Identity vs Universalization within Critical Regionalism Thinking

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Within the past decade, South Africa's Architectural heritage has significantly and rapidly evolved due to the socio-political aspirations of the country's multi-ethnic inhabitants, reinforcing its complexity and also its cultural wealth. In most developing nations, a universal validation for its urban growth has spiraled out of control, most especially within the existing local context, platforms and national culture. The dire need to take part in modern civilization has gradually eroded on our preservation of the old culture from which the nation was conceived. According to Paul Ricoeur, It is a fact that every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilization. There’s the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization (Ricoeur 1965:276,277).

In an increasingly globalised world, only cities with a strong sense of place will stand out and succeed. Our cultural heritage and physical heritage create a sense of place, promoting local identity in an overall climate of globalization, and ensuring that a place has historic depth, interest, image and meaning.

In view of the background above, its pertinent to review the urban development and aspirations within the South African society, juxtaposing the past with the present so as to successfully implement urban identities which is contemporary but not devoid of the local culture.

In this analysis, I will be comparing the South African Identity against the phenomenon of universalization within 4 Critical regionalism principles(Critical regionalism and World Culture, Resistance of Place-Form, Culture vs Nature and Visual vs. Tactile)according to Kenneth Frampton in his key text Towards a Critical regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance (1983).

In the 1960's the Johannesburg City Council procured a consolidated site of approximately 25 acres in Braamfontein, with the express intention to erect a new Civic Centre within which all their Administrative Offices could be accommodated. The aim was to create a focal point for the cultural activities of the City and for local government. The Conditions called for a fine architectural setting and imaginative landscaping. Local and overseas architect submitted designs that was ‘worthy of Johannesburg’ in an open competition won by a group of 7 local Architects namely :M. L. Bryer, M. M. Berns,S. Feitelberg,N. H. Lange,E. L. Laser,W. O. Meyer and P. L. Schwellnus who later merged to become Associated Architects of the Johannesburg Civic Center . Martinson,W.2010 [O] Available: Accessed on 2014/08/05

The Metropolitan civic centre in Braamfontein was started in 1963.After the abolition of apartheid, the area began to deteriorate and the Civic centre was not an exception to the impact of a changing socio-political climate in the country. As a result societal and environmental responses to the civic centre diminished in function and use.

The building was designed to evoke a sense of national pride for security and safety as shown in Figure 1. This is evident in its monumental nature, materials incurred and the use of more than enough nodal space in the heart of the city for a building "worthy of Johannesburg”.

World class cities are those which provide high quality and desirable environments which are locally distinct yet globally acceptable. The civic building, despite its design by local architects, its construction borrowed from universal trends, most essentially to create a global awareness; it is devoid of holistic considerations of the existing socio-environmental context at the time it was built and future projections

According to Contributor Anthony King in the text Re-shaping Cities: How Global Mobility Transforms Architecture and Urban Form (2010) ,a common and often implicit assumption that encapsulates these two ideas, the notion of 'worldwide connectedness' and the consciousness of the world as as single place’, is that globalization is predominantly an urban phenomenon and that cities worldwide are becoming increasingly alike. Furthermore, he states that world population is now over 50percent urbanized, we are steadily moving to a situation where, ultimately, most of the world's population will be living in one big connected city, or at least, urban conglomeration, real and virtual, spread spatially over different parts of the globe. 'Global cities' around the world accommodate, as well as symbolize, in their high-rise office towers and signature architecture, not only 'global control capability but the essence of worldwide interconnectedness: international banks and hotels, high-tech conference centres.(King 2010 :22)

Why in particular terms ,the building types they describe and the the social practices they embody are introduced in particular societies at particular times and under specific socio-political conditions. The Metropolitan civic centre was built in an era within the history of South African wherein there was relentless pursuit for certified global awareness with the quality of Architecture and urban forms that the country is capable of. This is evident in the tectonic, structure and construction methods implored to make a universal statement with the brief of the projects by the architects involved.

Today Technology has permeated the urban fabric of most societies, including South Africa. It has defaced the seemingly critical regionalist ideals of space and place planning yet enhancing our ability to successfully implement indigenous vernacular in our architecture and built forms.

The literature of science and technology studies has demonstrated that technology is a social system that is inextricably part of society. The sociologists Donald MacKenzie and Judith Wajcman have argued that technology, like place, includes three qualities: “human knowledge,” “patterns of human activities,” and “sets of physical objects.” Knowledge is required not only to build the artifact, but to relate the natural conditions upon which the artifact works and to use it. The second quality, “patterns of human activity,” or human practices, refers to the institutionalization, or routinization, of societal problem solving. In the practices of architecture, carpentry, or masonry are examples of these “routines.”Lastly, “sets of objects,” takes us back to the things themselves. The point is that computers, hammers,or tractors are useless without the human knowledge and practices that engage them.(Moore 2005:435-436)

It will then be appropriate at this point to look at our society in the present day and consider if the advent of technology has progressively enhanced the use of indigenous vernacular architectural approach in our communities or it has increased our appetite in carving out a global identity by blindly reproducing universal trends of living.

During the apartheid era, large-scale commercial development in the area of Braamfontein was encouraged which is evident in the design and the connotations in the principles that bounds the development. The civic centre sits monumentally in the skyline of Braamfontein on a vast land area that links Hillbrow to Braamfontein as illustrated in Figure 2.This linkage was incorporated into the planning framework for the building with the aim of providing an effective public realm and passage wherein the society can experience the design connotations of the institution.

The building sits iconically on a high contour point in the Braamfontein terrain with a rapidly proliferating economic and commercial hub in the surrounding as illustrated in Figure 3 and 4. Many of the structures that were built in the area due to this rapid growth replicated the ambition for recognition within the global platform with towering vertical forms and flare. After the apartheid era, the building diminished in use and the area deteriorated amidst a different political climate. By 2002 it became clear that the urban decay in Braamfontein desperately required attention. Problems at street level included broken sidewalks, dirty pavements, and inadequate rubbish and refuse removal. Homelessness, informal traders, traffic congestion, unauthorized taxi ranks and a myriad of associated problems all compounded to the rapidly developing perception that Braamfontein was an area not in control of itself. Because of the magnitude and complexity of the problems linked with urban decay, a variety of solutions and interventions are required, most specifically excellent urban management, to deal with these issues on a practical on-going basis.“Place making” is conscious of this layered identity and places people and their experience of their urban environment at the centre of design process. Without thorough analysis and an understanding of how a proposal fits into the bigger picture, any development initiativeis at risk of being irrelevant, inappropriate or of compromising the performance and quality of the whole.

According to Frampton, while we may remain skeptical as to the plaudits of grounding critical practice in a concept so hermetically metaphysical as Being, we are ,when confronted with the ubiquitous placeness of our modern environment nonetheless brought to Posit, after Heidegger, the absolute precondition of a bounded domain in order to create an architecture of resistance. Only such defined boundary will permit the built form to stand against-and hence literally to withstand in an institutional sense-the endless processal flux of the Megalopolis.(Frampton 1983:24,25) In view of the large scale development earmarked for the braamfontein region in the apartheid days, this prompted the abrupt ‘placeness’ of the building without a future trajectory of sustainability and continuity of use by the community. The advent of this building gave rise to numerous high rises which dots the urban framework of the entire braamfontein area to accommodate offices, retails and all other forms of commercial activities as illustrated in Figure 5.In a bid to revive the resulting decay of the region under new socio-political climate in the country, “the space of human appearance" was carefully factored into the regeneration of the area. This initiative gave birth to increased housing projects, conversions of dilapidated structures into modern residences and introduction of ample public realm to created a neighborhood structure in the area. However the Civic Building has remained out of place but with constructive efforts to introduce the public back into the building. Figure 1 shows the multi-aperture south facade of the building translating as a barricade to the public but yet enabling community surveillance from the inside.The first approach was to present the building as not such a domineering monument on the landscape and to achieve this, a new Municipality reception area for all council queries was built to the west of the building providing an interphase for the public to interact differently with the building as illustrated in Figure 6.Also its nodal attributes was enhanced with a BRT station built right at the pedestrian access into the building as illustrated in figure 2 and 5.Not considering the local people in this manner relative to the building reflects the inappropriateness of the placeness of the building.

Braamfontein is the fourth-largest node supplying office and commercial space in the city of Johannesburg. Braamfontein, 'the spring by the brambles', was declared a township in the late 1880s, and before that, was part of a vast Witwatersrand farm.An area with working class roots, in the early 1950s, when the centre of Johannesburg declined, Braamfontein became the alternative metropolitan place to work and play. Located north of Johannesburg's city centre and despite decades of fluctuating socio-economic fortunes, the site for the building is situated on a hilly terrain within braamfontein amidst a gentle undulating landscape with a distinct view of the city centre skyline. The building sits iconically amidst a garden of trees and indigenous plants to create an inviting public platform. The vastness of the site prompted a vast courtyard area to bring in light into the building and primarily providing a realm of activity that incorporates the outside users. The tectonic forms of the stone cladded building indicated a borrowed global technology which was monotonous in its application as illustrated in Figure 7. Despite the security, safety and sense of 'arrival' that the building signifies with its tectonic considerations, it failed justify the overall purpose of the Architecture. The Building is well situated in context considering its capacity to embody, in built form, the prehistory of the place, the subsequent cultivation of the area and its transformations across time. These are attributes of the building's 'placeness' in the region. The fenestrations on the building facades which provide that membrane for local light and climate in the region to be controlled, balances on a more symbolic sense of public surveillance, a universal approach to create a sense of identity before the global eye for control and safety.

The tactile resilience of the place form and the capacity of the human body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggests a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology. However, the most important aspect of any discussion about the sustainability of buildings must be the actual performance of a completed building during its life. Buildings should be robust, energy efficient, healthy and comfortable for their occupants, whether for commercial, domestic or industrial uses.

The civic building is predominantly made of precast stone cladding, both on building facades and passage ways within the building as seen in figure 7.Cladding elements are made off-site either using a concrete mix that mimics natural stone or concrete that is faced with another material, such as stone, terracotta or bricks.Precast concrete cladding dates back to the early 1900s and although it is well established in Europe and elsewhere, it doesn’t mimic indigenous architectural vernacular in South Africa.

This overboard approach for a complete stone cladded building, with cladded corridors and cladded open spaces translates the long term sustainability timelines planned for the building.

The tactile sensitivity of the building is not evident in the design due to the cold stony structural concept translated throughout the building. Though visually intriguing, the whole building experience is not wholesome without evidence of practical indigenous vernacular. The tactile and tectonic jointly have the capacity to transcend the mere appearance of the technical aspect of a building in much the same way as the place form discussed earlier, has the potential to withstand the relentless onslaught of global modernization. In this way, Critical Regionalism seeks to complement our normal visual encounters by readdressing the tactile range of human perceptions. By so doing, it endeavors to appropriate the priority accorded to the image and to counteract the Western tendency to interprete the environment in exclusively perspectival terms. In the new additions to the building a clear traditional architectural vernacular is obvious in the use of material and spatial planning as illustrated in Fig 9.

Alvar Aalto in the second phase of his career took decisive shape with his Saynatsalo Town Hall, the syncopation of the form depended on the rhythmic spacing of the fenestration and on the subtle modeling of brickwork. Thus providing the conceptual basis of its division into two parts grouped around an atrium. A U-shaped administration building and a free standing library block, the two forms enclosing a court raised above the street level. Such hierarchical differentiation is complemented by changes in material and structure. At Saynatsalo, the brick paving of the secular access corridor and stair gives way to the suspended wooden floor of the sacred council chamber above. This change in status is confirmed by the elaborate detailing of the roof trusses over the council room, an obvious reference to medieval practice. The path through the acropolis or atrium is treated like a rite of passage between over civilized urbanity on one side of the complex and native rusticity on the other. The spaces are also enriched by the presence of water, hinting the process of birth and regeneration. The visual experience of this building as a whole shows richness of thought which caters for a regional design with an all round architectural experience that transcends time.

In conclusion an ‘Architecture of Resistance’ according to Frampton constitutes architecture that suggest a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology. For a building to offer that counter stance is to be well conceived within its region taking heed to the history, socio-political situations, evolving economic climates, geographical and environmental elements specific

to the area. Inclusive in consideration is the re-affirmation of the public realm of a space to translate a quality longterm architectural experience.

The Johannesburg Metropolitan Civic building, despite being a monumental structure that sits heavy on the skyline of central Johannesburg, It fails to accommodate a quality architectural experience that transcends the time in which it was built. The stone cladded corridors and linkages around the building has overtime loosened hold due to the span of cladded areas making the passages uncomfortable to walk on and the overall under-use of the public realm. Only a third of the building is still in active use till today for municipality activities.

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