Understanding Architecture in the City of Johannesburg

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INTRODUCTION

BACKGROUND

Johannesburg, a concrete encrustation on a set of rocky ridges (Van Onselen and Van Onselen, 2001) has never been loved by nation builders as it lacks the landscape of affection or mystery easily appropriated by myth-makers and nation-builders. Thus Johannesburg with its difficult, perhaps even intractable human material has always been ruled from afar with a mixture of apprehension, contempt, disdain and neglect, Johannesburg – a city of historic exploitation – serves as departure point for this dissertation. The historic farm Randjeslaagte, commonly referred to as ‘Uitvalgrond’[1] was the first portion of ground onto which the modern city grid was laid out.

Johannesburg as a city is not simply a string of infrastructures, technologies and legal entities, however networked they are; it comprises actual bodies, images, forms, footprints and memories. We understand the city as an object, but we do not understand the city as memory. The dissertation seeks to connect narrative’s prowess over the imagination, in order to convey the similarities shared by both space and the imagination alike; as a means to uncover, archive and reinterpret fragments of memory. Through the inherent memory of meaning the city writes itself – it becomes an externalized action[2]. This action is explored with the intension to connect the city of Johannesburg, the object, to those projecting the action – the reader.

The role of the city as memory questions whether the Johannesburg building fabric is an appropriate ‘relic’; whilst addressing issues of overbearing development, exploitation and the resulting social gentrification in the Johannesburg CBD. Feeding on the memories of its visitors, migrants and cosmopolitan populace, Johannesburg’s dreams traverse icons such as Ponte Tower, Rockey and Railley Street, Commisioner Street, Yeoville and the Cosmopolitan Hotel, but not as we know them.

In both Johannesburg’s imaginings and reality, landmarks and events assume shifting magnitude and significance, constructing distorted maps of desire and experience. Narrative obeys no logic. Time, scale and relationships become fluid, and the city is forever on the brink of the strangely familiar and the familiarly strange.

In this project figuration is united with discourse in order to create an architecture as text, as text refers inwards to itself, its own structure. The project therefor brings forth the fictional elements of Johannesburg to the reality of the Cosmopolitan Hotel, creating a simultaneity of experience of text and object. PRESENCE, ORIGIN and AESTETIC OBJECT are questioned through the application of Peter Eisenman’s theory of scaling, in order to determine how the understanding of memory can inform the reoccupation and continued fiction of the building - The Absence of Presence.

PROPOSED CONTEXT

The chosen site is the Cosmopolitan Hotel on the corner of Albrech and Commisioner Street on the fringe of Jeppetown, located in the Maboneng Precicnt. It is within the site (the chosen site) or bounded place that the representational capacity of architecture emerges.

In the complex setting of modern Johannesburg, Maboneng is the evolving result of a vision towards a shared urban future through the metamorphosis of the city’s existing space economy. The precinct vision describes the development of consolidated neighbourhood clusters, which connect to create an integrated neighbourhood system within the greater urban environment. But Maboneng’s most poignant symbol of integration also serves as an interesting infliction point around which to debate its inherent paradox. The development illustrates that a forced action (intervention) in a place derives it of its desire to retain certain collective memories and in due course the historic identity that united community and place are erased from the city.

The island-like nature of Maboneng and its marked differences to the adjoining areas make visible the gentrified social space of the Precinct. As illustrated through the concept of ‘uitvalgrond’, the supposed “blank space” of Maboneng contributed to it developing a specific form of mutuality. The ‘uitvalgrond’ provided an ideal space in which urban renewal could take place, without many of the risks inherent in gentrification; however, the social space that has artificially been created can be described as gentrified. Urban mutuality, then, as seen in the newly emerging developments of downtown Johannesburg, is a contradictory and complicated set of relations that cannot escape a history of marked exploitation and distinction, even as they bring new and experimental forms to the elusive metropolis. The Cosmopolitan Hotel has significant heritage and cultural value, and becomes a metaphor for resilient Johannesburg. The hotels exceptionality – physical, historical, commercial and political – exacerbates its exploited character and both complicates and facilitates its study; its longevity and continuous resilience poses questions and answers for the city of Johannesburg. The isolated fragment, historic layering and surrounding conditions, will be used as a means for building upon the written city. The site specific context of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the conditions created by the site as metaphor becomes the most important theme of the dissertation - I will argue that the resulting condition allow for the creation of Latour’s reproduced objects - the aperture created between memory, desire and reading of the city through the Maboneng development, has the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable - creating an opportunity for making impossible places and impossible things realistic.

PROBLEM STATEMENT

Through its concentration of physical and cultural power, the city heightens the tempo of human association and translated its products into forms that could be stored and reproduced. Through its monuments, written records, and orderly habits of association, the city enlarges the scope of all human activities, extending them backwards and forwards in time. Therefore the city is able, through meaning, of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation. Meaning in this context is the effect of association. Human meaning is the recognition of an order in the specificity of the perception. It is the objectified, enframed perception of objects that is the basis for perceived meaning, as the grounds of our thoughts and actions. Thus through the inherent memory of meaning the city writes itself – it becomes an externalized action. Latour expresses the need for the inventions of objects which have the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable and combinable with one another. Therefore making impossible places and impossible things realistic, or making possible objects more probable than other possible objects – the effective communication beyond the rhetoric. Architectural speculation within a city context is therefore a bounded activity or place, in essence, constituting a site. It is within this site or bounded place that the representational capacity of architecture emerges. Knowledge through writing, is achieved through this making and re-making. Johannesburg is an exploited identity – these exploitations have been hidden overtime. The dissertation seeks to bring forth the absence of presence by understanding the relationship of architecture to the city, as it is within the site (the chosen site) or bounded place that the representational capacity of architecture emerges. If brought about by the manifested reader, will this explored representational capacity transform Johannesburg into written text? Architectural mythology should not cede a designers right, but rather these and other speculative entertainments are precisely the reason new visions are possible. The dissertation will attempted to locate the place of architectural speculation with regards to the city context, and explicate the relationship between the speculative acts of architectural representational inquiry. Can the mobilization of the object through narrative repetition allow modern externality through reversal of inscription, allowing the return of Latour’s perfect alphabetization? Moreover, will this mobilization - the meaning as effect of association, an externalized narrative - give rise to the understanding of city as memory?

HYPOTHESIS

“Fact occupies itself with trying to reproduce fiction.” Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying, 1891

Fiction is no substitute for reality itself, but it is a valuable, if not conceptually indispensable, tool for true externalization. The city as written text an externalized action brought about by the manifested reader might be Marey’s photographic gun: an invented visual vocabulary in contrast with the current “objective” vocabulary (Latour, and Yaneva, 2008). I propose that Johannesburg is a city well-suited for such a written text - elaborate speculative, literary and spatial exploration. It has internalized its historic condition with particular flamboyancy. Through ‘reading the city’, and understanding the imagined memory resulting from the externalized action the memory itself becomes part of and results from the infrastructure of the city you live in. The city then becomes experimental – it is something you walk through, but also something that rears up fictitiously to consume the thoughts of everyone residing within it. In truth the city must then be presented as a realistic urban novel, thereby allowing mobilization. Through experiencing the city as fiction, allowing the city to be used as medium to understand the externalization, by implementing mobilization (the absence of presence) as described by Latour, the dialogue and relationship between city dweller and his/her immediate surroundings can be emphasized and manipulated accordingly, to construct the socio-spatial form for future generations. The exploration of the written city will transverse the semantic demarcation to inform spatial design and enhanced spatial identification.

DESIGN AIMS

The aim of the dissertation is understanding and re(present)ing architecture and the city, built, imagined and narrated, focussing on Johannesburg, considering architecture as an intellectual and spatial process rather than a product.

If the detailed descriptions of one’s thoughts, observations and walks around the city included the circumstances of that walk in totality, the externalized action would result in the imagined memory. It would thus suggest that in doing so the imagined memory is part of and results from the infrastructure of the city you live in. The city then becomes experimental – it is something you walk through, but also something that rears up fictitiously to consume the thoughts of everyone residing within it. In truth the city must then be presented as a realistic urban novel, thereby allowing mobilization. It allows an erudite discussion regarding representation of the image, and states the question: What if narrative is the best way to diagram the urban world? Is this not the answer to the question of reversal: What if the existing is derived from the imagined; that is to say the city is derived from the written narrative – the externalized. If storage media allows written word to be translated into film why can written word not be translated into the city. The externalized action, the object as 3D shapes will thus through the alphabetized reader become a new form of writing.

But does this mobilization of the narrative within the city context allow architects the freedom to create the ‘beautiful realm’, like those created by the alphabetized authors of the past, or does the creation of the spatial short stories reduce the architect to a politically sterile individual, telling stories of impossible urban boroughs while the real city takes shape.

The mobilization of the object, the city, through narrative repetition will allow modern externality - suggesting that the real, visible and audible world of the city arises from meaning as effect of association. The identification and exaggeration of the absence of presence. As such, an architecture will be conceived through the speculative proposal as device, a thought experiment, enabling the potential of the Johannesburg flotsam. A series of drawings and paper assemblages are produced to convert developed language into more detailed spatial existence - set in different time periods of Johannesburg, intentionally locating themselves in the liminal territory between fiction and architecture to provoke an engagement between the viewer and the externalized action as depicted by the two-dimensional city. The stories will be collages representing a network of spatial relationships and combined genres of text, resulting in an unavertable thread, linking some of the nodes of the specifically depicted network together. These short stories will be created and based in literature study of relevant historic conditions in order to address problems and opportunities on various levels. Through the dissertation I will attempted to locate the place of architectural speculation with regards to the city context, and explicate the relationship between the speculative act of architecture and representational inquiry. The exploration through narrative transverses the semantic demarcation to inform spatial design.

The project aims to expose Johannesburg’s immoral exploitation, and record (represent) its specific paradigm in a way that resists future stagnation and regurgitation of conditions. The architecture is allegorically driven through three reversals: -Architecture posits the FAKE not the AUTHENTIC -ABSENCE is the REVEALER of form, not PRESENCE -Architecture is CONFRONTATION not ACCOMODATION The programme must augment the building in such a way as to reverse the current stagnant condition in an alternative manner to that of the Maboneng Precinct gentrification. (Re-reading) FLOTSAM RETREAT: Institution for the reader. The institution will crystallise current and past paradigms of Johannesburg in order to provide a facility (spaces) for the (flotsam) to ultimately question their retreat from the reactionary exhaustion of being. The NARRATIVE must be thoughtful and inventive with regards to reading of place, experience and subsequent representation as a response to the idea of information exchange.


[1] An open, barren, stony and unclaimed triangle of land between the farms of Braamfontein, Doornfontein and Turffontein on which the city of Johannesburg developed.

[2] dgdrresr

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