In September 2012 following the Architecture ZA conference in Cape Town, I attended a Master class that was linked to the conference called “A piece of the city”. Having never attended a “master class” before I was not sure what to expect and found myself thrown into a crazy world where I had no idea what I was doing – much like university. This was a place where all the knowledge I had previously gained needed to be put aside. There were new things to be learnt and experienced.
It was an intense two days which required a tremendous amount of self reflection and a delving into the psyche of the place and people of the area we were exploring, the edge of District Six latterly known as the “Fringe District”. As the name would suggest, this area is a pivotal connection, a “fringe” between the vacant land that once was filled with the buildings and the life of District Six, and the built up area along Buitenkant Street, mainly consisting of public administrative buildings such as the Magistrate’s Court and the Police Station. In between these are churches, apartment blocks, convenience stores, coffee shops, and even the Mavericks “gentlemen’s” nightclub which lies on the corner nearest Truth Coffee where the master class was held. In between these buildings exists the life of the area - the intangible connective fibres that create life within this space and community. We discovered over the course of the two days that the area functions somewhat like an eco system in which balance is created by each person, activity and space and to take one of these away or to change it dramatically would in fact swing this delicate eco system out of kilter and contribute negatively. To formulate an appropriate architectural intervention was the task proposed to us, but during the course of the workshop it became clearer that we needed to lay down the idea of “concept” and self and move into the realm of other, where in fact we were the other. This is the place in which you can face rejection but it also the place in which you can find acceptance. We struggled to move past our architectural obsessions with form and object, to the very start of what should inform design. That is, space. And more importantly, people that live within a space and the activities that take place should be recognised and protected. Though the question that remains is, how can one interject in space in order to change negative social patterns and to reinforce good ones without breaking the connections in the existing eco system that cause it function effectively?
We tentatively began to engage with the area by walking the streets, and as architects habitually do, taking notes of building typologies, forms, heights, photographs, etc. Others extended themselves into the social realm by engaging with the people who spend each day (and some each night) in this place they call home. And slowly a layered community was discovered, movement patterns uncovered, and a gently woven inner city fabric began to emerge. Each person a strand that by existing contributed to this tapestry they call life. Various types of people work here. Notably car guards hover on the street payments in their orange bibs, beckoning those that emerge from cars to feed their (always) hungry parking meters. An interesting occupation that would not exist in a city that is not controlled by the motor car. And this occupation leads to a host of activities that take place intangibly on the pavements, on door thresholds and on the streets. These are the social meeting spaces where the car guards have their lunch, or where they meet to have a break and interact with each other. These are the places where they are human beings and not “just a hassle”. Another fascinating occupation is the pushing of the recycling trolleys through the neighbourhood along indefinable pathways. These trolleys are collected from a central depot in the city each morning early, from which they are driven along their various routes till the end of the day where they return to their home at the depot. This is a constantly moving and changing activity as the trolleys do not seek out a destination, but exist for the journey along which they travel (perhaps a metaphor for the way we should intentionally live our lives). People interact with them as they pass by. Similarly, the car guards move to and fro till they too take their leave at the end of each day and leave no trace behind them.
I struggled to connect myself with the area. I am so used to arriving and leaving by car and taking little cognisance of place, usually focusing on my task at hand and looking for a destination. However this time I was traversing it by foot, and noticing things as if for the first time, like the beauty of the old buildings, and the smelliness of the streets and car exhausts. I noted an intense struggle of opposites, of things trying to connect with each yet remaining for ever only minutely out of reach, like Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” that adorns the ceiling of Rome’s Sistine Chapel. The point being that, there is no thing to be found, as if a prized treasure. No thing to be changed or intervened with. There is architecture in the existing buildings that live on the street, but here space and people become architecture too. So being asked to express my findings in some sort of visual format, I was at a loss, because my mind had only just begun to open up.
A “classmate” (many of whom felt just as perplexed as I) urged me to find my own way of expression. “Do a dance, if you like,” she said. And so I realised that I was going to have to step out of the way of my own preconceptions and start letting this place mould me instead of me trying to mould it. And I realised that this exercise would not be about me finding something else that needed to be changed, but about changing myself. I sat for a moment thinking of the thing that I best could do and thought, “I can write!” So armed with my pen, I walked out into the street and decided to look and listen. And so my pen became my secret weapon – my contribution to this world that I did not quite belong to. Perhaps I could add something intangible too; perhaps I too could find a way of belonging.
Firstly I was looking for a place to sit. The Police building was most unwelcoming – as it had spikes on the plinth in front – for pigeons perhaps or for people?
This blog is about...
My thoughts as I go about visiting interesting places, attending exhibitions and conferences, and the architectural world we live in.