FUTURE JOHANNESBURG | Interview with Tariq Toffa

“…as is the case with many other cities around the world, in many respects we have an anti-city culture”


Future Johannesburg speaks with Tariq Toffa, South African  architect and lecturer in the architecture department at the University of Johannesburg. He shares the main challenges for urban planning in South Africa and some of his current projects.





Words: Carolina Giraldo Nohra

Future Johannesburg: The focus of your articles at URB.im has been on the  empowerment of communities and local entrepreneurship. How does this relate to your work this year?

Tariq Toffa: The iconic Mandela days, the ‘new South Africa’, the ‘rainbow nation’ – these ideas probably seem to many now as distant and somewhat naïve. And it only took two decades for these – our noblest ideas – to become historical ones, dropping almost completely off the map of priorities, and typically conjured up formulaically for political expediency or opportunistically for branding. But the rounds of xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg and many other incidents around the country that have captured news headlines where difference and othering is synonymous with abuse and violence have returned the older project to the forefront with a vengeance. Other instances around the globe, like Ferguson in the US or the deaths of desperate African migrants to Europe, highlight many similar issues in other contexts.

In conceptual terms I call this the ‘softer’ project of democracy, and in spatial terms I think of it as building ‘discursive spaces’, because I am interested in architectural thinking and practice that participates in, contributes towards, and develops a discourse of society. It is a slow, deliberate and persistent project that needs greater and consistent focus intellectually, imaginatively and experimentally; and that perhaps is its failure, because it is often and easily overtaken by trends and novelties. This has always been a silent but consistent current running through my own work but, given the current local and global social climate, needs to be reasserted and re-centered.


Engagements, collaborations and designs by architecture students at the University of Johannesburg.

FJHB: Through your experience and work, what are the main difficulties when proposing a new idea or plan to a community, and fostering these discursive spaces.

TT: Whether as a practitioner, student or educator, my work thus far has been diverse; but always with a societal, public or humane focus. For me ‘the community’ is not disenfranchised groups and localities only (where this term typically tends to be employed) while the rest of the landscape remains unchanged; it is not quite as localized or isolated as that. Rather our challenges are very much interrelated, and while communities in South Africa may be radically diverse in some respects they can still be engaged through a broader ethical imagination for the kind of society we wish to build.

Since I have taken up a full time academic post recently at the University of Johannesburg, the ‘communities’ that I most often engage are the communities of architecture, of knowledge, of learners; for while action in the field is important and which we are committed to, so too is the need to build knowledge and train future practitioners who have the value and skills base to be able to undertake such roles. They are of equal import, for one would be severely hindered without the other. These relationships are part of what the University of Johannesburg and my colleagues there have been trying to build over recent years.


FJHB:  In your view, what are the main challenges for urban planning in South Africa? As an example, we previously interviewed Sizwe Mxobo, who felt that planning South Africa should “consider people, and not just space”?

TT: City planning is, of course, complex. Many critiques of our urban environments provide an economic, namely capitalist, critique; while others also describe the unknown worlds of the everyday that exists despite overarching economic structures. Spatial practitioners however are not sufficiently trained in either, but nor should they be necessarily. What is needed I think is to understand the bandwidth within respective contexts wherein to affect meaningful transformation through their own particular forms of spatial agency.

Generally, as is the case with many other cities around the world, in many respects we have an anti-city culture: fragmented, segregated and car-dominated. In such contexts urban design should be critical. I believe architects need to learn to think more urbanistically (i.e. engaging broader spatialities), and urban designers need to think more architecturally (i.e. engaging more imaginatively and thematically). With regard to upgrading informal settlements specifically, many skills are lacking to engage this with sufficient complexity. Re-blocking was one recent innovation that addressed several issues in a spatial way such as providing emergency vehicle access. But it also neglected others such as enabling further upgrading, natural growth and long-term planning because it locks in its arrangements and therefore also the living conditions of those who live in it. It may be appropriate in some situations, but we should learn from it and other situations may call for other solutions.


FJHB:Which cities are you inspired by, and how important are precedents in a more globalised world?

TT: All of the many cities covered on URB.IM show groundswell paths of innovation, which highlight how similar global challenges in the developing world are. Yet while we can and should look for answers in precedent elsewhere – this is in essence the innovation of URB.IM, to build this discussion platform accessibly across the global South – we equally must develop and contextualise a discourse of ‘best practice’ within local settings. Not doing so is problematic, whether it is the BRT or any other initiative.

Spatial design also deals with lots of complexity, the fullness of which is often difficult to grasp by those who would fund or implement projects. Communication is therefore also a part of inclusivity and accessibility, and communication of good design is as important as good design in many ways. Sao Paulo for example has an accessible urban design guideline for the city that everyone can access and engage. Unfortunately architects and other spatial designers who forefront social content are usually not equally adept at marketing. Other platforms such as URB.IM, Future Cape Town or Designing_SouthAfrica can help greatly with that and with building platforms for governmental and non-governmental interactions. We need to find ways to make good design and good design incentives less opaque for different stakeholders (including government officials) and for people generally.

Tariq Toffa is a South African  architect and a lecturer in the architecture department at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He completed his professional architectural studies at the University of Cape Town, an architectural research Masters at Wits University, and studied religious and constitutional law at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Toffa has been writing for URB.im an international platform on social and urban topics and is a contributor to SHiFT (Social Housing Focus Trust).


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  1. Photos by Jhono Bennett and Tariq Toffa
  2. Images by UJ students Lance Ho Hip, Nyasha.Chirinda and Kashiya Mbinjama.