“we are aware of our surroundings and we attempt to look into the actual goings-about of the city”
In 2015, the collaborative studio, Counterspace hosted a Supermarket – themed architectural exhibition of the WITS and University of Johannesburg’s Schools of Architecture students’ work.
Joburg is messy. Much of Johannesburg’s existence is constituted of counter-existences which work in spite of so many margins of what is recognised as the nominal city. Assemblies are formed and designed for survival against economic and spatial dispossession – we recognise this as the city. Johannesburg is made up of these miscellaneous experiences and if architecture is to be relevant, the architectural practice must learn to work with this.
In 2015 the Johannesburg – based collaborative studio, Counterspace curated an exhibition of the work of the then most recent Masters’ graduates of the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) School of Architecture and the University of Johannesburg School of Architecture in Johannesburg, Gauteng. “We wanted to pose architectural futures to the city.” says Counterspace. The aim of the exhibition was to invite everyone to engage with the work, and to open a platform for discussion around augmenting the scope of what the architect should do.
Architecture at the Supermarket
ArchiMart, as the exhibition was called, was generated from the concept of rendering architectural research projects as consumables that are available to everyone. Thus the ‘supermarket’ theme created just that – an everyday-ritual. Here, architecture was to be ‘consumed’ – inspire active criticism and offer opportunity for ‘consumers’ to walk away with their own inspirations and ideas of what the future of space-making should be like in Johannesburg, and in the world! The supermarket theme successfully commented on the connection of architectural theories and architectural research with the everyday.
The exhibition also hosted successful networking events for professionals, with a tongue in cheek comment on the ‘sale’ of recent graduates into the industry as well as a pop up cinema which extended into the street, hosting a series of film screenings looking at architecture and narrative. What was meant to be a school exhibition of architecture research, turned out to be much more – a mini architecture festival, with panel discussions on the the graduate work, the state of the architectural practice and new ways to make architecture in the current contexts.
Shopping for ideas in Johannesburg
Graphically, the exhibition took a lot of inspiration from the supermarket display, packaging, branding, and sales mechanisms. The class of 2014/2015 of these 2 universities showcased a wide range of talent and interests, many of them grappling with the messy miscellaneousness of the city. From very sensitively tackling global, religious-political issues in the Middle East by Jarred Pincus; to radically proposing a change in the use of cemeteries; by Beke Mchunu and many more – a whole host of architectural hallucinations waiting to be bought, consumed and to inspire discussion.
Experimental Stage, by Elliot Marsden (Supervised by Holger Deppe)
“This project was a proposal for a new design fabrication laboratory, exploring the exchange of digital and physical space. The project opens the University campus to the public and blurs the interactions between academia, practice, and the public. This is thought-provoking if one considers the relative isolation of institutions of learning and of architecture in the country. Marsden also taps into resources and suggestions that are often dismissed or misunderstood by practice, acknowledging the rapidity of technologies in relation to the ‘slowness’ of the construction of a building. Thus our buildings are already outdated while we are still designing them.”
Dead Space, by Beke Mchunu (Supervised by Hannah le Roux)
“This project looked at the careful negotiation (or re-negotiation) of the Braamfontein Cemetery. Mchunu viewed the cemetery as a resting place of significant contributors for the city’s history – as a commemorative landscape where events, social and burial practices are recorded. The clever use and transacting of threshold between atmospheres, rituals, and activities is a clever reimagining of the traditional (and highly problematic) Johannesburg palisade fence phenomenon.”
Occupational Hotel, by Michael Flanagan (supervised by Kirsten Doermann)
“This project investigated the strength and tenacity of an insurgent economy in Johannesburg. Flanagan lived, walked and worked with waste-reclaimers in a sorting hub in Jeppestown, a suburb located just east of the Johannesburg city centre. Flanagan proposed a piece of infrastructure which attempts to enhance and encourage economic growth and consolidate a living environment and/or rest stop for what he recognised as outwardly informal and transient, but actually deeply systematic and well-organised citizens.”
Idea Bank, by Sarah de Villiers (supervised by Kirsten Doermann)
“The project explored the manifestation and facilitation of monetary infrastructure and loopholes in financial transaction space. De Villiers explored the use of spaces which employ the underlying principles of casinos, banks and stock exchanges for ‘good’ investments in small entrepreneurial ventures in Alexandra a township near Sandton, Johannesburg.”
Abandoned pages, unsettled space, by Amina Kaskar (supervised by Hannah le Roux)
“The project blurs media between literary text and space, and the overlaps between the two. Amina eventually designed a literary-networking and publishing house in an old abandoned part of town, underneath the railway – it is a quirky and romantic project, but, critical to Kaskar’s explorations was the overlap of text and space – how we frame space, what we say and write about it, influences it’s making and our perceptions of it. She also recognised the power of literary allegory to describe and frame our current spaces, and propel our conditions into more hopeful spaces.”
Joburg Polygraph, by Sumayya Vally (supervised by Hannah le Roux)
“This project dealt with the future of the mining belt in Johannesburg, and used the harmful consequences of the acid mine “problem” as the machine to grow a new architecture. The project is concerned with the future of the city, but is also concerned with the making of an image for Johannesburg, in a city where this is quite fraught and indefinable. Vally worked with a chemical engineer and affluent stream specialist to “grow” solid pigment powders from acid mine components. The resulting architecture is a pigment factory infrastructure which acts as a surreal ritual space for the surrounding cultural and arts precinct.”
The University of Johannesburg’s 2015 Masters’ students projects also projected a host of hopefully optimistic urban futures.
Jozi Plantation, by Jaco Jonker from the University of Johannesburg (supervised by Alex Opper with Lorenzo Nassimbeni)
“The project explored the idea of a “forest factory” using Nasrec’s super-dumps as a base infrastructure. Jonker’s project responds to the issues surrounding dust and erosion of the superdumps (increasingly becoming a health hazard to the Soweto and surrounds). Through his project, Jonker employed comic and graphic-novel style drawings which sketched scenarios, both dire and utopian of the future of the superdumps. These thought provoking images pull us into his world of imagined possibilities – which extend beyond the conventionally architectural – to overlap landscape scripting, chemical and mechanical devices and timber-mill building.”
Shopping for ideas in Zanzibar
In 2015 some of the students (supervised by Prof Lesley Lokko with Craig McClenaghan and Sumayya Vally) went on a trip to Zanzibar. The outburst of creativity and vast extent of their use of graphic media, is particularly relevant to finding new means of design. This is pertinent, again, because young people in our context need to find means of expression to deal with the miscellaneous, which cannot always be expressed or understood through what we know as conventional architectural representation. The following projects are a result of the students’ experiences:
“The Circus and the Turbine Factory”, by Sharne Vermeulen from the University of Johannesburg (supervised by Dr. Lesley Lokko, Craig McClenaghan and Sumayya Vally).
“The project unravels ideas surrounding Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque. Vermeulen looked to the carnival to activate and revolutionise urban public space in Zanzibar, through a momentary suspension of rules, subversion of traditions and celebration of its hybrid cultures. Vermeulen’s architecture seemingly playfully unpacks and choreographs the workings of the carnival but also more critically suggests the underlying idea of the circus as a site for resistance and potential change.”
Zanskom, by Darren Sampson from the University of Johannesburg (supervised by Dr. Lesley Lokko, Craig McClenaghan and Sumayya Vally).
“This project process involved an array of media surrounding light – including photography and film to envision a Power Station for Zanzibar. Since its independence in 1964, Zanzibar has relied on the mainland for electricity and water supplies. This reliance underlines the links between the two, describing a relationship that is never simple, always negotiable and always at risk.The proposed power station both generates and consumes power, from wind, solar and rain, but also looks at the relationship of power – electricity – in a developing world economy such as Zanzibar’s.”
Zanzibar Stock Exchange, by Lebohang Letsoisa from the University of Johannesburg (supervised by Dr. Lesley Lokko, Craig McClenaghan and Sumayya Vally).
“This project investigated new spaces for trade in the city. Letsoisa became fascinated by the various outputs for trade and retail – from supermarkets to traditional African markets, inspiring him to investigate the origins of the words ‘stock’ and ‘stock market’. Zanzibar’s trading culture exists on many levels and the project investigates how and what type of goods arrive on the island; how they are distributed; what the local retail networks are; whether trade is ‘formal’ or ‘informal’; looking at the scale of businesses from the tiniest to the major retailers and wholesalers; and finally, at the labour practices on the island – high-tech; low-tech, no-tech.”
All of the projects presented are spatial in some way or another, and the subject matter of each asks us to engage with spatial prompts in ways beyond the merely the conventional building. Each presents unique ways of creating, negotiating and inhabiting space more profoundly or with more complexity than is immediately apparent. For much of the city, these highly complex modes of negotiating cities are the everyday. If we are to truly serve our city – we must begin to understand these modes of navigating our cities’ spaces. Many young people emerging from university institutions, are, in fact brimming with creativity and attuned to seeing things with lenses different to the conventional.
We are aware of our surroundings and we attempt to look into and around the actual goings-about of the city. We are aware that we need to develop new vocabularies and new ways of making in order to reckon with and transform our contexts. The student projects presented here recognise and exploit this and also projected a host of hopefully optimistic urban futures.
Read more about architectural futures:
- Counterspace: A new way of practising architecture
- Hillbrow, a community centre and the future: Interview with Thomas Chapman
- Rethinking the future of public space at South Africa’s largest transport node : A new public for Park Station
- Architecture for the future : 5 inspiring architects and buildings
- The future of Salt River: architecture students investigate research platforms for emerging technologies
- All images provided by Counterspace