Building Modern Africa

Building Modern Africa

Design Frameworks

Building Modern Africa

JAE 68:2

By David Rifkind
Figure 4b: Alexandra Township. High-density provisional houses in the foreground juxtaposed against formal housing development of external forces beyond.
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This fall’s publication of the JAE’s thematic issue on modern architecture and urbanism in Africa offered an unprecedented opportunity to devote an entire issue of a peer-reviewed journal to the built environment of modern Africa. The digital edition of the JAE allows us to go even further, and present important contemporary work that is transforming the cities and landscapes of Africa, as described by their architects. Our first such project is the renovation and expansion of the historic eNtokozweni Community Center in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, by Chris Harnish.

Harnish teaches in the Architecture program, College of Architecture and the Built Environment at Philadelphia University, and has focused his academic research and professional practice on community engagement and sustainable construction methods, with a particular emphasis on projects in South Africa. After working for Deborah Berke and Partners in New York, he served as an Architecture for Humanity Design Fellow in South Africa, where he managed the design and construction of a community center and orphanage in Dennilton, Limpopo. In 2010 he organized the design and construction of the Pete Patsa Performing Arts Centre in Viljounskroon, Free State, for Dramatic Need, a London-based NGO. These projects involved collaborative efforts with community leaders, users and international organizations. In this essay, Harnish discusses the design process of the eNtokozweni community center, which offers important insights into the diverse concerns of daily life, public space and political representation in South African townships after the end of Apartheid.

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Reframing the Cultural Institution
in an Urban South African Township

Chris Harnish

Historically, South African township community centers have played a critical role in strengthening cultural identity and catalyzing political uprising among their local users. Today, however, many of these long-standing cultural institutions struggle to maintain relevance in shifting contemporary contexts. Taking for example the ongoing project to program and reconstruct the historic eNtokozweni Community Center in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, I posit that the shifting spatial, cultural, and political processes at play in the post-liberation urban township require a dialogic design methodology to modernize this cultural institution. This praxis employs strategies by which the community center may reestablish its cultural impact by synthesizing stakeholder narratives across programmatic and spatial design schemes. 
 
In April 2011, I was approached by eNtokozweni Community Centre directors, Mr. Linda Twala and Mr. Danny Lurie, to conceive a new community center on the center’s existing site (figures 1-3).1 The directors’ ambitions called for a new center that would “pay honor to the historic legacy of eNtokozweni while preparing the youth of Alexandra for an innovative future.”2 We set out to develop a responsive and enduring program, characterized by an in situ dialogue with the multiple defining orders of Johannesburg’s urban life processes, past and present.3

Figure 2: eNtokozweni Community Centre seen from London Road. The eNtokozweni Community Centre beyond its perimeter wall. In the foreground sits the original structure in which Former President Mandela boxed and jazz musician Hugh Masekela performed.
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Figure 3a: Current after-school programs held in original eNtokozweni building. Despite minimal funding and management, after-school students gather outside the original structure. A drama team performs inside the existing building. An after-school dance team practices by flashlight.
Figure 3b: Current after-school programs held in original eNtokozweni building. Despite minimal funding and management, after-school students gather outside the original structure. A drama team performs inside the existing building. An after-school dance team practices by flashlight.
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Figure 3c: Current after-school programs held in original eNtokozweni building. Despite minimal funding and management, after-school students gather outside the original structure. A drama team performs inside the existing building. An after-school dance team practices by flashlight.
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Spatial Contexts: Alexandria
Alexandrans today largely embody a distinct cultural identity, one that is marked by an idiosyncratic relationship between the township’s 500,000+ residents and its formal and informal architectures (figure 5). Despite exacting spatial scarcity, evidence of physically isolated and culturally undervalued formal spaces abound (figure 4).4 Residents widely perceive these manifestations of pre- and post-colonial modernity as an architecture of oppression or poverty, thoughtlessly laid to bear on the community by institutional forces beyond their local control.5 The public stigmatizes these civic structures for their lack of compensatory value; these stoic buildings-in-stasis belie the dynamic, post-liberation narrative unfolding in the township.6
 
Meanwhile, throughout Alexandra, instances of positive spatial engagement are evidenced by residents’ typologically deviant, informal architectures. These contextually apposite spatial re-appropriations are closely analogous to countless other temporal iterations of Alexandra’s emerging culture.7 The bustling street edge, an abandoned steel skeleton, the armature of a provisionally occupied, however incomplete building; such tentative built conditions form the socio-spatial dialogue of historic and modern township life. These less tangible dynamics ultimately inform the need to employ a contextually responsive architectural modernity for the people of Alexandra (figure 6a,b,c). 

Figure 4a: Alexandra Township. High-density provisional houses in the foreground juxtaposed against formal housing development of external forces beyond.
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Figure 4b: Alexandra Township. High-density provisional houses in the foreground juxtaposed against formal housing development of external forces beyond.
Figure 5: Minerva Public School. Formal architecture-in-stasis adjacent a plot where informal settlements were relocated in preparation for future development that never materialized.
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Figure 6a: Worship space. A congregation worships beneath s repurposed steel frame. In 2012, the township held centennial celebrations in the skeletal armature of strip mall deserted before its completion. Daily processes take to the streets.
Figure 6b: Alexandra Centennial Celebrations. A congregation worships beneath s repurposed steel frame. In 2012, the township held centennial celebrations in the skeletal armature of strip mall deserted before its completion. Daily processes take to the streets.
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Figure 6c: Informal Street Life. A congregation worships beneath s repurposed steel frame. In 2012, the township held centennial celebrations in the skeletal armature of strip mall deserted before its completion. Daily processes take to the streets.
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Architectural Contexts:
Nearby Community Centers

To understand the relationship between users and the community centers they engage, I assembled an inventory of characteristics from two nearby community centers and correlated these with qualitative insight solicited from eNtokozweni’s constituents about their design expectations. Sarah Nuttall proposes an analogous approach to glean useful insight on contemporary dispositions toward the built environment.8 In similar feedback, eNtokozweni clients overwhelmingly advocated that the new Centre comprise architectural characteristics similar to two nearby community centers. Yet, when asked to describe their perceptions of those centers, the same users frequently dismissed them as ineffective and culturally non-responsive. These antithetical critiques reveal the importance of examining engagement with local precedents to determine certain implicit client tendencies that may subvert the efficacy of a dialogic design strategy (figure 7a, figure 7b).

Figure 7a: Three Square Community Centre Entrance. Research revealed physical and visual isolation, labyrinthine entry sequences through multiple layers of security, and monolithic forms suggestive of imperial insertions as architectural rationale for their poor public perception.
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Figure 7b: Thusong Youth Centre. Research revealed physical and visual isolation, labyrinthine entry sequences through multiple layers of security, and monolithic forms suggestive of imperial insertions as architectural rationale for their poor public perception.
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Qualitative Constituent Research
In this spatially compressed and economically fragile context, visual cues of poverty and dysfunction often trump the dignified, less tangible narratives of township inhabitants. Concurrently, many historically-oppressed stakeholders struggle to conceptualize their community’s future trajectory.9 Rather than focus on clients’ perceived needs, research began with qualitative interviews of community elders and youth, for which slow questions received emotive answers about the historic and present-tense dialogues between the center and its constituents (figure 8-11). Inquiry then broadened to local and national political and non-governmental stakeholders. Applying Lefebvre’s ordering concepts to the constituent narratives, I began to unpack the cultural forces to consider in the program (figure 12).10 
 
As research evolved, eNtokozweni’s driving programmatic force became the mission to engage the multivarious narratives of constituent groups local to national by enabling long-term resilience, widespread dignity and community empowerment of users past, present and future. Conceptually, the program emphasizes the center’s cultural interdependence by blending mixed narratives of youth, activists, community elders, politicians, performers, and outside visitors with manifold access points for educational, entrepreneurial, and income-generating enterprises within the conceptual framework of eNtokozweni’s powerful historic legacy.

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Figure 8: Save Alexandra Campaign Victory Celebrations, Linda Twala, left center, Sam Buti, right center). eNtokozweni was the hub of the Save Alexandra Campaign, run by local dignitaries including Sam Buti and Beyers Naude, resisting the forced relocations and property-razing policies of the Apartheid government. In 1986 when governmental forces agreed to return Alexandra to its citizens, it was at eNtokozweni where community celebrations were held. Credit: Photographer unknown. Duplicated with permission from Linda Twala.
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Figure 9: Mr. Richard Hlubi. Mr. Richard Hlubi, 83, boxed at eNtokozweni in the 1950’s and proudly speaks of its legacy. An active participant in local politics he attends many local public gathering held in the decaying hall.
Figure 10: Mrs. Doris Kuhmalo. Mrs. Doris Kuhmalo tells the story of her son hiding at eNtokozweni as police forces raided their home at night. Though she is unlikely to attend many programs at the Center, she hopes the new design recognizes the historic significance of its past.
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Figure 11: Ms. Tumelo Mabidikama. Tumi’s narrative is timely: “We want a center for us, for the future…. We don’t want to leave Alex, we love it. We need a center that will make it so I can stay in Alex. I love the grannies, and want to honor them, but I want a future too.”
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Figure 12: Narrative Mapping Diagram. The first stage of program development entailed comprehensively mapping stakeholders’ narratives and transforming them into programmatic components.
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Quantitative Constituent Research
To corroborate the qualitative narratives found through the interviews, a series of workshops engaged stakeholders regarding the struggling relevance of comparable local centers (figure 13a, figure 13b). Of the forty-two participants, consensus formed around four predominant themes:11

1. Emphasize positive cultural and entrepreneurial skills over negatively suggestive programs such as crime prevention or health services.
2. Offer a wide range of programs to broadened use at all times of day, thereby eliminating exclusivity and corruption.
3. Generate revenue to bypass reliance on external funding.
4. Dignify the untold historic and contemporary narratives of the township’s resilience to produce tourism and income generation.  
Figure 13a: Student-led Community Design Workshops.
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Figure 13b: Student-led Community Design Workshops.
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Architectural Design Strategies
I developed a schematic design responsive to constituents’ narrative processes, which is characterized by a framework of sub-tenets to guide macro- and micro-level decisions toward the genesis of a new typology. Five principal sub-tenets follow below.
 
First, broaden the dialogue. Modern township architecture must develop a dialogue with the informal processes of the township, yet employ a degree of formality that responds to broader contemporary discourse of dignity, identity, and cultural preservation beyond the township’s borders. 
 
Second, nurture the development and emergence of new narrative threads. Where singular cultural programs struggle, a program rich with a diversity of community offerings--the arts, public health, historic representation, future empowerment--creates a broader, more resilient institution (figure 14,15).

Figure 14: Community Design Workshop Diagrams. Community design workshops interrogated the relationship between township community centers and their users in order to schematize a program agenda that would respond to community members’ assets and trajectories. Credit: David Rifkind and Katie Herber.
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Figure 15: Local Art and Cultural Opportunities. Furthering the dialogue with township constituents, the site offers local artists and artisans the opportunity to expressively appropriate the public edge and courtyard. Credit: David Rifkind and Eric Torrens.
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Third, decentralize. A decentralized scheme intentionally dissolves pre-existing socio-spatial hierarchies to establish non-partisan user accessibility and perceptibility, while enabling long term organizational adaptability (figure 16, 17). 
 
Fourth, blur spatial boundaries. The new community center intentionally softens the site’s public/private edge through abstract and concrete design strategies to offer flexible public space-use around the perimeter. High security zones are spatially relegated to emphasize a periphery of user interchange and community dialogue (figure 17). 

Figure 16: Programmatic Organizational Strategy. Working with collaborating organizations, this organizational structure aims to serve multiple constituents and enables long-term programmatic adaptability. Credit: David Rifkind and Katie Herber.
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Figure 17: Site Programming Diagram. The programmatic strategy of dispersion allows for simultaneous center functions in contained security envelopes. The design re-appropriates the site’s historic buildings according to SAHRA standards and creates a dialogue with the township vernacular through its scale, materiality, accessibility and multivalence. Credit: David Rifkind and Eric Torrens.
Figure 18: Sustainable Strategies. Municipal water, electrical, and waste management systems are wholly unreliable and intermittent. In rejoinder, the design includes complete off the grid solutions. Credit: david Rifkind and Eric Torrens.
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Finally, redefine sustainability. The eNtokozweni proposal enables self-reliance and sustainability of constituents’ economic, cultural, and environmental needs. Rentable retail shops, a kitchen store-front, adaptable market space and leasable offices produce revenue-generating opportunities for a sustainable business model. Culturally, multi-use spaces are designed and configured to support evolving community initiatives and the introduction of new programs that create cultural resilience. Environmentally, a net-zero infrastructure generates its own electricity, grows food for the early childhood development center, employs rainwater capture and reuse systems, and passively heats and cools the building without reliance on inconsistent infrastructures (figure 18).

Conclusions
A research and design methodology akin to that employed in the eNtokozweni revitalization project requires a considerable investment of time and research atypical to that employed by a traditional design architect. However, to achieve successful implementation of a community design project within this emerging cultural context, an outline of qualitative stakeholder narratives and vernacular socio-spatial trends is critical to establishing a responsive strategy intent on dignifying and strengthening the locality it is built to serve (figure 19-21).[xii]

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Figure 19: Schematic Design: North and South Elevations. Credit: David Rifkind and Eric Torrens.
Figure 20: First Floor Plan. Credit: David Rifkind and Will Caramella.
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Figure 21: Second Floor and Roof Garden Plans. Credit: David Rifkind and Will Caramella.
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[i] The author thanks Philadelphia University administration for funding opportunities, and students for their participatory research. In Alexandra and Johannesburg, thanks goes to all participating individuals and organizations in the collaborative praxis, as well as the eNtokozweni Community Centre constituents for their ongoing support. Special thanks goes to Mr. Linda Twala and Mr. Danny Lurie for their enduring commitment to the project, and to Ms. Joli Reichel for her endurance. 
[ii] eNtokozweni Advisory Board Mission Statement, March 2011
[iv] Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien, Alexandra: A History (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2008), 16. 
[vi] Alexandra Residents in discussion with the author, June 6, 2012. 
[xi] Alexandra Residents in community design workshop surveys, 16 May 2013.
[xii] Currently, a pricing set of design documents for the new eNtokozweni Community Centre has been reviewed by a local construction company, and the Centre’s budget proposal is awaiting dispensation from a local funding organization.
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