Architecture and Urbanism

Rush Hour Rest Stop

Rush Hour
An existing informal pedestrian route next to Durban’s busy N3 motorway gets a roof structure made from the gutted shells of old cars, acknowledging the everyday practices of local commuters.

Shortly before the N3 negotiates the final coastal ridge that skirts central Durban, this busy motorway passes the northern border of Cato Manor, a well-known residential enclave with a tragic history. Known locally as Umkhumbane, it is this site and its complex history that informs an art-minded architectural project a little further along the N3, on a plot of land adjacent the Berea Centre. Here, a short walk from Warwick Junction, a busy transport interchange and historically black and Indian marketplace, a group of German architects working with a team of local Durban fabricators have constructed an unusual gazebo-like structure.

The crown of the simple roof-and-beam structure is made from the gutted shells of old cars sourced from the city’s many scrap yards and resembles a five-lane traffic jam. Peculiar as it is, the structure is entirely practical – it functions as a shelter for hitchhikers who congregate here before inching down an embankment to thumb a lift town from cars leaving Warwick Junction and headed inland, past Cato Manor. But the shelter is also an experiment, a visible landmark meant to prompt public dialogue as architects from around the world gather in Durban for the forthcoming triennial congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA).

This year’s UIA congress in Durban (3-7 August) will be the first time this important industry meeting dating back to 1948 is held in a Sub-Saharan African city. Aside from the official programme, which includes keynote addresses by Japanese architect Toyo Ito and Harvard University urban designer Rahul Mehrotra, the congress will include a vibrant fringe programme of cultural events. Coordinated by Durban-based architect and cultural activist Doung Jahangeer, in association with the Goethe-Institut, the Interface 2012-14 project brings together a range of practitioners from various countries and disciplines. Alongside a Brazilian filmmaker and dance group from Marseille, Interface 2012-14 includes contributions from Cape Town graffiti artist Faith 47 and Raumlabor, a Berlin-based experimental architectural practice that devised the roadside shelter in Berea.

Raumlabor’s participation in the project grew out of an invitation to take a walk. Last year, Jan Liesegang, a Cologne-born architect and co-founder of Raumlabor in 1999, visited Durban to meet with Jahangeer. Rather than show Liesegang his adopted hometown’s Colonial Victorian and Art Deco architecture, Jahangeer, who first came to Durban from Mauritius in 1992 to study architecture, took him on a walk. For the past 13 years Jahangeer has been hosting walks that follow the pedestrian routes used by cash-strapped Cato Manor residents headed into central Durban.

“The City Walk is an investigative journey, an exuberant exploration as well as humbling and cautionary tale, an allegory of the infinite complexities of spaces and timings in the city of Durban,” explained Jahangeer in a leaflet promoting his walk when I first met him in 2004. Already then Jahangeer had a clear idea of what his walk was about. Sensory-rich, his purposeful meander was neither a tourist reverie nor a faux intellectual field trip. It was an open-ended and exploratory event, idealistic in its own way, but also fundamentally respectful of the travails of working class citizens navigating an increasingly sprawling and motorised post-apartheid city still marked by social divisions.

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Now, 13 years later, Jahangeer says his understanding of his City Walk has ripened fully. “It took me 13 years of walking, of doing the same thing, for something to come to the surface,” he states. “As architects we are so driven by this idea of problem solving, the rationality of our lives and movement through space, our categorisation of space, that we have forgotten that space is something magical.” Drifting through the urban fabric of Durban’s old historical centre, Jahangeer says he not only encountered magic but also came to appreciate the improvisatory nature of how a city is used, especially by the urban poor.

Jahangeer has for the past few years been rerouting these lessons into projects that disrupt and question the boundaries between product design, urban planning, art and architecture. One notable example of this is Jahangeer’s Spaza-De-Move-On, a foldaway shop-on-wheels that when static also doubles as a chair for its user. It won him the South Award at the 2009 Design Indaba conference. “It is one component that emerged out of a relationship with a man that I had known for ten years,” says Jahangeer. The deep knowledge he acquired, he adds, taught him the value of an “embedded process”, one that relies on repetition and return.
“The bigger vision now is to develop the concept of an architecture without walls,” says Rahangeer, who for many years has worked both individually and as a member of the Durban-based interdisciplinary collective Dala (the name is derived from a Zulu word meaning “to make or create”). Dala’s UIA collaboration with Raumlabor makes perfect sense. Artistic rather simply architectural experimentation is central to the practices of both groups; Raumlabor’s pedestrian shelter, for example, even has a formal title, Rush Hour – Acknowledging everyday practices. Both groups are also drawn to interstitial urban spaces, using them as laboratories for new thinking about contemporary urbanity.
“We are usually attracted to difficult sites,” says Samuel Carvalho, who together with Marius Busch has been hanging out with a group of Chatsworth workingmen. Fabricators employed by La Lucia businessman Zidhaan Pillay, they have been assisting Carvalho and Busch realise Raumlabor’s shelter. “It is hard to define, but it is not the main square. We are more attracted to forgotten, neglected and unexplored spaces. It is about finding pockets of potential, like underneath a freeway, or between two buildings.” Busch, who speaks with curious fascination about Durban’s rampant car culture and many vehicle cemeteries around its urban edge, adds that it is the “complexity” of a site rather than its formal typology that typically makes it attractive to Raumlabor.
He mentions the collective’s work Halle-Neustadt, a planned city built in 1967 in former East Germany that struggled to sustain itself after unification. In the spirit of investigation rather than formal problem solving, Raumlabor intervened in the city by turning a former student’s dormitory into a hotel, or “a high-rise favela” as they put it. The collective has also facilitated a recycling project, collecting old doors from social housing blocks slated for demolition. Although the product of distinctive histories, Warwick Junction and Cato Manor shares certain fundamental attributes with Halle-Neustadt: it is a difficult site with a compromised history.
A freehold area settled by Durban’s Indian residents in the mid-1800s, by the early 1900s many black, mainly Zulu-speaking people started moving to the area, renting plots. Race relations were sometime strained. A 1949 attack on Indians by Zulu residents was the precursor to further violence, including riots by illegal liquor traders a decade later. The forcible removal of non-whites from the area between 1958 and 1963, after the area was earmarked as a white settlement, also resulted in deaths as well as long-term devastation for many families.
But Cato Manor, or Umkhumbane, is transforming. It has been resettled, and has a community hall and a conference centre. Its carwashes are a vibrant centre for socialising, which surprised Jahangeer when he discovered this during the 2012 iteration of the Interface 2012 project. The new insight prompted him to question settled ideas of public space in South Africa as a rejuvenated public square with a sprinkling of art. Perhaps, he and his collaborators from Berlin are proposing, an idiosyncratic shelter built on neglected ground by the side of a busy motorway and used chiefly by hitchhikers is a valid form of public space.
For their part, Durban’s city administrators – who in recent times have been locked in conflict with illegal tenants of River View, a low-cost housing scheme in Cato Manor – have bought into the proposition. When a UIA representative presented Raumlabor’s plan to build a formal structure acknowledging an informal practice, the municipality hardly blinked. They quickly gave the project the thumbs up.

Author: Sean O'Toole is a writer and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut South Africa, Internet Editor
July 2014
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