Context is king
Thiresh Govender says architects and designers have been complacent to the systemic entrenchment of inequality. But, he argues, signals on how they can change their practice are all around them in cities like Johannesburg, where he’s based
13 Aug, 2020 | Updated 12 Jul, 2021
Design should be responding to the complexities of the world now. We are living through a time with so much urgency, necessity and trauma. As designers, we don’t have the luxury of being self-indulgent and self-centred. Our work needs to serve in some way, and more specifically in relation to the urgent pressures of our time. But, the first problem is in the way we trained.
Our education has not prepared us for a world experiencing this level of turbulence. It does not give us tools to respond to the barrage of chaos that confronts us daily. How we design needs to be closely attentive to the undercurrents of what makes our cities operate as they do, and how they are failing us all.
I’m interested in design that’s not necessarily coming from a professional or a single author. There’s the design that’s all around us in a city like Johannesburg, where I live. That’s what interests me. It results from ongoing, multi-layered, multi-authored (micro and incremental) reactions to the conditions to which it is responding. It is not coming from an all-knowing central figure asserting a design logic onto an environment. Instead, it’s the result of a reciprocal relationship between, let’s call it, a design professional, the built environment and society.
Johannesburg has been a phenomenal (intense) and accessible laboratory for me as a practitioner. It’s this turbulent metropolis, actively trying to reconcile itself with multiple traumas and a complicated history all at once. As it does so, there’s this incredible entrepreneurialism—opportunism even—that is emerging and becoming part of the city’s identity. The fact that many aspects of life across the city have become somewhat deregulated means that the impulses of people seeking survival and opportunity are apparent and present everywhere you look. It’s layering a new kind of city on top of the old one.
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It’s a gift for an architect like me: someone curious and interested in translating what others might dismiss as chaos, into new ways of planning (strategizing, speculating) and arranging life in cities like those in the global South. So, Johannesburg is an exciting place for me. It feels like a city on the cusp of moving from one state to another in a remarkably short space of time.
One of the things we need to manage in the way we practice design is certainty. As architects, we typically approach buildings with precision and confidence, sometimes even as we insert them into volatile environments; that’s what we trained to do. So, we keep designing ourselves into these dead-ends. We produce architecture that’s mono-functional when we can no longer afford to do this. It’s unsustainable for many reasons, and too often not fit-for-purpose. What’s the point of continuously producing buildings that serve a particular need for a specific moment, when everything is evolving around you, sometimes in unpredictable ways?
I find architects quite complacent and compliant to the existing status quo. So, this democratisation of architecture that has been happening...is exciting. Any person with a hammer can essentially be both an architect and a builder. So I have opened myself to it and am trying to learn from it
We need to radically re-think what a building is. In cities that seem to be in a perpetual state of flux like Johannesburg, architecture needs to be hyper-conscious and primed to respond to the complex layers of different actors, economic forces, conditions of governance, and environmental pressures at sites that might even be in the same neighbourhood. Sometimes things are that dynamic. It’s an interesting dilemma and a challenge. How do you even begin to design for something with that extreme level of fluidity and complexity?
Personally, I have had to learn to be less precious about architecture, especially its aesthetic composition. I have begun to lean towards a more operational architecture. When we start concerning ourselves less with what something looks like, and more with the complex environments or systems it has to exist in, some exciting things happen. Only then can we begin to create architecture that is engaged enough to stimulate, amplify or shift some of the things we are trying to address. So, first, we need to understand how a proposed structure will work within its surrounding system, and not in the superficial ways that processes like “community engagement”—that dreaded buzzword—often fail to. Of course, there is a lot of uncertainty in that process.
So how do we embrace uncertainty? For a start, we welcome it. We invite into our process the numerous pressures, assertions and appropriations that are ever-present in a city like mine. We immerse ourselves in developing ways of responding with work that adds onto, rather than subtracting, the design systems people are fashioning for themselves. We explore how they can accommodate us, not the other way around. Perhaps this is more difficult, but it’s worth it. What you achieve, in my experience, is a richer way of co-producing architecture and design that means something, and that has the potential to enrich people’s lives. It differs from what often comes out of mere conversational engagements (the conventional “stakeholder engagement processes”), because it also addresses the power dynamics so often hidden in how we consult our constituents—especially in non-commercial, mission-driven work. I find architects quite complacent and compliant to the existing status quo. So, this democratisation of architecture that has been happening in places like Johannesburg is exciting. We have to embrace everything that enables us to serve better.
There’s this four-storey walk-up residential building in Yeoville, a Central Johannesburg suburb. Constructed in the 1950s, the building has a modernist aesthetic—one could say attitude. That’s what the author of this building was going for, and that’s what it shouts out. In the last 20 years, it, like many around it, has become occupied by immigrants, primarily from across the African continent. They are repurposing and using the building very differently from what the architect imagined. So, the living rooms, passageways, kitchens—every space, including the balconies—have now been turned into something different.
There’s now another type of interior architecture that does not mirror how the building presents outside. Some windows are blocked up; some new ones installed. One could look at this as the desecration of an otherwise beautiful piece of architecture. I would rather look at it as a legitimate (and emergent) form of co-production. Residents are asserting their lives in those spaces. We see this in quite a few residential buildings across Johannesburg. The city’s densification occurs not only through new buildings, but by re-imagining the existing residential building stock, including warehouses. Architects and policymakers have to understand this and learn to engage with the phenomenon productively.
These appropriations come out of necessity. They are happening in two forms. The first—let’s call them occupations—often defy the current legal framework or bylaws and standards for safety, health, fire, etc. They’re dangerous. The second form I’ll call extra-legal. People have a right to be in these buildings. What they are doing, again out of necessity, is productive. They are finding ways to use space with little waste, and creating a different type of value. In some instances, what they are doing is way more progressive than the law and policy in place.
We have a history of laws not serving the majority in this country, so it’s not always easy to take the law as an absolute. As our cities evolve and grow, so should the laws and regulations that govern them. Some things still in law in our cities are arbitrary and outdated—they don’t have a public health, well-being, or safety basis. As architects—together with communities like those in this modernist building in Yeoville—we must challenge and contest laws and policies that are irrelevant or obstructionist so we can build something new.
So, our legal frameworks need a re-think as much as our education system. That is how we will re-build the field to be as robust and dynamic as the places where it is trying to find new relevance. Many of our bylaws were developed in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s—a different world from the one we now occupy. I often find myself struggling to reconcile with them, to do everything by the book, as much as the residents I mention. So, in a sense, we are allies, and we have the opportunity to make a real difference in these spaces. A kind of rebel approach might be necessary.
We can no longer think that professional architects alone define the discipline. Any person with a hammer can essentially be both an architect and a builder—a majority is producing with no other choice, and they are doing it in a responsive, sensitive and sophisticated way. Yes, it might have an aesthetic crudeness to it, but we need to look beyond that stuff and learn to work with it. A world that is profoundly complex and sophisticated is building itself up in the absence of professionals willing to engage it on its terms. And it is talking back to us, saying, “Look at me. Look at what I’m doing.”