DIANE DE BEER
I am fascinated by the idea that the greatest architecture in the city has happened by accident
Hustles – Five Years Of Local Studio by architect Thomas Chapman with photographer Dave Southwood:
Because of the time I’m writing in, I couldn’t speak to the author(s) face to face, but really didn’t need to, because they state their purpose so clearly in the book Hustle – Five years of Local Studio by Thomas Chapman (Photographer: David Southwood).
The title, explains the architect Thomas Chapman, refers to the “opportunistic process of becoming local – of using design to solve urban problems amidst immense financial and time constraints – and throughout this process, trying to hustle an architectural product that is present, engaged, hopeful and ultimately, never boring”.
Knowing a few of their buildings but also having read this book, they can never be accused of that – boring! No sir!
With this book then, Thomas wanted to capture the spirit of the five past years of his practice, which consisted entirely of projects that required hustling of some form or another to get the project done.
In the meantime, he states, while compiling the book, they have embarked on a new phase for the practice with “more trusting clients, (slightly) bigger project budgets and hence a greater refinement in design and construction.
He admits to it being tempting to include some of these projects to extract value from what was becoming a very expensive book, but he resolved to draw the line at 99 Juta, at the time their most recently completed project in Braamfontein, which he thought still captured the spirit of Local Studio as a start-up.
Their choice of photographer, David Southwood, a self-proclaimed human rights photographer, is someone whose pictures of their work made them change the way they saw and contextualised their work so that they started thinking differently about people in cities.
David recalls their first meeting in the book and quotes something he said on their drive: “I like photographing architecture, but I much prefer photographing scenes which embed the built form into the street and render the structure as a continuum of its context, if in fact they are at all connected. In fact the photos of architecture that I have done which I like the most obscure the structure almost entirely.” As it turned out, the architect and the photographer were a perfect match.
He remarked further on in this introduction: “The only way a practice can include as many street photographs as this in a monograph is if they are genuinely concerned with the street. Local Studio is obsessed with the street. The street is the immediate material context in Johannesburg if you are building, where the urban fabric is rough and unkempt.”
Familiar with the following project, the Outreach Foundation in Hillbrow, because of the Hillbrow Theatre where Gerard Bester is involved, this is also one of the projects I want to focus on here.
Gerard explains in a piece about this complex that the theatre provides a space for inner-city children and youth. It serves the neighbourhood and after-school programmes are held. The theatre was there, but in 2009 they raised some money for a homework centre. After workshops and discussions were held with Thomas, what emerged was a building that now houses the computer centre, dance studio, boardroom and offices of the youth centre.
He explains further that though Hillbrow has negative connotations for outsiders, “I think the people that actually live in Hillbrow, have made it their own.”
Even though it is one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods, he believes that we have to keep “engaging an exercise in imagining what Hillbrow can be, and not oppose that; to absolutely engage with the people that reside in the neighbourhood, and not gentrify it but to create meaningful, authentic change.”
Which is exactly what has been happening with the project he is engaged with – creating a safe space that is also open and accessible.
Pretty close by is (was) the Hill Street Café, a steel restaurant pavilion built as a temporary structure on the foundations of a demolished lunatic asylum in Jozi’s historical Old Fort (just above the Constitutional Court) which was designed to last 2 years but eventually stood for four.
I can remember doing an interview with Gerard there about the Hillbrow Theatre and it’s a pity that the structure, which was erected there specifically to commemorate the space where the Asylum stood, has been removed. It was a warm and embracing space with great coffee and I remember cool service.
The other building which I am familiar with is the one that also houses the brilliant Breezeblock Café in Brixton. Called Fullham Heights, Thomas notes that it is one of the first projects to demonstrate the principals and guidelines of the Johannesburg Corridors of Freedom policy. It looks to promote mixed-use development and residential densification in neighbourhoods adjacent to the recently completed BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) network.
He explains that the building is a conversion of an old corner shop, which had been a Chinese restaurant and subsequently rented by Local Studio as office space prior to its purchase for redevelopment.
Now the building houses the funky Café and Whippet Cycle Company on the ground floor, Local Studio on the first floor and two residential units on the top floor. The new structure contrasts with the original concrete facade and pavement colonnade, which were restored as part of the project.
These are simply two projects selected because I am familiar with them, but there is so much more to this book. One needs to see the full scope to understand the ethos. Even if the firm is bigger and reaching higher, I can hardly believe that with this kind of creative compass, their work doesn’t still remain in this kind of contemporary African city mind space.
And what would be even better would be to buy the book and do your own guided tours to discover a city you probably weren’t even aware exists.
To buy the book: