Interactive and Incremental Processes and Possibilities: An interview with Monica Albonico of Albonico Sack Metacity

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Garret Gantner
Johannesburg, 20 June 2016

Albonico Sack Metacity, Architects and Urban Designers (ASM), established in 1986 and based in the inner city of Johannesburg, consists of two members and a core team of architects and urban designers involved in public and private projects in South Africa, Africa, and further afield. They believe in working with collective processes for contextually relevant and sustainable change. We spoke to Monica Albonico, a principal of ASM, about the development of their work and ideas in the Johannesburg context.

Briefly describe the kind of work that you do.

The firm of which I am a principal has been involved in architectural and urban design work for a number of years. It focuses on projects and initiatives involving community participation, community development, educational and cultural facilities, brown field, green field and urban regeneration projects for the public and private sector.

How long have you worked in Johannesburg and what has it taught you about making equitable cities?

My understanding of an equitable city is one that provides maximum opportunities to every city dweller to realize his/her potential, including access to education, jobs, cultural activities, public spaces and housing. In that context, the work we have been doing in Johannesburg and other cities in Africa has taught us that sustained changes are part of collective endeavours and that the urban condition is constantly being redefined by multiple forces and dynamics. Improving living conditions is a constant pursuit in which architecture and urbanism play just a small part.

What are the key values and ideas that you work with, and what kinds of environments do you seek to achieve with it?

We believe in a flexible and responsive approach to development, an approach that enables the formulation of integrated development frameworks that foster the creation of well-balanced and sustainable environments.

How is this reflected in the project design process that you follow?

Most of the work is informed by collective processes involving community engagement and decision-making in the formulation of ideas, concepts and deciding on priorities, using different planning techniques and methods designed or conceptualized to suit different contexts and conditions.

Are there certain kinds of opportunities that this process allows for that would not otherwise have been possible?

This approach provides the flexibility to engage in a more interactive process that could open unexpected possibilities, leading to more responsive and incremental changes made of small steps. This is also promoted by the concept of radical incrementalism, proposing that massive change can be achieved through minimal, multiple actions and interventions.

What are the challenges that you may typically face in such processes and your work in general?

Urban development takes time to unfold, and there is a prevalence of vanity projects in search of instant solutions clouding more relevant issues requiring urgent and concerted attention related to social, economic and environmental equity and justice in our cities. These are still our biggest challenges that we seek to address through our work and civil engagements.

Photo credit: AUD

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