BLOM BLOG #1

Welcome to the first Blom Blog – a post session write up. Blom Sessions are live events that aim to foster a discourse on cities and urban culture. Curated by 26’10 south Architects, the sessions tie into our mission as architects: to ADD VALUE by creating spaces in which people thrive.

Blom Session 1: STORIES OF URBANITY FROM SAO PAULO, held on the 8th March 2019, at Roving Bantu, Brixton

Presented by: Paul Devenish (26’10 south Architects) and Tebogo Ramatlo (UJ, Department of Architecture)

For Blom Session 1 we invited Johannesburg architects Paul Devenish and Tebogo Ramatlo to report back on their participation in the XIV International Seminar held at the Escola da Cidade, Sao Paulo in February this year. Architects from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Germany, Italy, Lebanon and Spain were asked to reflect on the theme “OCCUPY” through talks, tours and workshops. The South African led workshop took on the sub-theme “OCCUPY MEMORY” by projecting the spatial qualities of 14th Street, Feitas in Johannesburg onto the public passage of the Rua Paim Complex in Sao Paulo. The workshop was run over four afternoons and evenings with local architect and director of the Escola da Cidade, Maira Rios, and 50 Brazilian architecture students. 

poster of Escola da Cidade seminar

Sao Paulo presents us with a vastly bigger and denser version of Joburg. Both share a similar climate, problematic colonial histories and suffer from a resultant and pervasive inequality that is being further entrenched through Neo liberal practices.

image of Rua Paim

The Rua Paim complex was built in 1956 and represents an audaciously confident urban vision. Not unlike Joburg’s own Ponte Tower, this vision has become obscured by a notorious reputation for crime. Ironically this has, for now, safeguarded Rua Paim’s migrant community from displacement due to rampant gentrification. But unlike Ponte, which was designed as a fortified island within the city, Rua Paim opens up, literally ‘pulling’ the pavements, shops and activities of the street into itself. The result is an accessible, intimate public space in which human activity is given preference over cars whilst the curved behemoths housing approximately 3000 people rise above.

The workshop explored ways in which this public space, at the heart of the Rua Paim complex, could be amplified, inspired by the memory of 14th Street and Fietas. As one of Johannesburg’s many mixed race neighbourhoods that was destroyed during Apartheid, it lives on in the stories of its displaced inhabitants and traders who speak about a thriving urbanity, whilst others compare it to a slum. Many of these stories were gathered by 26’10 south Architects over a period of six years when the practice occupied one of two remaining shop buildings on 14th Street. Students were briefed through the recounting of these stories as well as drawings made in the 1970’s by architecture students from nearby Wits University (led by Peter Rich) and sketches published in 1978 by Manfred Hermer (interestingly, one of the architects of Ponte Tower).

One of Peter Rich’s students’ drawings of 14th Street, Fietas, dating from the 1970’s
Manfred Hermer drawing of 14th Street, Fietas before forced removals

By building 1:25 model segments of the Rua Paim complex, students fashioned stage sets for short stop- frame animations that had to convey, without requiring words or text, how the extraordinary combination of scales of Rua Paim could be better integrated.  What emerged were poignant vignettes that demonstrated how very simple changes might influence and enrich the everyday use of the space at the base of Rua Paim.

Rua Paim complex split up into segments for students
students buildings 1:25 models of the base of Rua Paim
completed student models of Rua Paim showing proposed interventions

It is tempting, for us as architects working and living in Johannesburg, to think of Sao Paulo as a bigger version of Johannesburg, since both cities share so many similarities – not least the deep structural flaws wrought by a succession of exploitative regimes. Yet many parts of Sao Paulo somehow come across as more civic than Johannesburg, where gated communities, malls and office parks are performing a kind of blanket lobotomy on the imagination of the city.  In Sao Paulo, vertical gentrification has resulted in a ground plane that is accessible to those with means and those who serve them as can be experienced in the cheek by jowl arrangement of fancy restaurants, lanchonettes (bars) and hardware stores that cater for both classes. Imagine the corporate outrage were outdoor advertising to be banned in Johannesburg as it was in Sao Paulo in an effort to counter act pollution.

https://99percentinvisible.org/article/clean-city-law-secrets-sao-paulo-uncovered-outdoor-advertising-ban/

On weekends certain parts of the city’s main avenues are closed to cars and reserved for pedestrians, resulting in instant Ramblas’ filled with people. SESC (Serviçio Social do Comércio), a private non-profit institution, develops and runs public cultural spaces of astonishing quality and ambition which are accessible to all.

Sao Paulo SESC Pompeia Image ©

Johannesburg seems to be pursuing an outdated ambition to become a Los Angeles on the Highveld, with well-to-do residents opposing many of the policies that are levelled at balancing inequities. In some ways Sao Paulo with its messy mix of high and medium densities is already ‘there’, showing us a version of a Johannesburg that could support a street based retail, service and leisure industry that operates way past most of South Africa’s Calvinist business hours.

Besides a few isolated pockets, Johannesburg displays a dearth of thriving urban environments in which the most compelling quality of cities – that of connection – between different people, cultures, ideas and opportunities can be enjoyed. Franchised developments are turning places like Maboneng into one of the few default alternatives where citiness can be simulated for the well-resourced. This has resulted in, at best ignoring, and at worst actively waging war on an emerging African urbanism. Whilst suffering severe deprivations the non-formal cities and markets that have taken root in Johannesburg display more life and vibrancy than the spaces developers build, banks will finance and many people end up aspiring to. With Johannesburg’s new Inclusionary Housing Policy triggering outrage in the suburban imagination, one comment made at the Blom Session rings on: that colleagues at one of the leading architectural practices in Johannesburg could “see no reason for attending an event in a place like Brixton”.  

This leads to the question of whether architects and their patrons are willing and able to imagine accessible, thriving urban spaces in one of the world’s most unequal cities. Rua Paim’s combination of scales or the organic growth of 14th Street or even Brixton’s mixed income, mixed race community represent vibrant urban situations that may inform a more inclusive, hybrid and fluid urban imagination. Judging by the large number of young architects and students who attended the Blom Session this is not just possible but happening, here and now.

Blom Sessions are organised by 26’10 south Architects. We welcome proposals for content and will host presentations, films, performances, tours and discussions related to urban culture. If you have a proposal e-mail us at info@2610south.co.za.

photograph of blom session 1

Next up:

Blom Session 2: Movie Night at the Bantu. 3rd May 2019

Come join us to watch and talk about Rubble Kings, a riveting documentary on the birth of hip-hop that transformed not just the Bronx of NY City but went on to change the world. 

From 1968 to 1975, gangs ruled New York City. Beyond the idealistic hopes of the civil rights movement lay an unfocused rage. Neither law enforcement nor social agency could end the escalating bloodshed. Peace came only through the most unlikely and courageous of events that would change the world for generations to come by giving birth to hip-hop culture. Rubble Kings, the most comprehensive documentation of life during this era of gang rule to date, tells the story of how a few extraordinary, forgotten people did the impossible, and how their actions impacted the world over. http://www.imdb.com