Tariq Toffa

The [IN]FORMAL STUDIO in Johannesburg's informal settlements

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager


After the end of apartheid in 1994, the new democratic South African government promised to build millions of new houses for the great numbers of communities of squatters living in deplorable conditions. However, with the current 2.3 million backlog in subsidised housing together with rapid urbanisation, particularly in the South African province Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg), this goal has grown increasingly unattainable. This reality has resulted in a shift in thinking about housing in South Africa from eradication towards upgrading of informal settlements. The concomitant need for professionals, community planners and officials who can engage in a process of participative planning has also becoming increasingly urgent.

For these reasons the [IN]FORMAL STUDIO project was initiated by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Department of Architecture together with 26'10 south Architects (a Johannesburg-based practice), with support from the Goethe Institut in Johannesburg (a global cultural institute of Germany). In this project, Johannesburg's informal settlements became productive laboratories in which the practice of architecture and urban design were directed to support and lend agency to people-driven development, collaborating with NGOs and residents.

To date, two seven-week courses as collaborative processes were held in Johannesburg through UJ. In 2011 a course was run in Ruimsig, a settlement located to the west of Johannesburg, and in 2012 a course was run in Marlboro South, bordering Alexandra Township. At Ruimsig, the agreed deliverable was a re-blocking map to be implementable by residents themselves: to address overcrowding and the activities of slumlords, to widen movement routes and road widths, and to improve public and semi-public spaces. At Marlboro South, architecture students working with community planners surveyed the 600-acre site to create an accurate land-use map illustrating the dynamic nature of the area.

The successes following the Ruimsig course have been significant, with 74 structures moved and upgraded from the most congested part of Ruimsig, as well as the City of Johannesburg even declaring Ruimsig its 'experimental' pilot upgrading project where alternative planning parameters could be developed; at Malboro South, however, successes have been less tangible. Even during the studio itself, nearly 1,000 Marlboro South residents were forcibly evicted by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. With the surveyed map, the students began to propose ways not only to improve living conditions, but to motivate the government against bulldozing the settlement entirely, and to promote collaboration between architects and the City around the challenges of housing. The fate of Marlboro South nonetheless still remains in limbo.

[IN]FORMAL STUDIO could be described as both unspectacular and spectacle. Given the academic trend to emphasise novelty (which may be both a boon and a burden), the idea of [IN]FORMAL STUDIO may not produce a glamorous or novel architectural product, but the need for such initiatives which provide a model for "a sustained conversation with people on the ground," as Lindsay Bremner of the University of Westminster describes it, is as pressing as it has ever been. Similarly, the hard work of 'doing' is "what promotes real change," says Anaclaudia Rossbach, creator of Interação (International Network of Community Action) in São Paulo. In contradistinction to this more low-key engagement, recognition and exposure of the [IN]FORMAL STUDIO project has grown impressively around the world, through a wide variety of public platforms. While much publicity for South African architectural work is unproductively self-promotional and hagiographic, given the role of media exposure in bringing the fight of poor communities into the public realm, the wide public 'staging' of this particular conversation is another kind of 'doing' which may be precisely what is needed.

Picture 1: "Marlboro South", installation view of the exhibition. Photo by Nic Huisman. (Opper 2012, 5)

Picture 2: View of Marlboro South, Johannesburg. Photo by Leon Krige. (Le Roux 2013)

Picture 3: Ruimsig residents study the re-blocking map. Photo by Thorsten Deckler (26'10 south Architects). (Le Roux 2013)