After several manic years at Local Studio, the pandemic lockdowns in 2020 gave me a welcome opportunity to formulate a research proposal for a PhD project at ETH Zürich. I arrived in Zürich in September 2022 and the past four months have given me sufficient time to mature my research but also to reflect on the practice and city I left behind. I am based at Chair for History and Theory of Urban Design, which is led by my supervisor, Prof. Tom Avermaete. Avermaete is a renowned Flemish architectural historian, well-known for his recent book with Janina Gosseye, Urban Design in the 20th Century, as well as for his extensive research in North Africa.
My dissertation studies municipal civic centres situated at the nexus between liberal urban design culture and high apartheid in South Africa (1960–1980). My time at ETH is equipping me with critical historiographical methods to take on this project. With one foot still in practice however, I cannot help looking for replicable models from history that could addresses some of the challenges being faced at home. We are at a particularly dark time in South Africa, literally so, with rolling blackouts on 200 of the 365 days in a year. Dysfunctional municipal systems affect virtually every stage of obtaining construction approvals for projects and maintenance of public spaces by municipally-owned enterprises is virtually non-existent.
My research into civic centres led me to learning about two surprising aspects of local government during apartheid. The first was the actions of the now-abolished city engineers departments. In the case of Johannesburg, the office had 2500 professionals under employment in 1972, and combined services like plans approvals with the Roads and Parks departments in one office. The second was the commonplace method of open competitions for major public commissions. The Klerksdorp and Welkom civic centres for instance, were open competitions won by Jack Barnett, a communist who openly opposed Apartheid. The beauty of a PhD however, is that it forces one to move beyond these kinds of practical anecdotes into more uncomfortable terrain. In preparing for a recent paper for example, I had to undertake intensive research into the 1913 Land Act, which I ashamedly knew very little about. I also found myself reading transcripts of Hendrik Verwoerd’s speeches to better understand the Group Areas Act. It is strange that I needed to travel 8,000km away from the epicentre of apartheid, to refamiliarise myself with its legacy.
Aldo Rossi used the term ‘operative’ history to describe the practical application of historical research in architecture and urban design. This idea is considered passé in enlightened circles today for its associations with dated architectural styles. In South Africa’s case, however, I believe that the broad potential for operative history in our field has not been sufficiently explored. I am therefore excited to see how my historical research will impact my ongoing contributions to the work of Local Studio.