Before our trip to Johannesburg we studied the map : a series of juxtaposed grids, the large mine belt cutting through the city, the trees, ever present in certain areas and so absent in others… We also looked at climate data : 3124 hours of sun per year, 99 days of rain, never too cold, never too warm. Through grid systems and solar data Johannesburg was an abstraction. Until it became a reality.
We were invited by Local Studio and the University of Johannesburg’s GSA to work with students from Unit 11 Bloody Agency on affordable housing. As in all metropolises there is rising demand in Johannesburg for housing at an affordable price. The quasi absence of public transport often makes central location more important than square meters and the last couple of years micro- units, sized between 15 and 40 sqm, designed to make city living affordable have started to hit the market.
Our first workshop with the students took place in Maboneng where we also visited the offices of Ithemba property, a company experimenting with micro units. On the roof of one of their properties they have built two micro- unit prototypes (15 sqm) that they use as showrooms for future residents and case studies, bringing people there to see what they like. From floor material to open versus closed shelving, everything is tested in order to best fulfill three objectives : customer satisfaction, robustness and lower costs. As a promoting method this is a highly interesting one, recognizing that testing is an important part of the developer process, something we have mostly lost in Europe.
On our last day in Johannesburg we visited Braamfontein gate, the reconversion of a former office tower into a residential complex designed by Local Studio. With more than 400 apartments it is a simple, cheap and fast reconversion that extends its impact well beyond the housing unit and the building, starting to have an influence on the city around.
At GRAU, we work at the forefront with businesses and organizations to design housing prototypes for future lifestyles. While the quality of housing units is a common concern among professionals there is little critical research conducted on housing typologies today and close to none on the urban form that it generates. Yet, the way we produce housing is a matter of form that can not be separated from the process. It has strong physical implications on the way we shape our cities.
The students of the «bloody agency» are not afraid to look at housing also as a mass issue. By stacking hundreds of micro- units together they are starting to make a city with housing, connecting the unit to a larger urban context and ultimately influencing the shape of the city. This influence may still be unconscious for the moment but is they understand it the potential for such an approach is outstanding.
Looking at Johannesburg, the work of the Bloody Agency and Local Studio, wee see the beginning of a shift in the thinking process moving away from building form and towards the architectural typology and tits relationship to the urban form. Stepping away from the façade and into each and everyone’s most intimate universe, the home, it becomes possible to reengage the debate on how we live and shape our future city. And Johannesburg may be just that, the future city.