26'10 South Architects work to upgrade informal settlements and create public buildings in South Africa that change the physical, as well as emotional, landscape of the place, reports Design Indaba


26’10 South Architects was established by Thorsten Deckler and Anne Graupner in 2004. Since then, the practice has undertaken projects in townships, the suburbs, inner city Johannesburg and its edges. The studio combines the disciplines of architecture, urban design and knowledge management. Both Deckler and Graupner have studied and worked overseas – Deckler in the Netherlands and Graupner in Austria – but both felt drawn back to South Africa. The name of the couple’s award-winning studio, 26’10, comes from the latitude line that Johannesburg sits on and is an acknowledgement of the way they choose to interact with the paradoxical city they live in. Johannesburg, to this architect pair, represents many of the contrasts in South Africa: the malls, the spazas, the shacks and the gated multimillion rand properties.

26’10 has been involved in a number of projects that aim to address the issues around housing settlements. In 2008 they collaborated with the Goethe-Institut on a research project, Housing And The Informal City, that investigated informal housing processes using Diepsloot, a township 40km north of the city centre, as a case study. The architects looked at the choices residents were making for their own housing and, instead of applying a set of new rules, they conceived ways to use existing practices to upgrade current informal settlements to allow for better quality of life and more available housing.

The practice of in-situ upgrading is already being used by the Department of Human Settlements as an alternative to building houses from scratch, and 26’10 believe it is more effective in many cases. The project in Diepsloot developed into a masters programme called Informal Studio at the University of Johannesburg.

Their most recent project is the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital. Professor Ashraf Coovadia who runs the facility, which focuses on mother-to-child disease transmission, has become a world leader in his field. His research has managed to reduce the incidence of transmission of diseases like HIV and Tuberculosis from 27 per cent to 2.5 per cent. Now, within these upgraded facilities, Coovadia continues his work.

The first thing that strikes you about the building is the external geometric tiled mural by architect-turned-artist Lorenzo Nassimbeni. The mural symbolises a map of the area in Johannesburg in which it sits. The black tiles represent the lines of the landscape translated from an ink drawing while the gold tiles represent the city’s depleted gold mines, their surfaces reflecting light and movement. Both the round curves of the building and the angles of the mural are in harmony with their environment.

Here Deckler discusses 26’ 10’s design philosophies.

How much do you think a geographical place defines its people?
Living and working in a place like Johannesburg invariably impacts on one’s psyche. It means being constantly reminded of the historical, physical and psychological barriers of the city and how these impact on people’s lives, their interactions and the choices they make. As an architect I don’t want to mindlessly flesh out this physical template nor be too beholden to its commercial interests. I see it as my responsibility to work on either side of the privilege spectrum. While these are all very personal decisions, they are strongly informed by growing up under and benefitting from Apartheid as well as being part of the democratic transition. One particular trait that I imagine comes out of these experiences is that I am quite allergic to one absolute truth. I think this is simply not a position suited to the multiple South African realities that need to somehow coexist and thrive.

How can architecture enable people to redefine themselves?
Architecture can constrain and dominate but can also enable life to unfold. To achieve the latter, architecture needs to operate on multiple levels, be open to interpretation, allow human interaction and be able to grow and change. This is particularly important when it comes to housing. A 40m2 subsidised house can simply not be understood as a timeless piece of architecture but should be seen as a starter pack which allows owners to add rental rooms, a shop, a first floor, a garage etc.

Can architects be broad in their scope, or would they be better equipped to focus on a local area?
Over the years, our output has included the editing of a book, curating several exhibitions, producing artwork, films and events, teaching and writing, interiors and furniture, private and public buildings, infrastructure and the planning of an entirely new neighbourhood of 20,000 houses – all within one hour’s drive of our office! Working in a city that contains such diverse cultures and landscapes has allowed us to broaden our scope of architecture without losing the focus on local conditions.

How does engaging with a community before and during design work affect a project?
In the traditional procurement of projects, engaging with communities is often limited and one has to be extremely observant and open in order to develop appropriate design responses. In the cases where we have had a lot of interaction with people, the results are always unexpected. Both architect and client need to work through all the assumptions and parameters of a project in order to find a workable solution. In the case of informal settlement upgrading, this engagement is central to the process and can re-define the priorities of spending and investment in an area.

One of your biggest concerns is architecture schools not adequately teaching South African students. How could this be changed?
Medical schools have long recognised that practical experience for both staff and students is critical in qualifying doctors who are conscious of and able to practice in local conditions. Long-term working partnerships exist between universities and state departments where learning happens in the field, generating research and offering treatment to patients. I believe it might do architecture schools good to engage in similar partnerships with the public sector. An example from Brazil is the Escola da Cidade, a private architecture school run by practising architects that takes on private and public commissions. This school grapples with commissions that need to balance urban, economic and social needs of a tough megacity. Graduates qualify with a degree in urban design, architecture and landscape architecture to boot.

SA schools have some way to go. As an architect having to employ and retrain graduates, I also think that a dialogue between the profession and academia could be fruitful. I get a bit concerned by some schools implying that housing is too complex an issue for students to tackle or discourage their charges from designing commercial buildings.

How do real life projects and case studies enhance a curriculum?
They add nuance and depth to designers’ understanding of context as well as the humility that design divorced from the technical, economic, social and political context will only ever generate a pretty picture which will not stand up to scrutiny nor will it be implementable. What are we training architects for if not to impact on the pressing challenges we face?

What is unique about in-situ upgrading of housing and how do you think it can be more effective than building from scratch?
It is simply too expensive and slow to roll out subsidised housing for all. There’s a 2.3 million backlog. Even if we go for it, not every household would qualify as a beneficiary. The private sector cannot provide affordable housing to all non-qualifiers or the entire gap market since the affordability is too low. The homes (shacks) people have constructed as a result are therefore here to stay. The eradication of settlements is not feasible if no alternative accommodation can be provided. Incrementally upgrading well-located settlements by providing infrastructure, services and tenure is thus another way of providing housing.

When it comes to incremental upgrading, there’s nothing new about it. People have been doing it themselves forever. They add to cities, villages, homes, re-decorate and extend over time as resources become available. What is unique is that, in the case of South Africa, upgrading of informal settlements is being recognised as a major secondary form of housing delivery.

Do you accept many private or high-end commissions?
We enjoy working on a range of projects and will take on private sector commissions if we feel there is a synergy between us and the clients or developer. In fact, I would love to be able to do a high-income residential project based on a courtyard typology which would be much more efficient in its land utilisation. We are most passionate about public projects, be they infrastructure, public buildings or housing.

How do you begin to break down the divides in the bricks and mortar of a city?
Transport and land-use is key, but so are competent and approachable public servants and empathetic professionals. Establishing working partnerships with communities, the public and private sector is central to addressing some of the tough and complex urban challenges. Design professionals will not solve these on their own and need to be comfortable in creating and facilitating processes rather than only focusing on a built end result.

Over the years, what particular projects challenged you and had a lasting effect on the way you work?
Our first commission with Lindsay Bremner was for the re-building of the historic Sans Souci Cinema in Soweto. With a tiny budget we opted to realise the content rather than the container. After producing a design that could be implemented in phases, we started by arranging events that would most likely occur there. In the end the cinema was not rebuilt as the city was pouring its resources into the Kliptown Square as a "catalytic" project that has unfortunately not delivered on its promise of economic stimulation.

This experience has taught us that buildings can become liabilities if not conceived, owned and managed properly. We often incorporate a research component into our design process in order to better understand the context and type of commissions we work on. This has motivated us on a five-year research project on housing and informal urbanism and helped us better understand the field of subsidised housing, settlement upgrading and the gap market.

A version of this story originally appeared on Design Indaba

Photography David Southwood

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