about the National housing code 2009 in response to a question regarding Johannesburg’s national housing policy and discussed the Johannesburg Social Housing Company’s role in providing social housing in South Africa. JOSHCO is a social housing provider, created by the city of Johannesburg to deal with the increasing demand for housing, employment, food and other basic needs.  Ahmed Vawda, the Deputy Director General who is responsible for overseeing human settlements for the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation within The Presidency, expanded on JOSHCO’s role. He stated that the company is one of the most socially entrepreneurial companies in Johannesburg. He spoke about other organisations especially in the private sector and the many complex relationships and arrangements in these types of engagements with the city. The seminar concluded with Okwui Enwezor posing the question: What constitutes a successful urban housing policy? Is it about mixed income or mixed populations? Is it just delivering housing to poor people or is Johannesburg striving to achieve a more integrated city? Simon responded to this, saying that our current housing policy is good, employing planning, urban design and architectural principles that are in vogue at the moment. He suggested that we are trying to deliver as much housing as possible while still responding to these principles. Vawda spoke about this question with relation to the right to as well as the access to the city. The ‘city wide’ scale offers a way to renegotiate the cosmopolitan construct, in can’t be only a locality project. Discussions carried right through into lunch giving an opportunity for the students to ask their own questions about the housing issues in Johannesburg in a more informal setting. The students were keen to get an insider’s perspective of the city and we willingly providing our thoughts and opinions.

On the third and last day the team visited a unique Brixton located architecture practice, 26’10 south architects. They were hosted by its founders Anne Graupner and Thorsten Deckler. 26’10 South Architects brings together essential conceptual design skills as well as technical expertise to address architectural and urban design projects.

Asmal chose the firm due to its work that focuses on social housing and participatory design through their ‘Informal Studio’ – an in-situ course on upgrading the informal settlements by showcasing how minimal adjustments can lead to a more equitable distribution of space. This is a collaboration with the Goethe Institute and the University of Johannesburg as well as the residents of the Ruimsig informal settlement. Both Thorsten and Anne provided an overview of the issues architects in Johannesburg face and how architects in Johannesburg need to engage with the communities they work with.

The discussion centered on the ‘Informal Studio’ project. The studio allows students and architects to work with community members and document the process of this engagement. By showing the work they had done and the process of documentation, the architects were able to give an overview of the area as well as introduce the complex issues around engagement with communities when it comes to housing and informal settlement upgrading.

“There are many realities to Joburg … you need to be quite sure of the decisions you make as your view may not be the reality of the people you are designing for” – Anne Graupner

The session ended with a film by Tolo Phule and Lungelo Mntambo, from Delite Visual Archives Studio, which documented 26’10’s ‘informal studio’ Ruimsig project.

The three days were very enlightening and certainly gave a very good overview into the issues we face with regards to housing in Johannesburg. The process highlighted and exposed the visiting students to various facets of the housing debate and practice. We strongly believe that both we and the international students benefited hugely from this interaction. The speakers offered great insight into the key issues that architects, in Johannesburg, face. They discussed starting a practice as architects in an area where people were very negative about the city. 26’10 wanted to work with the challenges of the city and they did this by forming collaborations with artists, film makers and musicians. They expressed the idea that architects need to collaborate with people working outside of architecture to create a rich understanding of the city. The feedback received from the students truly reflected their research and interest in Johannesburg. The questions they had asked during the coordinated time with The City, were relevant and made for good and interesting discussions for all involved.  The Harvard students gained a truly international perspective on how progressive architecture can be used to design socially cohesive communities, thanks to the academic studio organised by The City. Some of the students commented:

“I found this trip extremely well curated, all topics were very relevant to my study of Johannesburg.”

“This was a great introduction to the infinitely complex city of Johannesburg; I am exhausted but grateful for all the planning out into these trips, lectures and discussions.”

Johannesburg is definitely a place of interest, to all who live here. But internationally we are most certainly on the map!

Janine Adank and Julie-Ann Tyler