Written by Khensani de Klerk | Visual by Johnny Miller
Last week showed us a combination of environmental and political failure in Cape Town. On the 12th March, Imizamo Yethu (IY), a township in Hout Bay suffered a tremendous fire leaving 15 000 people homeless (3500 homes destroyed, and that ratio of residents to home is shocking in and of itself). It is not the first time that a township in Cape Town faces such harsh fires; last year Masiphumele faced a similar disaster.
The response has been interesting, and it is unfortunate that we are the sensational trending society that is desensitized to the suffering of others. Many people have contributed to donating relief items for those displaced. I do find it surprising that IY has been on the news for a whole week, shocking for Cape Town considering the condition IY has been in for years. I’m being quite facetious, only to emphasize the incredible inequality and nonchalance in inequality that lives in the Cape Townian air we breathe.
I shall begin by giving context as to what the condition of Imizamo Yethu is/was. At the end of last year, my mum decided to come down to Cape Town for a visit, and in order to make her stay a pleasant one, I thought I would give her a glimpse of places she should see in Cape Town. And so, I thought the easiest way to acquaint her with the city would be via Red Bus Tour. (Funnily enough, even during this time of crisis and post-trauma in IY, the first link that pops up on Google when entering “Imizamo Yethu” is the famous tourist sunshine Red Bus Tour, which says a lot). Right, so off we went, hopping on and off the bus, exploring the picturesque Cape Town. Heading toward Hout Bay, we decided to get off at Imizamo Yethu, as I had once mentioned to my mum that during Archi School 2nd year, we often did voluntary work in the area.
Imizamo Yethu for those who don’t know, is a unique Cape Town township in that it is on the luscious mountain fairly close to the wharf, unlike most townships commonly situated on the outskirts of the city, furthest away from the ocean, on the flattest sandiest land (and extremely difficult to develop on). One can understand that IY is a contested space in its geographic location, evidence of a psychological after effect of the segregated Apartheid regime. One can is reminded of the local white woman who thought to protest against homeless people running our cities… but this article doesn’t focus on her.
Once Apartheid had ended, the planners-which are very disconnected from the spatial implications of design and dominantly focused on the politics and intangible elements of space- implemented the RDP project. Whilst the government may have good intentions with RDP housing (we hope), the result has been the complete antithesis socially for communities. This has been a result of physically poorly designed housing and even worse, planning on a macro scale. RDP housing is problematic both in land tenure and spatial design, but for the sake of this blog we will only explore the spatial hitches. RDPs are evidence of no macro planning consideration.
On a micro scale, the RDP, is rectangle structure (which vary in size according to room number), that is often only able to house a maximum of two people if they are to share a sleeping area. The structure commonly has no indoor toilet, which speaks about how low dignity and privacy are on the priority list. If we are to design in a post Apartheid South Africa, we have to PLAN FOR PREVENTION. Do it right the first time, and allow for growth and not simply nihilistic renovation. Anyway, I find that the RDP model is reminiscent to a modernist ideal Le Corbusier proposed through his Domino House model, which existed in a context-less state. The RDP model has been designed to be replicated regardless of its context. However, In Cape Town, it found political convenience on flat land away from the city (and mountain and ocean). Perhaps the reason why IY was slow to receive RDPs was due to governmental planning avoiding having to step out of it’s self created design box of parameters limited to a cube for a house.
On a macro scale, the RDP housing plan has no strategy for shared space, public space, community engagement, improved safety and opportunity in economy. Placed in the middle of the plot, the RDP house removes any possibility for extending the house, to potentially lease it out; or perhaps to be up against another RDP house, with a shared parti wall for an improved drainage reticulation system. Or even a simple shift of every RDP closer to the street boundary to create an internal and intimate courtyard for residents to feel safe and comfortable in through their back doors. The design possibilities are endless, Urban Think Tank successfully explores these possibilities in an ongoing project titled Empower Shack in Khayelitsha which I was fortunate enough to have tucked my nose into through Young Urbanists (I urge you to join at www.futurecapetown.com/youngurbanists/. A group of interdisciplinary individuals involved and interesting in sharing and acting in the post Apartheid cities of South Africa).
This lengthy description of RDPs was very necessary in order to preface what the response from planners and designers should be with regards to Imizamo Yethu. This week, a Planning and Theory lecturer of mine, mentioned how Planning in its own right and in it’s epistemological birth, is oppressive in that it INTERVENES. It creates intervention(s). It intervenes in discordance with the organic movement and instinctive living navigation that humans once had. But at this point, where we have planned all habitable space, the only way to detangle and amend such oppressive spaces is to, what I am calling, Plan for Prevention, (even when in response to the pre-existing). So essentially a cure that prevents.
According to the City of Cape Town, “The provision of building kits (which are a unique City of Cape Town relief tool) and the redesign and restructuring of the area is expected to cost close to R100 million.” (Neilson 2017) In writing this article, I tirelessly searched for what this “tool kit” is comprised of but had no luck in finding any answer, and so for those of you who have an idea, please do comment. What I find extremely unsettling about the response from the City of Cape Town is that this provision is intended to Redesign and Restructure IY. It is a fact that IY had NO STRUCTURE AND NO DESIGN. Unless you would call a resident placing a carpet onto the flattened soil surface in your “house” structure, which I have seen first hand. After having spoken to the residents at IY during the tour that day; what was the physical-build of IY was unattended to, people naturally built what they could to shelter themselves out of need, and so the shack pattern continues in the township.
In a time like this, The City Of Cape Town should make a call out to all planners, architects and even institutions with students currently involved in the spatial discipline to think of and design creative and truly sustainable ways of attending to Imizamo Yethu, and what it could become. The frustration most professionals and students have within this space is obviously a lack of knowledge in the economic and infrastructural viability of these proposals, but this is where we need the City of Cape Town to develop its mandate to facilitate such initiatives. Or else I can assure you, when winter comes, the ad hock houses built by residents from a ‘tool kit’ will be washed away by the strong rains that visit Cape Town annually. We need to design for prevention and growth.
I believe the answer lies somewhere in Incremental Housing. Alejandro Aravena, South American architect and recent winner of The Pritzer Prize is a fine example of designing in reaction, for prevention. Throughout all of his housing projects he has considered an inevitable growth in population, which is also inevitable for IY. His model is also very adaptable to the context and not a prescriptive tool but rather one that has developed through many of his works. The example shown below is Villa Verde, which was developed in 2013 in Chile. The design speaks directly to the inhabitants’ involvement in the design and construction process. As the architect, designer, planner or infrastructure planner, he provides the necessary infrastructure that the user lacks such as the provision of water plumbing and electricity as well as main structural elements.
This is the basis, and would potentially work in Imizamo Yethu with an ADDITIONAL tool kit to aid in the extension and specialization of each home. In this, there is a range of opportunity, and a big emphasis on the dignity that should come with shelter. Aravena’s work places emphasis on the idea of a home. Perhaps the occupant would like to rent the other side of their house out as a hair salon? Or perhaps they would like to insert an additional floor to rent out the top as an extra room? Or to leave it open as an outdoor leisure space? The user is essentially the final designer. And so, the government shouldn’t just be providing IY residents with a tool kit, but should be providing cleverly designed models that allow choice and have more than enough infrastructure for a human being to live with dignity. We need to expel the idea of external toilets for multiple households who are unable to afford it. The tool kit should aid in any addition or adaptation the resident would like to make to their home.
It has been difficult to write this article, purely because of the amount of research that still needs be added to it: another reason why this blog serves as a platform for dialogue. It is all good and well that we are reacting to the IY disaster by donating items that can satisfy living needs such as food, water and clothes; but as designers, we need to reach out to The City of Cape Town, and offer our human capital.
Or else, in winter, IY will be washed away and next summer, it’ll be up in flames… again.
Imiazmo Yethu– Xhosa, translating to “Our Efforts”
Neilson, Alderman Ian. Water and Electricity services restored in Imizamo. March 15, 2017. http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politics/water-and-electricity-services-restored-in-imizamo (accessed March 18, 2017).
Feature image: Johnny Miller