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:

“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 defiant, 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 road block building, 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, terrified 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.”