In the shadow of authority

Wits MArch(Prof) Thesis


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My final architectural thesis explored the fraught history of a notorious apartheid police station and presented through extensive mapping and design development a means for it to function as a public asset and site of living memory. The following text is an extract from the introduction to the thesis:

Driving south on the M1 freeway, the opposite traffic disappears beneath you as the aging concrete monoliths of the Johannesburg skyline outline your eastern horizon. You notice the Nelson Mandela Bridge arching across a field of grey, reflective railway carriages, swallowed by the gaping mouth
of the low, long station. Your speed intensifies as you pass the mangled industrial buildings to your right. The Diamond building appears aged, unwashed, as it reflects the low, disparate clouds above. The expansive roof of Museum Africa branches outwards, followed by the scorched concrete of Mary Fitzgerald Square. A tall building insults your vista; it’s always been visible. Its blank facade ripples in the sunlight. You try to look in as you pass it, curious about what it conceals. Concrete wall. A glimpse into a transparent passage way. Concrete wall. Commissioner Street. Top Star drive- in. Yellow soil.

The experience of inner-city Johannesburg, when viewed from the M1, engenders a feeling of curiosity and interest in the spectator. The freeway is a zone of rapid movement, a roller coaster passing through a theme park. You can exit the machine, but very few choose to, very few have reason to. The inner-city of Johannesburg has faced rapid economic decline in the face of decentralisation, growing crime and the breakdown of effective urban services. The inner-city is no longer the CBD, but a historical core, a place of memory, experience, and significance.

“More buildings in the central part of the City of Gold have been erected, demolished and replaced with even bigger and supposedly better buildings than anywhere in Africa” (Beavon 2004: xvii).

The city has undergone constant change since its first settlement; the drive of speculative investment shaped its urbanity. Rapid change, periods of boom, divisive legislation and eras of decline drastically altered the shape and character of the city. Throughout it all, a few communities in the city managed to maintain their historical identities, retain an entitlement to their cultural centres.

Ferreirasdorp in the south west quadrant of the inner-city is one such place, where a community of varied cultural backgrounds historically exists. It’s experience is shaped by the constant tensions placed on the city since the site played host to the city’s largest mining camp in 1886 (Van Der Waal 1987: 2). Today it remains, as it has for at least a century, home to a community of traditionally Chinese and Indian origin. Commissioner Street forms the main arterial connection of the site into central Johannesburg, and it is along this street that both communities have managed to grow, exist and change. A commercially quiet area, of fast traffic and slowly meandering residents.

The infamous John Vorster Police Station (renamed Johannesburg Central Police Station) (JCPS), an international symbol of apartheid brutality, flanks the western extent of Ferreirasdorp. An exclamation point at the end of the road, a shadow. When approaching this western edge of the city on Commissioner Street, you immediately experience the de ant, planar facade of the JCPS rising ahead of you; its large vertical language obtrusively blocks the road. A massive fence defines its urbanity. A fence which slices a perimeter around a site still demarcated in absolute urban isolation as a farm portion of the original Turffontein. Upon closer inspection of the de ant road block, you might begin to notice a stream of cars driving through its fourth floor; this provides a clue to the structure’s modernist transparency, and its abrasive relationship to the violent, roaring horizontal bands of the M1 freeway. As you round the corner, Commissioner becomes Main Reef Road, and the warehouse industries of southern Fordsburg densely pack the landscape. The freeway dissects your view, while the police station towers above you. The city dissolves, at the point where these two forms nearly meet, into a bizarre abstracted reality, where speed, fumes, noise and mechanical violence slip past a static, terri ed building. It couldn’t escape the friction of the three levelled machine, so it grew a tough outer skin, a fragmented attempt to exclude the madness of the city, or an opportunity to conceal the historical madness within. A mechanical office block built to streamline apartheid power and influence.

The modernist, insular nature of the building is the first major conflict of the site, its disconnected relationship to the street contradicts the entire urban environment surrounding it. Densely packed multi-storey shopping and residential units, many of a courtyard format, embrace the street, for the street functions as the major social and economic spine along which life has always occurred. The city as an organ seems to have responded negatively to this foreign object, as its urban form rapidly and obviously changes as it nears the police station. In an area of high occupancy, and generally acceptable upkeep, three buildings have fallen into complete disrepair and have subsequently been occupied by squatters. They directly border the JCPS. This relationship seems to resemble an urban disjuncture: the void between modernist detachment and urban Johannesburg forms dead spaces of occupation for a removed and semi-transient community.

Further urban irregularities emerge, as you discover a completely under-utilised and unkempt police sports facility consisting of a swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling green, which remains inaccessible to an inner city- community and Madrasa a block away.

It is the Chinese community, however, that lends Ferreirasdorp a greater identity. This is Johannesburg’s original China town, a place of memory and association for many Chinese people. This community, like that of the Indian people and Orient House, also centres itself on a few key buildings, with the Transvaal Chinese United Club functioning as a cultural nexus. Like the JCPS for the local police these iconic buildings anchor these varied communities to the site, bases for external affiliations and connections.

This Ferreirasdorp site is a place of intense, multi-dimensional layering, historically, spatially, socially and experientially: a centre of traumatic memory and association, a struggling new police service and a struggling old community; a modernist imposition, requiring a new interpretation in a greater theoretical context of connection and hybridity.

The complexity of the environment has focused this analysis towards a means in which to understand, document and reinterpret the layered landscape of the place. It aims to uncover invisible urban forces in an attempt to understand an immensely rich and charged site, and
its entwined matrix of control, movement, connection, reciprocity, difference and conflict. This thesis will attempt to feed off this network, extracting from it, reinterpreting it, rewiring it. Raoul Bunschoten has named the lines of emotion and memory, which are discovered in this way, proto- urban conditions (1998: 22). They become markers to inform and support the design process.

Can a historically troubled and tainted police service re-represent itself in modern South Africa? Can a greater community and a disconnected police-station unite and exist symbiotically? How can a newly interpreted police station understand and contribute meaningfully to Ferreirasdorp?

The aim is to surgically reconfigure the building, implanting into it a new and foreign dynamic - the greater public - fostering an inhabitation of the shadow, an acknowledgement of the past, a woven future, a preventative transparency.

“The throat was removed. The animal was a panther, but a grey panther that had been covered in black printer’s ink. The black ink was mixing with the red blood and the white snow, which reminded the Police Chief of a modern painting he had once seen a long time ago in Leningrad. He began to cry until his face was covered in a thin sheet of ice” (Hejduk 1989: 70).