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.
Reframing the Cultural Institution
in an Urban South African Township
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
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).
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).
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.
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
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).
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).
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).
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]