Local Studio is an architecture and urban design firm based in Brixton, Johannesburg. The firm was founded by Thomas Chapman in 2012 with early commissions emerging directly from his Masters degrees in architecture (2008) and urban design (2013) at the University of the Witwatersrand. Both theses explored the reintroduction of ‘publicness’ into the post apartheid city, with the former Western Areas of Johannesburg as a case study.
Today, Local Studio employs 15 full-time staff and has a diverse portfolio of built work comprising public buildings, urban design schemes and private houses. The firm works mainly in the affordable housing, social infrastructure and public space sectors and is responsible for several projects that have played a part in the regeneration of downtown Johannesburg. Local Studio’s work is almost always produced under extreme time and budget constraints, resulting in spatial and tectonic solutions that borrow heavily from the industrial and mining legacy of Johannesburg.
It would appear that 24 years of democracy has seen the lobotomy of the architectural profession in South Africa, at least in the commercial sector. Nuanced decisions regarding a project’s context and programme, what we consider to be the primary defining factors of compelling architecture, are taken by private developers armed with the Johannesburg Town Planning Scheme of 1979. The majority of greenfield architectural projects in Johannesburg are established as such, behind the walls of security estates and office parks, with prescriptive planning conditions. The result is a contemporary architectural movement that is like a small-town singer surprised for being kicked off a TV talent contest: competent, but dated, derivative, and far too sure of itself.
The first five years of Local Studio have been a cheeky attempt to defy this trend, mainly in that we have sought out the majority of our work in and around the historical city centre. Our work has most often been described by observers as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘good’; however, it is truly not difficult to make interesting work in downtown Johannesburg. There is the wealth of existing buildings owing to building booms, in response to peaking gold prices in virtually every decade from the 1880s to the 1970s. To date our largest projects have been the adaptive re-use of existing structures and we have worked across this spectrum, from a classical department store built in 1903, to a mirrored 1970s office tower built for an oil company. These projects have been implemented in service to some of Johannesburg’s toughest and most pioneering property entrepreneurs who have been largely responsible for redirecting the city from more than twenty years of blight.
Downtown Johannesburg also continues to have the most liberal zoning laws in the city region, exemplified by a zero parking ratio and building heights governed by the 59-degree rule. This zoning also allows for a vertical mix of uses, inconceivable to purveyors of the plan-based ‘bubble’ zoning of the 1979 scheme, which forces vehicular movement in even the most walkable areas.
Unlike many cities in developed countries where a minimum quota of affordable housing is enforced by a city authority, these developers have mostly sought to nimbly inject affordable rental housing into a myriad of structures, catering to new arrivals to the city who have limited economic means. Our contribution to such projects has mostly been limited to smart densification through the design of compact residential units, but we have also strived to convince our clients that better communal spaces attract more and better tenants.
Our new-built projects in the city seldom exist as stand-alone structures, more often than not filling in a void or growing parasitically from existing buildings. These projects have generally been small-scale interventions for social organisations providing education and healthcare to underprivileged city inhabitants. In many of these cases, their spatial requirements could not be satisfied within available built structures due to the need for larger collective spaces, such as school halls and dance studios. These organisations, generally NGOs, are certainly the bravest of the city actors we have encountered, fighting against severe political and economic pressures to provide essential services currently not provided by the state.
Our inhabitation of city-voids is not always three-dimensional, and sometimes focuses only on the city floor where we have conceptualised public spaces and transport infrastructure for the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA). The JDA is the civic organisation responsible for interventions on city-owned land and had an initial mandate of using public environment upgrades to restore investor confidence – and in turn to re-establish a property market in the downtown area. While initially successful, in recent years these efforts have been skewed by rotten party politics, causing massive overspending in areas with little development potential in order to create vote-winning short-term construction jobs. We have been involved in several projects birthed in this way that have deteriorated quickly due to fading community-ownership and poor urban management.
Reflecting on the trajectory of our office, we began by choosing to work in parts of the city that we found interesting, with the logic that this would beget interesting architecture. In becoming local to (downtown) Johannesburg, we forged relationships with the various actors working in these areas and introduced many of them to the (perhaps flawed) idea that architectural innovation could have an impact on the problems they were trying to solve.
In the past, being asked to describe what was unique to our work, we resorted to describing the immense time and cost pressures evident in every project, as well as the challenges of working in a turbulent political climate. We have since realised that this is shared by the majority of architects working in developing countries today, even those destroying the landscape with gated estates.