Urban Chemistry

Wits BAS(Hons) Project

with Catherine de Souza,
Kasia Kwiecinska and Candice Keeling

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An abattoir was inserted into Sandton’s central shopping centre to provocatively re-wire Johannesburg’s financial centre and its sterile, vehicle-dominated urban form. The results of this design experiment, which took the city through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance were studied and presented through architectural collage, drawing and writing. An extract from my essay on the project:

“Today we face the reality of a different tomorrow. In South Africa our varied urban environments are under constant external pressure to mould, expand and develop. Sandton as the financial heart of Africa will have to change significantly in order to adequately accommodate those it rejects, or face growing external resentment, and increased forms of attack. Today we bear witness to the construction of the Gautrain, the Gauteng Provincial Government’s answer to the province’s public transport shortfall. For the first time since its beginnings as a large regional shopping centre in the 1970’s, Sandton has to face a new, fundamentally foreign dynamic - the pedestrian. This essay seeks to explore the consequences of the arrival of the Gautrain for Sandton. The explorative method applied turns to science to heighten the impact of a public activator, the Gautrain, on Sandton, an inert public environment, through the introduction of an urban catalyst. The observations and conclusions drawn from the experiment will be studied with reference to Leonie Sandercock’s Cosmopolis and Raoul Bunschoten’s ‘model of a dynamic environment’ (Bunschoten 1998: 23). Central to this polemic is the reality of the Sandton pedestrian experience - it is completely foreign to the area, with its integration, fundamentally fictional.

Our investigation into this anticipated shift sought to enhance and speed up the process of movement towards Cosmopolis in a controlled experiment. This experiment saw the addition of an urban catalyst to the combination of an inert urban environment (Sandton) and a public activator (the Gautrain), so that we may heighten, quicken and magnify the process which will soon be underway in Sandton.

A catalyst is described by the Oxford Dictionary as a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change. In order for our experiment to work effectively, with maximum consequence, it was decided that the selected catalyst should programmatically contrast the existing urban condition and be inserted into the heart of this condition. The extreme catalyst was selected as an abattoir, together with its associated functions, such as cattle transport and holding, their transportation through to the abattoir and the movement of meat away from the facility. The point of insertion was identified as the Fountain Court in Sandton City Shopping Centre. The resultant impact of the catalyst on Sandton was projected over time. We assessed the effects of the insertion in accordance with the concept of the stages with which a human responds to death (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), as introduced by Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying (1969: 2). Here, however the grief cycle is applied to an urban environment in the aftermath of an extreme urban upset, as it tries to regain a form of equilibrium.

The first phase is the clinical insertion of the abattoir into Sandton City, the insertion of a cattle holding dock near the Gautrain station and the connection of the two. Here lands the theoretical bomb. Sandton is in shock. Suddenly cows are discovered being channelled through the street; their slaughter is a new spectacle central to the shopping mall. The existing equilibrium in the inert urban environment has shifted violently. A new disorder emerges (Sandercock 1998: 3).

Secondly, there is a mass reaction to the insertion, as the reality of the situation consumes the immediate, affected population. Precautions are taken to protect the exposed; those on the outside of the air conditioned corporate environment escape a growing stench as it consumes the air. Any existing pedestrian activity dies. Retailers begin to move out. The Industrial Revolution is replicated as industry and grime return to a city centre, smell, cattle and industrial effluent lace the marble clad streets, a pocket full of posies indeed.

Vacancy is the third condition. A mass depression and exodus spreads through Sandton. Development ceases, offices and shops are mothballed. Prices plummet; the smell intensifies as more cows pass through the now wholly integrated system. Here Bunschoten’s erasure is achieved, buildings become skeletons, an urban void is formed, but as Simmel described the Metropolis, a similar reaction faces the insertion, ‘...an immoderately sensuous life makes one blasé because it stimulates the nerves to their utmost reactivity until they finally can no longer produce any reaction at all’ (Simmel 1997).

Adaptation embodies the fourth phase, as an over exposure and hyper stimulation (as described by Simmel) numb and desensitise the effected population; efforts are put in place to use the vacant city. Bunschoten describes this stage as ‘origination’ where ‘traces of order arise, engendering new meanings and new possibilities of habitation’ (1998: 27). Here a return occurs; skeletal structures are reinhabited, divided and reprogrammed. A new city emerges in this reoccupation, tweaked, adjusted.

The final phase embodies Sandercock’s Cosmopolis, an interconnected city of energy, collision, multiplicity and difference. Here any vestige of Modernist planning and zoning has been dissolved, reworked, regurgitated as a woven, hybridised, organic network. I see a rainbow city (Sandercock 1998: 3). A complex, alternative reality has been catalysed. The city is reconstructed and reoccupied by people, multinational conglomerates have no place and fail to see the new city as an attractive development option. Here our troubled equilibrium rebalances into a new state of dynamic equilibrium, where the rate and process of development equals that of deterioration. Bunschoten embodies this condition in two terms, ‘Transformation’ and ‘Migration’ (1998: 28). The first relates to a reorganisation of urban parameters and relationships and the second refers to the dynamic processes of assertion and integration which ‘generate an urban morphogenesis’ (Bunschoten 1998: 28).

A new Sandton envisioned as Cosmopolis is an exciting Utopian prospect, ‘I have... offered a Utopia in the becoming. It is called Cosmopolis’ (Sandercock 1998: 8). Bunschoten’s ‘four processes of a dynamic environment’ (Bunschoten 1998: 23) represent a method to read an urban environment, neutrally assessing it. Both represent languages of interpreting the current and future states of urban environments, whether through a fictitious, optimistic projection or as set of tools - both equally
fit the Sandton glove. Our own approach is one of urban chemistry, of scientific detachment and rational conclusions, an urban experiment. As the abattoir spread a penetrating, dark cloud of odorous fumes, so the Gautrain will initiate a penetrating, urban transformation. We imagine a future Sandton of inclusion, equality and edge.”