Hus­tling to de­liver func­tional, user-friendly build­ings

Business Day - - LIFE - Ja­nine Stephen

HUS­TLES Thomas Chap­man and David South­wood Lo­cal Stu­dio

Thomas Chap­man says he is not of the gen­er­a­tion of ar­chi­tects “who set out to cre­ate mon­u­ments; to have their build­ings out­last them or leave a legacy”. The founder of Jo­han­nes­burg-based ar­chi­tec­ture firm Lo­cal Stu­dio is con­duct­ing an in­ter­view on his car phone at rush hour on a Fri­day, ne­go­ti­at­ing the rapids and ed­dies of the ur­ban com­mute.

His book, Hus­tles, doc­u­ments his prac­tice’s first five years. Down­town Jo­han­nes­burg is Chap­man’s lo­cus and where most of Lo­cal Stu­dio’s first 12 projects are lo­cated. They serve very dif­fer­ent func­tions but share a strong so­cial ethos and ex­cep­tion­ally tight bud­gets.

There’s the res­tau­rant pav­il­ion built on the foun­da­tions of a razed lu­natic asy­lum at the Old Fort in Hill­brow. A fu­tur­is­tic school on dusty ground in Tsakane in Ekurhu­leni, and a clever steel pedes­trian bridge and park in West­bury.

Lo­cal Stu­dio de­signed af­ford­able hous­ing, in­clud­ing Braam­fontein Gate on Smit Street. Once the head­quar­ters of To­tal Oil, the high-rise tower now has 400 hous­ing units, a swim­ming pool and gym.

Chap­man hopes that Braam­fontein Gate — tied to the pedes­tri­anised Ris­sik Street Prom­e­nade, which con­nects Park Sta­tion and the City Hall — will be­come a new di­rec­tion for the city; a move “to­wards a more neigh­bour­hood-based econ­omy and so­ci­ety”.

His key con­cerns, stated in es­says in Hus­tles, are max­imis­ing com­mu­nal space and re­la­tion­ships with the street. “A build­ing is only as in­ter­est­ing as the con­text it is in, and … the use that it holds,” he says. “My in­ter­est is a bit more im­me­di­ate. If any­thing, my build­ings are rev­ersible.

“They’re re­cy­clable, in the lit­eral sense in that you could un­screw a wall panel and use it some­where else,” he says.

Key ma­te­ri­als such as poly­car­bon­ate and steel ap­pear to be sig­na­ture el­e­ments in the firm’s first de­signs. Yet they are just part and par­cel of find­ing so­lu­tions that both suit his ethos (more space for users) and his clients’ con­strained time­frames and bud­gets. The re­sult is struc­tures that are in­no­va­tive but not slick in the way many ar­chi­tects mea­sure qual­ity.

Co-au­thored with pho­tog­ra­pher David South­wood, Hus­tles is a mul­ti­lay­ered map of the firm’s ideas and the struc­tures. Place and con­text come first — so the pho­to­graphs of street life in Cyrildene and May­fair that book­end the vol­ume don’t ac­tu­ally show­case the firm’s ar­chi­tec­ture. In­stead, they show “as­pects of these ar­eas that we ap­pre­ci­ated most — as if we had de­signed them”, the text reads.

Images of ac­tual projects also shy away from “money shots” and em­bed the build­ings in the streets in which they stand. “It’s very un­usual to have an ar­chi­tect give the sense that build­ings grow out of the street,” South­wood writes. “Nor­mally one is pre­sented with an ed­i­fice, and the re­la­tion­ship to the street is a mum­bled af­ter­thought.”

In­te­rior shots in the book tend to show the spa­ces oc­cu­pied and alive. The ar­chi­tec­ture of the book in­cludes point­ers to place, es­says and site di­a­grams.

It is aptly ar­ranged by neigh­bour­hood. There are com­pact “con­ver­sa­tions” with peo­ple who live or work there. Dr Sean Robin­son of West­bury, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides a very hu­mane and per­sonal de­scrip­tion of the sub­urb, the bridge project and its short­com­ings.

South­wood writes about his process. He walks the area, en­gages with lo­cals, ex­am­ines key foot-traf­fic routes and pop­u­lar shop en­trances, to iden­tify what he terms the “struc­tural rubric” of a place.

Then he po­si­tions him­self “within com­plex vec­tors of move­ment and van­ish­ing points to make pho­to­graphs that pro­vide the viewer with the op­por­tu­nity of look­ing at Lo­cal Stu­dio’s work through the lens of the rich con­text that gave rise to it”. The pho­to­graphs re­flect the ebb and flow of pedes­trian traf­fic — also a key con­cern for Chap­man, who writes that city in­fra­struc­ture should fa­cil­i­tate “con­ve­nience and dig­nity for hu­man be­ings when they are at their most vul­ner­a­ble, namely whilst on foot”.

Lo­cal Stu­dio’s build­ings chip at and twist old pat­terns of liv­ing. Many of their projects are re­pur­posed struc­tures, but their new builds fill voids and grow “par­a­sit­i­cally” from ex­ist­ing build­ings. Hill­brow’s Out­reach Foun­da­tion Com­mu­nity Cen­tre is par­tially built on an un­fin­ished hall, adapt­ing, leapfrog­ging and im­prov­ing on struc­tures built in the 1970s. Its dance stu­dio has a 12m win­dow fac­ing Twist Street. On the other side of the road, a steel bench gives weary com­muters a place to pause and watch the dancers.

Hus­tles is a slice in time. Chap­man, who in 2018 won an Ar­chi­tec­tural Van­guard award which recog­nises top emerg­ing ar­chi­tects and who teaches at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg, says he pub­lished the book in part to “draw a line in the sand”.

The firm now plans to fo­cus on projects with slightly fewer time and bud­get con­straints. But the ethos will re­main. His build­ings are for the users, “not for ar­chi­tects, but [often] for very poor peo­ple”.

Pri­vate devel­op­ers are build­ing af­ford­able hous­ing in Jo­han­nes­burg. This in­vest­ment, Chap­man notes, has an im­pact on “so­cial in­fra­struc­ture like schools and clin­ics and im­por­tant things like that”.

He is an ad­vo­cate of New Lo­cal­ism: find­ing very lo­cal so­lu­tions to prob­lems. He doesn’t think South Africans should rely on the gov­ern­ment to build houses as there isn’t ca­pac­ity. But if pri­vate devel­op­ers can pro­vide homes, cities can in­vest in pub­lic spa­ces and ser­vices and, ide­ally, res­i­dents be­come in­volved in their com­mu­ni­ties and new man­age­ment struc­tures evolve.

The im­por­tant thing is to cre­ate build­ings that grant users the abil­ity to live with more agency. “You try and give a lit­tle bit more value than what’s the norm in hous­ing, and you’ll be amazed how ver­sa­tile peo­ple can be. They find a new way to live in these struc­tures, and it be­comes home,” Chap­man says.


Re­pur­posed: Ful­ham Heights in Brix­ton once housed a res­tau­rant. The ground floor is now a cafe, the first floor is the Lo­cal Stu­dio of­fice, and the top floor is res­i­den­tial units.

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