FUTURE CAPE TOWN | Hillbrow, a community centre and the future: Interview with Thomas Chapman

“without sounding too heroic – symbolic of a new future for Hillbrow”

Rashiq Fataar chats with Thomas Chapman the founder of Local Studio about the recently completed and award-winning Hillbrow community centre.





Rashiq Fataar (RF): The community centre project in Hillbrow is described as “one of the first new social infrastructure projects to be built in Hillbrow since the 1970’s”. Where does one start researching when contributing to this social and urban fabric, especially when things have changed so drastically many decades later.

Thomas Chapman (TC): We didn’t really have the luxury to think too hard about the most appropriate response on this project- the client, an NGO was given a grant by the National Lottery, who threatened to take it back if construction didn’t start on the project within two months of our appointment. Having said that, our first reaction was that our intervention needed to be read as something completely new – and without sounding too heroic – symbolic of a new future for Hillbrow.

This governed our choice of white corrugated iron and polycarbonate as cladding- materials seldomly used in this mostly modernist part of the city. The site is elevated almost two levels above the street, making a traditional ‘edge activation’  almost impossible so we had to be innovative in how we arranged the most active spaces in the building. We went as far as building a bench on the opposite side of the street to try to strengthen the building’s relationship with its context.

(RF): I have been very interested in the challenge for architects, in delivering a permanent building or project in a particular context, when a city and community can evolve so quickly – and further to this in a South Africa context can be often be described as volatile. How do you engage with this ?

(TC) : The majority of the early projects built in our office (between 2013 and now) have been social infrastructure projects with incredibly tight timelines, all taking under 6 months to build. This is almost unheard of by traditional construction standards and talks somewhat to your interest in rapidity vs. permanence. The projects have been unfussy solutions to immediate urban problems and by working with like-minded contractors and other professionals we have been able to deliver them at incredibly low costs. To give you an example, we built a 5000 sqm school in 6 months, and for rates 25% less than RDP houses are built for.

We have achieved this by working almost exclusively in steel construction, testing a variety of systems, from panelized construction to structural and light guage steel balloon frame construction.

(RF) : And this depends on the conditions in the market and environment?

Yes, I don’t think we would be able to do the same thing now as the steel market has tanked this year and things are a lot more expensive now.

(RF) : Apart from the extremely tight timelines, what were some of the other challenges in delivering this project ?

(TC): The challenges of the Hillbrow project emerged mainly from the construction system we used. Light frame steel (at the time) was a fairly untested system in Johannesburg, especially on non-residential projects. We were unable to accurately predict how the building would perform thermally and acoustically until a few months after completion. We found that vibrations from the dance studio on first floor have a major effect on the computer centre below, making simultaneous classes difficult to run. We implemented great passive ventilation systems in the building, but did not account for thermal bridging from the cladding through the steel structure and into the building so certain spaces are not ideal in summer. We are putting in place remedial measures to deal with these issues, and obviously have learnt the hard way what not to do in future projects like this.


(RF): Would it be ambitious to suggest that this building could attract those not living in Hillbrow or be used by communities outside of Hillbrow?

(TC) : Getting people from other neighbourhoods into Hillbrow is quite a difficult thing to do. Luckily there are a number of emerging city interventions such as the Hillbrow NMT commuter links tying into Braamfontein and other softer community initiatives like Dlala Nje which run alternative tours in the area. All of these things get ‘outsiders’ into Hillbrow which is the hard part, once they are here, the building and others on the block like the Hillbrow Theatre make for a very welcoming space.

the building is actually a collection of very neutral spaces that could be adapted to be pretty much anything in the future

(RF) : The idea of a civic commons in South Africa or a lack thereof, is relevant in a building like this, designed for a community. How did you work with this concept?

(TC) : Approximately half the building is designed to be completely open and accessible to the public- the main lobby and stairway is a dynamic, light-filled space that doubles up as a gallery for embroidery artwork made by a sewing NGO called Boitumelo which operates from the complex. This stairway connects to a sloping roof garden and amphitheatre at first floor level which is used as an event and performance space by a variety of groups in the area. The building also presents its primary program, the dance studio, to the public realm via a 12m window facing Twist Street. As mentioned earlier, this window is mirrored on the opposite side of the street with a steel bench allowing pedestrians to watch the dancers.

(RF) : Have you seen a change in the use of the building versus what you originally envisioned?

(TC) : Unexpectedly, the building has become quite a popular a meeting place in the area. There are a number of great community initiatives in this particular part of Hillbrow, such as the Ekhaya Neighbourhood as well as feeding schemes and night vigils run by the community activists Nigel and Trish Branken, that have chosen to use the building as a meeting place. Apart from specialized internal finishes such as the sprung floor in the dance studio, the building is actually a collection of very neutral spaces that could be adapted to be pretty much anything in the future.


(RF) : . How did the exhibition of your work ‘Additions and Alterations’ come about and why this theme?

(TC) : I had been on the jury for Wits Architectural Masters theses at the end of 2014 and met a great young group of graduates who had formed a curation collective called Counterspace. We discussed the possibility of working together on an exhibition of our work which would look to tell the stories behind the projects, using an actor-network approach. The title of the exhibition, Additions and Alterations is an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to bread-and-butter home renovations that keep most South African architects busy. I liked the idea that the term could be adapted to describe any urban project which recognizes the city as a primary form and any intervention an addition or alteration to this primary. All of the projects exhibited are very clearly a new layer on their sites, and aim to draw attention as much to their contexts as they do to themselves.

(RF) : Your firm recently won an award at the 2015 Architecture for Social Gain awards in the ‘Built Category’ for the Hillbrow project. What have been some of the benefits from this award?

(TC) : The best outcome of the Social Gain awards is that we have been encouraged to continue developing our design philosophy, which makes public and communal space the most important aspect of any project. Interestingly, the kinds of clients who keep approaching us to do this kind of work are mostly those delivering social services, like community centres and schools. We have no intention of limiting our practice to this niche though and are welcoming larger, even commercial projects into the office which afford us even the slightest opportunity to take these ideas further at a bigger scale.

About Local Studio 

Local Studio is an architecture firm based in Brixton, Johannesburg. The firm was founded by Thomas Chapman in 2011 with early commissions emerging directly from his Masters degrees in architecture (2008) and urban design (2013) at University of the Witwatersrand. Both theses explored the reintroduction of ‘publicness’ into the post apartheid city, with the former Western Areas of Johannesburg as a case study. Today, Local Studio employs 9 full-time staff and has a diverse portfolio of built work comprising public buildings, urban design schemes and private houses. Regardless of program, all projects begin with a considered response to surrounding community and public realm. The firm’s portfolio to date has also shown an ability to create rich, responsive architecture within considerable time and budget constraints. Current projects include the design of a pedestrian bridge in Westbury and a new cultural centre in Sophiatown.

Local Studio is also imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit, illustrated by their mission to become one of the leading architectural firms dealing with urban transformation in South Africa. With aims to continue developing unique approaches to practice that forge synergies between private business, communities, and the state, Local Studio’s ultimate goal is to bring excellence to those urban environments that until now have known only mediocrity.

About Thomas Chapman

Thomas Chapman is a professional architect and urban designer with 9 years’ experience working in the public and private built environment sector. Thomas has also taught in various posts at the Wits and UJ architecture schools and has spent time working as a researcher in the fields of oral history and civic engagement. Since forming Local Studio Pty (Ltd.) in 2012, he has directed his efforts at inventing new directions for African architecture and urbanism through innovations in community participation, public space design and alternative construction methodologies.


Read more:

  1. The fluid future of Johannesburg’s 2060 city: The Modderfontein smart city
  2. Voices of the city: Uno de Waal
  3. How Bree street in Joburg reveals potential for new forms of urbanity to emerge?
  4. Jozi’s jumble of buildings defines an African city


  1. All images by David Southwood 2015 © LOCAL STUDIO
  2. Read more about the Outreach Foundation Community Centre: http://www.localstudio.co.za/new-blog/2015/10/1/outreach-foundation-community-centre