Housing the Inner City
This studio brought together the diverse worlds of academia, professional practice, government, and the private sector to analyze urban processes in order to generate new housing typologies for Johannesburg’s Eastern Gateway Area.
Johannesburg embodies the South African paradox at its most acute. A city shaped by the rise, fall, and reconstruction of legally sanctioned segregation, today it is one of the world’s most unequal and spatially polarized urban landscapes. By observing, reading, listening, and drawing, we confronted these challenges and opportunities while broadening our understanding of the economic, social, and spatial dynamics of the selected site.
Students designed housing projects that encompass both temporary and longer-term interventions at the scale of a city block, while generating an overall urban vision that challenges conventional approaches to issues related to public space, mobility, environment, and culture. With support from the Swiss Embassy in South Africa, the Johannesburg Housing Development Agency, and the University of Johannesburg, student projects have the strong potential to be built, continuing our four year initiative of applied teaching and research on South Africa.
Since the onset of democracy, central Johannesburg has been defined as an area in decline; from decentralization in the 1970s, to political instability in the 80s, and the hollowing out of commercial activity in the early 90s. The inner city today is densely populated and diverse—characterized by pockets of inclusion and exclusion, but shaped by transient migrant and immigrant communities attempting to claim a stake in sub-Saharan Africa’s economic hub. Faced with the challenge of dealing with the demands of contemporary urbanization while redressing historic inequalities, development of the area has often been subject to contradictory approaches evident in the coexistence of highly secured, neatly manicured banking and office compounds, and the cluttered sidewalk exchanges of the vibrant—and often illicit—informal economy. This emergent urbanism, produced at the intersection of top-down planning and bottom-up improvisation, cannot be meaningfully addressed by traditional planning models.
Although crime has fallen, spurring increased occupancy rates, improved investor confidence, and privately led regeneration efforts, central Johannesburg is still plagued by an over-populated and poorly maintained building stock, pervasive vacancy and squatting, a continued housing shortage, and a commercial presence largely composed of small-scale vendors and informal service providers, rather than established businesses forming a foundation for wider economic development. At the same time, Johannesburg now finds itself at a catalytic moment of change. The most contested local government election since 1994 has ushered in a new political regime with the momentum to potentially reverse current inequalities and spark more sustainable area-based development in the city that does not result in gentrification and displacement. In particular, the diverse eastern sector represents a valuable microcosm of the larger city when it comes to use, building typologies, and demographic mix.
Located on the eastern fringe of the Central Business District (CBD), the Inner City Eastern Gateway (ICEG) is an interface between the CBD, the eastern suburbs, and the broader East Rand. Several areas within the ICEG are among the older suburbs in Johannesburg, and are coming under increasing pressure from contemporary urbanization processes to be recast as ‘zones of transition’. Former commercial and industrial precincts have also been redeveloped or repurposed for residential use. Taken together, the established infrastructure, dense urban grain, central location, and convenient public transport links present in the ICEG offer the potential for the area to perform a key role in the provision of innovative housing projects and mixed-use developments, which could in turn contribute to increased economic opportunities and improved social amenities in a severely depressed part of the city.
The development of this studio will lay the foundations for the longer-term research project, “The Joburg Lab,“ which will be a participatory research and design initiative directed by a unique collaboration between the Urban-Think Tank Chair, the University of Johannesburg Graduate School of Architecture, and the Museum of African Design (MOAD), as supported by the Embassy of Switzerland in South Africa. The initiative will be an inclusive platform to encourage productive civic engagement and collect urban design ideas from residents, interdisciplinary experts, community groups, NGOs, and the private sector.