The WITS Gateways project illustrates an agenda of Local Studio to promote the development of more pedestrian public space in downtown Johannesburg through the reimagining of pedestrian entrances into a university campus as ‘filling stations for pedestrians’.
Johannesburg scores significantly under on the UN Habitat recommended quota of 15m2 public open space per capita because over the city’s 120 year history, the majority of open spaces were built over. This has left only private spaces and vehicular streets as opportunities to create more open space. In 2011, Local Studio worked with traffic engineers and developed a plan in 2011 to identify all the streets in this part of the downtown, which could be pedestrianized. One of the commissioners of his study was the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) who subsequently appointed Local Studio to design two new pedestrian entrances in relation to the proposed pedestrian routes. Most educational institutions in South Africa are walled off from the general public and in recent years, universities like WITS have tried to present a more welcoming front following the turbulent ‘Fees must Fall’ protests of 2015 and 16.
The brief for the two new entrances asked that access control mechanisms be retained and new signage, information portals, lighting and waste management systems be introduced. Both entrances also needed to be fully barrier-free, through the construction of new ramps and wheelchair lifts. Entrance 1 replaced an existing gateway and is historically the busiest pedestrian entrance into the university, characterized by over 20,000 passes-through per day. Entrance 2 established a new access point between two buildings.
Two driving architectural concepts are evident at both entrances, the first being a ‘programmed wall’, which pulled the security perimeter of the campus inwards to create more space on the city side. This wall was thickened in parts to accommodate security turnstiles and information kiosks. The other is that of the ‘urban umbrellas’ which shelter arriving and dwelling students and provide wifi and charging points. These umbrellas are positioned adjacent to the programmed wall to perform the role of a traditional pavement canopy. The umbrellas light up at night, providing a safe space for pedestrians both inside and outside the campus.
In addition to the information kiosks, Entrance 1 looks to capitalize from the masses of students passing through every day and in this case the ‘programmed wall’ houses a fast food counter, placed on the outer edge in order to serve members of the public as well as for passive surveillance at quieter times.
Entrance 2 is carved between two 1970’s brutalist buildings on the campus’ southern edge. A lot more open space was available for development here and, along with the programs of Entrance 1, a small park was incorporated at the top of the alley.
The entrances have been functional for two years and conversations with students have found that most are proud of their new entrances. What was previously an undignified and uncomfortable squeeze through a flat wall is now a gradual process of envelopment into the campus. The now familiar urban umbrella’s serve as a symbol of safety and arrival much like vehicular filling stations do for drivers in car-dominated Johannesburg.