Version for, March 2005, Fist published in: afrika post 1/2005 (March), p.

Building in South Africa: Fast Forward Johannesburg

The extent to which cultural developments can only really be appreciated in the relevant social context becomes most apparent in times of upheaval: In its current exhibition, the Aedes East Gallery in Berlin is showing examples taken from ten years of planning and construction work since the end of the apartheid regime.

Curator and journalist Dagmar Hoetzel provides an insight into recent building culture in South Africa, based on eight construction projects in and from Johannesburg. As a traditionally dynamic location, Johannesburg is the focus of the exhibition. Two factors point to the city being predestined for an attempt to entrench building in society: on the one hand, there is the rapid economic development of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Province, on the other hand, the legacy of the radical implementation of segregation in town planning.

The exhibition shows symbolic buildings, which manifest social change in their very names, for example the Apartheid Museum (GAPP, Mashabane Rose, Britz Roodt Vernootskap + Linda Mvusi Architects, 2003) or the Constitutional Court (Urban Solutions / omm Design Workshop, 2004). The latter is an impressive example of how an irksome past is being dealt with. The remains of a former fortress and prison for political detainees have been integrated into the building, and instead of turning history into a museum piece, the architects have employed a strategy of recapturing the past without glossing over memories. In the supreme court of South Africa, former injustice is thus ever present as a reminder for a young democracy.

Less prominent projects show pragmatic solutions to everyday problems – as a minibus collection point, the Bara Taxi Rank and Market (Urban Solutions, 2004/2005) would normally be a vulnerable place for crime in the townships. Years of negotiations on the part of small rival businesses brought future users together in a mutual project right from at the planning stage. The cumbersome building thus became a point of identification which would have undoubtedly not been achieved by any infrastructure measures dictated from above.

The new South African Embassy in Berlin (mmm architects, 2003) rounds off the theme well. It is the first representative office to be built by South African architects abroad. Compared to the other buildings in the exhibition, the building does however look somewhat colourless. Whereas the examples from Johannesburg gain their visual strength from a manner of dealing with complex general conditions that is not ridden with dogma, the Embassy seems to be content with a rock solid way of employing customary materials. Nevertheless, the exhibition does give us reason to hope that the next export of South African architecture will be more stimulating and have a more perceptible say in the world of architecture around here.

Aedes has compressed rather a lot of projects into its selection, but has nevertheless achieved a clearly structured presentation. The exhibition starts off with an opulent model of the Constitutional Court, inviting the visitor to undertake a discovery tour of the exhibition. An aisle containing plans, drawings and photographs has been devoted to each individual project. Each building reflects a complex world of its own which lives with and from its users, some of whom can be seen in video interviews. The final room of the exhibition shows the Embassy building and allows the visitor to take a breather and return to Berlin.

On account of the varying nature of the building tasks, the exhibition succeeds in presenting much more than a mere report on distant building projects. Examples of a planning culture of coexistence show building projects in South Africa as part of a new kind of social interface. And these examples raise the question as to whether the reason for the current German discussion about building culture being so strained might be due to the fact that building in Germany is hardly ever understood as work on society itself.

Jan Rinke

»Galerie Aedes