“as our cities change, so must the practice of architecture”
How can architectural students engage with neighbourhoods that are dangerous and volatile? . Claire du Trevou reflects on an architectural studio that took place in Manenberg last year.
By Claire du Trevou
In 2013 the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) Department of Architectural Technology and Interior Design created a studio with their fourth year students, aimed at developing students’ abilities to actively engage with disenfranchised communities. The aim was to ensure students produce architectural interventions that are more reflective of how their communities function, and their aspirations for better living environments.
Each year students are provided with a brief which includes a specific community group, context and set of urban and spatial issues that need to be addressed through a design intervention. The studio differs from other architectural studios, in that the students get to work with an actual client, gaining real time feedback and input, rather than with a hypothetical set of design informants and constraints. The focus of the brief focuses not only on solving the design issue, but also investigates how the process may empower and uplift those involved. Historically, the design process is a top-down process, whereby architecture is conceived in an office and delivered with little consideration for existing social structures between residents. The intimate engagement process allows for architecture to uncover intricacies and delve deeper into the intangibles of the context.
Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) is an NGO working with networks of informal settlements across the country to provide support to citizens mobilising around certain issues such as land, evictions, informal settlement upgrading, basic services and citizenship. TheDepartment of Architectural Technology and Interior Design formed a relationship with CORC, and an agreement was drawn up to ensure that the student projects are structured in such a way that they are embedded in the broader development agendas of communities with which CORC has existing relationships, and that the members of these communities fully understand the theoretical nature of the projects.
The work produced by the three studios that have been run, has been handed over to the communities of Vygieskraal, Manenberg and Lwazi Park to use as additional tools for leverage in their engagements with the City of Cape Town and other governing bodies, towards achieving their development goals.
In 2014, the studio collaborated with community leaders from Manenberg, a suburb established in 1966, during Cape Town’s era of forced removals and relocations, located 20km south east of the city centre. Classified as a ‘sub-economic housing development area’ Manenberg’s flats and semi-detached houses were not fitted with ceilings, doors to the rooms or interior water sources.
Today the suburb is overcrowded, crime is rife, drug abuse is a common social ill and the streets are governed by conflicting gangs. At the beginning of 2015, parents escorted their children to school, following an gang shootout, where a stray bullet pierced a classroom window. From mid December 2014 to late January, it was estimated that over 20 people had been killed through gang-related crimes. Later, the military assisted the police in an anti-crime raid of the suburb, due to the increased inter-gang violence. And while some residents believed there would be a lull in gang violence following the raid, none were convinced it would last.
The unsafe socio-urban conditions make it difficult for architectural research – such as transect walks and unstructured interviews with residents – to be conducted. Collecting contextual information through various mapping activities and then designing in such conditions would usually be extremely difficult, however the pre-existing relationship with CORC and the Manenberg community representatives, enabled the students access to deeper insights into the space, allowing architecture to go where it is most difficult. This facilitated interaction produces a much more meaningful – and potentially influential – architecture than merely an insertion of an urban solution with no deeper understanding of the social realities.
The participating community leaders were representatives from the Manenberg Slum Dwellers, the Movement for Change, the Backyarders Network, the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN). They worked with 40 students to redesign and retro-fit old hostels – which were designed and built for migrant male labourers who came to work in Cape Town during the apartheid years. Later families came to join their husbands in the hostels and informal additions were made to adapt the space for family rather than dormitory living. The housing designs intended to not only provided shelter, but also addressed broader community needs such as flooding, fires and crime.
According to a representative of CORC: “The studio aimed to generate ideas around alternative housing design and delivery options that would address the needs of Manenberg residents within their existing challenges and ‘urban’ conditions.”
Typically, at university level, the hypothetical architectural design process can be rigid and the product driven largely by the designer’s personal thoughts and preferences. According to Mizan Rambhoros, Senior Lecturer at CPUT, working with communities on ‘live’ projects, really opens the students eyes. Every week throughout the project, community members come into the architectural studio to collaborate with the students. Together they discuss solutions to design problems and community members are both complementary and critical of the student’s design interpretations, offering the students real-time feedback. “These studio interactions were most beneficial in this case because the community representatives were much more vocal than previous years” adds Rambhoros.
The projects stemming from this particular studio included innovative ideas around how the inclusion of creches, well-designed pedestrian routes, water catchment and solar panels in housing designs could contribute to safer, more livable urban conditions. The design process, when faced with real socio-economic challenges, shifts, and students innovate with recycled materials, reuse of existing structures and cross-programming spaces.
At the end of the studio, students present their work to the community representatives and hand over their research, context analysis, design informants and design proposals, including master plan layouts and detail design, for the community to use to inform their negotiations.
The student project was completed over a year ago and Melanie Manuel, the representative from Informal Settlement Network says that the community is still in negotiations with the city, about the site and the retro-fitting of the hostels into housing.
While implementation of the projects may not happen immediately, the projects remain an important moment in the communities’ own development. Speaking to Manuel she says that the community feels empowered by the engagement process with the students and that their ability to take ownership of the design process through the platform will help the community to be responsible for the building if it gets built. Manuel is an advocate of the process and says that the “community loved all the designs that were brought back to the whole community – they just all want to know when they will be built”.
“All communities should grab the opportunity with both hands if they can. It is a great process and it is wonderful to work with the students.” adds Manuel
Community engagement design projects are gaining traction at architecture schools across the country. “It is important to expose students to community co-designing processes at a university level” says Rudolf Perold – the fourth year studio co-ordinator at CPUT. He admits that while they ” haven’t perfected the balance yet”, (between students visiting the site and community visits to the studio) the process teaches the students how to operate in social settings and how to work with real clients. Speaking to Perold, he noted that students learn that most of the answers come from the community interactions, but that they do encourage the students to investigate and push alternative technologies in the tectonics of the design.
These studios obviously come with challenges and through reflecting on the previous three, Perold has found that “it is imperative to plug into a pre-existing process which has it’s own momentum and which grew from a community need – so that it is not just students going into a community with their own agenda, play along nicely and then leave forever. The expectations need to be stipulated clearly.”
The studio both the empowers communities through the co-design process and sets students up with a different skill set to that of tradition design projects. There is a concern from the staff that such skills are not yet widely needed or utilised in practise, but as our cities change, so must the practice of architecture.
Read more about the original design process