Friday, April 12, 2013

Buldings Don’t Make a City – People Do.


                    I am known for being a proponent of Downtown Johannesburg, certainly Johannesburg Central is far more sustainable, more authentic, offers more opportunity and greater diversity, and is a better place to see return on your property investment than a small, decentralized, micro office node like Sandton, but I’m not going to discuss those statements in depth here.

Rather I’d like to talk about cities, about Johannesburg, about architecture, aesthetic, connectivity, experience, delight, where we as South African architects are excelling, and where we have lost the plot completely.

So what makes a city?
Is a city simply about built density – certainly a node like Sandton would seem to be approaching a city type density – but is density alone what defines a city?

“Architecture in Johannesburg has reached a most anomalous stage; enormous building activity has inevitably led to an almost total neglect of critical standards. Buildings are frequently described in the press, to which no architects name can be attached, and to which certainly no respecting one would put his name”.  The South African Architectural Record, June 1937

Looking at poor examples of architecture I could talk about how over 70 mature trees, with a history dating back almost 100 years to the Rosebank Junior School, were felled to create the new Standard Bank office block in Rosebank.
More interesting now, is the way that this building addresses the urban environment – or the way that it doesn’t address the urban environment.
Rosebank is a popular business node, famous as a walkable district; human scale buildings highly permeable to the street and public space create a welcoming and pleasant pedestrian experience. Does this building take any cognizance of this environment? A monolithic glass block, cut off from the street by on grade parking, with left over, unusable space as an urban green pocket?

Part of the problem is our professions current obsession with “green building”.
I’m not venturing that there is anything wrong with any endeavor to conserve our planets finite resources, or to create more sustainable buildings and communities, but many architects have become so obsessed with checking the green boxes, that we have lost site of the spirit of Architecture. The green obsession is reducing architecture from the spiritual of an art form, to the dull science of an accounting audit, – box checking, number crunching. The appeal is that green is easy to tabulate, to sell commercially, while good architecture or design is about space, experience, aesthetic, spirit - its difficult to quantify or put a commercial value on these aspects present in exemplary architecture.

In a recent City Chat column, Neil Fraser talks about a lack of sense of place in architecture - “As I ascend 15 floors from car-park to plush offices in yet another aluminium box, I think of all the other aluminium boxes we now use for departure and arrivals.”

The global bland eliminates our sense of place. Arrivals, whether by plane, train or lift should create a sense of expectancy, a prologue to the story that will unfold.  Departures are the epilogue -“a last glimpse, an invitation to return.  This is as valid for the once in a lifetime trip as it is for the daily commute.

The architects of New York's Grand Central Station captured the excitement & larger than life qualities of the city. The original Gordon Leith Park station in Johannesburg had Pierneef paintings of scenes from around South Africa decorating the main concourse, giving the place a sense of centrality - all railroads lead from & to the City of Gold.

Today, a sense of wonder is a luxury, as our places of transition have become cages for captive consumers filled with persuasions to buy. Economic necessities do inhibit individualistic structures, but in our race to the bottom-line, we leave in our wake a numbness of being anywhere & nowhere.

The Gautrain is a case in point – bland generic stations unidentifiable from each other.  This represents a huge missed opportunity – instead of a gateway to new travel experiences, emerging from the ground to reveal unexplored and exciting new urban possibilities, we have to make do with awkward stations, sandwiched between underdesigned buildings and overly busy, pedestrian impossible streets - no connection to any type of urban experience. The human element is completely absent from these sterile, grey, drab spaces, no coffee and newspaper kiosks, hawkers are Verboten – Your Gautrain gold card opens the turnstile into an inhospitable, bland, over regulated un reality. 

The Park Station Gautrain terminal is about as good as it gets, with some sense of urban public space on arrival. The location is less fortunate – not in Braamfontein, and not Downtown – an awkward stepchild left to fend for itself in no mans land. 

Not only is this “global bland” a symptom of function over aesthetic but also of the removal of human interaction and thought from the design process. The time taken to draft an elevation, to consider its proportion, the deliberate thought and action of erasing and redrawing a pencil line on paper- this gives a design life.
The human element of thought and spirit in design that the advent of Autocad began to erode a generation ago has now been completely obliterated by the global adoption of Revit. A standard generic robotic design tool, and we wonder why one building looks exactly like the next, one surface feels the same as another, the aspect of humanity, discovery, surprise, delight, mistake, banished from the design process.

How do we combat the generic, the global bland?
I’m not in a position to answer that, but certainly it is a critical challenge facing architects today, and one worth some thought.

The preamble to the National Development Plan, adopted by government to chart South Africas way forward to 2030 states,
As South Africans we know our history, and that of other people.
We have learned a great deal from our complex past;
Adding continually to our experience of being African.

So what can we learn from our architectural history in Johannesburg?
Modern movement buildings make for particularly interesting case studies, considering the current trends towards, mass machine production. There is growing appreciation for Modern Movement architecture within the profession, and lay people also.
Since I am a councilor on PHRAG I had to slip an old building in here.

Hot Point House 1936 (Hanson Tomkin Finklestein)
This is a building that in its time bucked the trend for crass commercially driven shit architecture. It stretched the boundaries of planning, construction and design. The entire street front of the building is cantilevered, allowing uninterrupted glazing along the pavement, creating a visually permeable edge between Hotpoint and the city. The façade is a case study in composition – architects in the 30s still had a classical training in Palladian proportioning, the golden section, renaissance architecture – the fact that the building is perfectly proportioned is not a mistake, there is an underlying understanding of architectural composition here – not aesthetic for aesthetics sake.
Ribbon windows pick up the beautiful horizontal of the Bree Street canyon, offset by light and elegant projecting balcony stacks, faced in black glass to reflect activity in the street below. Hotpoint represented a change in architectural attitude, a rejection of second best, an exploration of buildings, and their relationship to the street and to the city.

The 1936 review of the building goes on to praise the stripped down aesthetic, the architects rejection of the tendency to “imagine what feature can best be elongated, hideously, or perched uncomfortably as a crowning feature on some unfortunate structure.

If (many) architects are not engaging at the forefront of creating integrated cities, and reinvigorating civic urban space, who else will?

There are some exemplary South Africans pushing the boundaries of city exploration and pioneering new public urban interaction.

Never one to play it safe, South African fashion designer David Tlale, created a massive stir -closing Nelson Mandela Bridge for his midnight fashion week show – bringing high fashion and the Joburg A list back to the streets of the city, and in the process claiming his title as prince of South African couture. 

Always the most coveted fashion week invite, this year, Tlale previewed his new collection on the steps of City Hall. Once the center of Johannesburg’s public life, Government Square had all but been forgotten. Tlale could have plugged into what others had already pioneered, hosting a “downtown” show in the relative safety of Maboneng or Braamfontein, but instead he chose a spectacular, and completely unique location. Guests were whisked from the fashion week tents in Newtown to the Foot of the Rissik street Fountains. The glowing white Barbican, the warm sandstone of City Hall, and the ruins of the ZAR Styz Weirda Rissik Street Post office, created the perfect backdrop for Tlales impeccable, vintage inspired, quintessentially African take on contemporary couture.

 More important though, the event re activated disused civic space, bringing activity and life into the heart of the city center – and bringing it there at night!  I’d call David Tlale an inspirational urban African civic pioneer!

This could only be done in the city – Sandton has no Civic Heart (please don’t tell me Nelson Mandela square) – this activation of civic space can only happen in an authentic downtown environment, and as architects and creative professionals, this is what we should be pioneering.

We have all heard MANY excuses for buildings that turn their backs on civic context, creating dislocated islands, instead of pioneering connected, sustainable urban neighborhoods. As South Africans, crime is an excuse offered for all eventualities. Other popular choices with architects ;- the budget was too tight, the client wanted a parking lot instead of an entrance lobby, the urban environment was too rough, or too difficult to deal with , nobody walks anyway.

A building that flies in the face of all these excuses is Nina Coen and Fiona Garsons Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein.

This is a building which could easily have become a bunker, and certainly every excuse tendered for the creation of an island building is applicable to Wits Art Museum.
Wits is a client obsessed with safety and extremely suspicious of creating any type of connection to the city (any pedestrian who has tried to access the campus from Braamfontein without the automatic credibility lent by driving motorcar will attest to this)

The building stands at the South East Edge of the campus, a perfect position to act as a connector between the university and Braamfontein, and also a strategic gateway to the inner city.
Originally a motorcar dealership, the space had become degraded through years of neglect and disuse. Infested with taxi drivers, illegal informal traders and general urban decay wits erected a pre-fab wall topped with barbed wire – further cutting the building off from the city.

The design proposal was a drastic one – opening up the original motor court corner with sliding glazed walls, blurring the distinction between the interior and exterior spaces, and between the building and the city around it.
Once a sinkhole, the art museum has become a beautiful icon at the edge of Braamfontien, and has opened Wits up to this vibrant regenerated district. At night the building becomes a glowing beacon at the gateway to downtown.

Further, the architect’s sensitive reuse of the building has created a seamless integration between an old building and its new function. Original materials like terrazzo, glazed external tiles and marble were retained, cleaned and incorporated into the new Wits Art Museum,  creating a beautifully crafted piece of civic architecture, the ultimate antidote to the contemporary condition of generic, global bland

Main Street Mall -Another very successful connected un-gated urban space

It is important to remember that people cannot be forced to use streets, if they have no reason to be there. Main Street is a strategic artery - linking Gandhi Square Transport Terminus in the center of the city to the banks, mining houses, courts and the Newtown Cultural area. Important to the continued sustainability of the Street are Anglo American, forming an anchor on the West end of Main, and Nedbank’s 100 Main office, forming the East Anchor.  Diverse functions along the street ensure pedestrian activity and movement, creating a sustainable node, made safe through use and activity, rather than through access controlled booms, razor wire and electric fencing.

Streets should be social spaces, community nodes, explosions of colour, energy and daily interaction

Cities are not solely created through built density, but rather through the creation of sustainable, safe public space.  The great American urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, “Think of a city and what comes to mind - Its streets!” A city is not simply a collection of buildings created in a void, with streets as a left over space between. The city is a living organism and streets, as its main public spaces, are the arteries that sustain the city’s life.
The rebirth of the city has to start on the street! When people say that a city is dangerous – perceived or real - they mean that they don’t feel safe on their own pavement; they don’t feel safe on heir own street.

To the people who still live in Fourways, don’t need to see Italy because they have Montecasiono, think that Sandton is a City, that the world ends just South of Hyde Park and that there is no activity or investment in authentic urban environments, I leave you this last thought :-

Critical Mass / 70 Juta / Maboneng, Play Braamfontein, Propertuity, Wits Art Museum, ANC Luthuli House, ABSA, South Point, The Rand Club, Standard Bank (excluding the Rosebank aborton), Jonathan Liebmen, Jo Buitendach, Anglo American, Katlego at Cramers Coffee, Adam Leevie,  Urban Ocean, Nedbank – especially 100 Main, FNB, Gerald Garner, Gauteng Provincial Government, Mutual & Federal, The Ansteys Building, The Star Newspaper, Zurich Insurance, BHP Billiton, Chamber of Mines, David Tlale, Transnet, The South African Receiver of Revenue, The suburban kids who think that they invented cool by living in Ponte, Mercedes Benz South African Fashion Week,  Gauteng Institute for Architecture – but only when your roller shutters are up.

You pioneer civic reactivation, you create sustainable inclusive urban communities, you are South African, you buck the trend, you don’t play it safe, all roads lead to the city of gold, and you make Johannesburg great!

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