In 2014, we (Eric Wright, Alex Opper, Claudia Morgado & myself) as a team of architects, lectures and researchers assembled a collective architecture/urbanism/landscape laboratory which closely engages with complex urban conditions of South African. We termed this collective Aformal terrain (AT).
Our first experimentation with this collective was through a critical studio with the leadership of Denver, Informal Settlement in Johannesburg CBD. This project was established to take course over a period of 3-5 years and support s much larger development process that Denver is already a part of in regard to the Department of Human Settlement’s work in Gauteng and South Africa.
AT focuses on integrating resources and skills towards promoting awareness and generating appropriate responses to the context of rapidly changing and often unstable contemporary urban phenomena. This approach is underpinned by people-driven methodologies for engagement, research, design responses and planning strategies. AT directs this purpose to three areas of action.
The use of the term ‘Aformal’ frames a critical investigation (immersion) into complex spatial, social, cultural, economic and physical urban scenarios as an ‘in-between’ condition, or terrain. This direction is rooted in working with, and, within urban informal settlements with a focus on incremental in-situ upgrading and organic urban growth – interrogating current polarised definitions of the ‘formal’ and ‘informal’, and the often confused interpretations between legality and illegality.
Each Studio (project, exhibition, publication etc) is aimed at identifying and interconnecting multiple role-players (actors). This occurs through an immersive, collaborative and co-produced process of engagement, establishing a platform to enable trans-disciplinary exchange and capacitation, consequently activating public, private and community joint efforts.
An elongated period of pre-engagement with the various leadership structures was conducted before the studio began, to clearly determine the nature of the studio and the expected outcomes and processes. These meeting included the local ward councillors, regional leadership, housing officials and NGO’s such as uTshani, ISN and CORC.
Students were carefully divided into manageable groups and worked closely with local residents to immersively map and co-analyse Denver.
Regular contact sessions were arranged through the 8 week process to share and add to the developed knowledge captured in the studio.
Students were tasked not to design anything specific, but let the process of engagement and developed understanding determine the nature of the ‘strategy’ that they would propose.
Many students took to designing elaborate tools that would allow ‘strategies’ to be co-developed with and for residents.
The studio uncovered many other factors in development design, and was a critical platform to discuss themes such as ethics, values and the notion of positionality as designers/researchers.
The studio was arranged in that the final presentation and handover of the 8 week process would happen on site where residents would be recognised for their involvement and a series of tangible research resources would be given to the leadership alongside a presentation (translated into isiZulu) would share the work of the students and the resident volunteers.
Studio AT Denver 2015
The 2014 Studio AT Denver proved to be a rich, but complex process that revealed many difficult challenges we face as practitioners, teachers and even as students learning the role and value in re-development in South Africa.
This studio will not end here, but continue into next year, as well as be incorporated into the larger working of Aformal Terrain (AT).