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Design for the People


Photo credit: David Southwood

Architect Thomas Chapman is helping to pioneer more user-friendly urban design in and around Johannesburg. We take a look at his design philosophy, as well as a recent project that his company Local Studio designed for the residents of Sophiatown.

What is it about Joburg that stirs passion in you as an architect?

Johannesburg is a notoriously unfinished city and welcomes change in a way that many other cities don’t. As an architect I am attracted to places like this, where built environment professionals still have a significant role to play in taking society forward. Joburg is also a wonderful place to do business as it has never lost the entrepreneurial intensity of being a gold rush town.

How did you develop an interest in finding solutions for public spaces?

I grew up in a very ordinary suburb in the West Rand of Johannesburg and was motivated by the idea that bland, low-density, single-use environments like these could transform into something more ‘public’. This gradually developed into a critique of Apartheid-era urban planning and since starting my practice I have investigated innovative ways of using public space design to question the status quo.

Why is the Trevor Huddleston memorial building such an important addition to the community?

This is arguably the first truly public building to go up in Sophiatown in over 50 years. The building stands for the values of Trevor Huddleston: diversity and respect for others, the untapped potential of youth and the need to educate and train everyone with equal opportunity. The building will also be one of the first five green-star rated buildings of its kind in Johannesburg.

'...built environment professionals still have a significant role to play in taking society forward.'- Thomas Chapman

The building celebrates the cultural legacy of Sophiatown by hosting jazz concerts and heritage tours to the public among many other activities. The building also commemorates the urban past of old Sophiatown by creating an active, vibrant edge to what was previously a very unloved and inactive piece of street in the suburb.

The building was not commissioned by an organ of state and was funded via grants from the National Lottery, Department of Arts and Culture and various private donors locally and abroad. More recently, we received donations for the memorial screen from Design Indaba in association with Nedbank.

Why was the memorial screen such an important part of the project?

By the time the Trevor Huddleston memorial building reached momentum, we were heading for the 50th anniversary of the forced removals in Sophiatown. Together with our client, we conceptualised a sunscreen that would wrap around the building’s North and East facades that would represent a map of Old Sophiatown. Here forcibly-removed former residents would be able to record the location of their former homes via a plaque attached to the screen with a padlock. The screen is made of five layers of rusted off-the-shelf re-bar mesh and the map is represented by the steel members forming the substructure. The plaques which get hung on the screen have the name of a former resident, their address and date of birth.

meyerstreet One of the plaques in place on the memorial screen. Photo credit: Sarah de Pina

Often public spaces like community centres have so little personality in them. They’re dull and purely functional. Yet, you’ve managed to weave the stories of the people of Sophiatown into the design language of this public building. How important is it for an architect to engage with the community for which they’re designing?

Our client consulted with past and present residents of Sophiatown for three years before beginning the project. We facilitated a great deal of this participation process and the design combines the needs and suggestions of this community with an in-depth understanding of historical public building typologies in the area. The memorial screen takes the idea of community engagement a little further in that it is a part of the building that can constantly be transformed by its users.

In your opinion, do architects in South Africa have a responsibility to contribute to recontextualising the citizens’ experiences with public buildings and infrastructure?

Yes, contemporary architecture in South Africa should really be addressing the dearth of good quality, well-managed and inclusive public space. This is the starting point for social transformation and applies to commercial office buildings as much as to community buildings like ours in Sophiatown.

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