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Social Condenser | Re-Configuring Apartheid Space

Part 2 Project 2002
Mpho Matsipa
University of Cape Town Cape Town South Africa
a0 the brief

The University of Cape Town requires its BArch students to embark on a self-initiated final degree project. The thesis project is design orientated, and the student is required to formulate a brief and program of their own choosing - which is ratified by the academic staff- and then to design the building.

My approach to the university brief was firstly, to establish and to interrogate a premise - the shebeen and then derive conclusions from such an investigation- This shifted the focus of the project at a fundamental level… from any foregone conclusions regarding the outcome or the design process, to an exploration and spatialization of a hitherto unrecognised cultural and architectural gem!

The design process was heavily couched in research I had conducted on shebeens and shebeen culture in the Cape Flats, in order to fulfil part of the academic requirements and also in my individual capacity (film, photographs, field work, interviews etc.).

The leveraging of contemporary post-colonial social and literary theory with cutting edge western architectural theory yielded a divergence from the traditional 'thesis' path. This required the development of a different process and outcome, and allowed me to locate myself as a Black South African woman within a broader architectural discourse.

My thesis lasted for the duration of semester two; from 16th July to 29th October. I would like to thank the following people:

Iain Low, Jo Noero, Piet de Beer, Suzi du Toit, Noeleen Murray, Urs Schmidt, Mary Simons, Carin Smuts, Chantel Ching, Tumi Morule, Solam Mkhabela, KIKI, Homi Bhabha, Franz Fanon, Steve Biko, Ngugi wa Thiongo, my mother, my father, my sista's and all Shebeen Queens, past and present.

a1…project description social condenser

social: communal, shared, public, gathering, gregerious
to condense: to increase in density or strength, to become thicker


a2…issue hegemony

In South Africa, planning practices have been circumscribed by South Africa's specific colonial, apartheid, modernist histories; which were intent on classifying society within an ordered space. Apartheid plans aimed to institute social control through total planning of the built environment in the interests of accelerated capital accrual. Thus the visible foundation of indigenous culture - the 'material basis' - was
marginalised displaced or completely erased within the modernist Apartheid plan. The process of a people wrestling with their natural and social environment was interrupted, fragmented and transplanted into a context, which negated the presence of that culture. Complex social dynamics and relations, the moral, aesthetic and ethical values of the Black urban population were forced into the realm of the invisible.

a3…premise resistance

" Recognition of lived spatialities, threatens apriori categories of architecture, and surface irreconcilable tensions within its disciplinary boundaries"

Gulam Nabatoglu - Post-Colonial Space


The shebeen is a historically matriarchal institution, most commonly (mis?) understood as an 'illicit drinking hole'. The shebeen is a lived space, a space of leisure, recreation, cultural production and the exchange of commodities. Shebeen is dense, fragmentary, obscure, elusive, mysterious, a complex network of relations overlaid in a single space. The shebeen is constituted by the interconnections of autonomous elements: the kitchen, the bedroom, bathroom, lounge and yard that together create a labyrinthine and layered experience. These autonomous elements penetrate, embrace, overlay and are juxtaposed to each other, generating ambiguous domains.

Shebeens within an urban context and also as spaces in their own right represent a 'lived spatiality' within the context of the pre-ordained, hegemonic spatial structure of the township. The shebeen is a site of insurgency, economic survival, cultural production, discourse and sexuality. They acquire their meaning as spaces of gathering because they create an existential foothold for sub-cultural groups in an otherwise immense and desolate landscape.


a4…question identity

These insurgent 'planning' practices challenge our very definition of what planning and more specifically the nature of 'public' space.

b1…intention contestation

to mediate the apparently disjunct systems of 'lived space' (invisible) and the practised space (visible) through a spatialization of the shebeen on the beerhall (total vs. fragment).

to contest power relations inherent in the spatial programming of the shebeen (male / female, vertical/ horizontal, inside/ outside etc.) through

to reformulate the spatial relationships within the shebeen and to explore its boundaries, limits and intersections.

to reconstitute a fragmented cultural landscape, in order to expand the 'public' domain and the extent of participation within it.


b2…locale siting, situation Langa, Cape Town

Langa is the oldest African Township in Cape Town dating back to the 1930's.The site of intervention is the old municipal beerhall on Albert Luthuli Street in Langa. The old beerhall was integral to the beer monopoly initiated in the 1900's and the migrant labour hostel system, which sought to control the leisure and economic activities of the African popular classes in urban centres throughout the country.

The beerhall lies within the Washington Square Market Precinct, the emerging pedestrian and road transportation hub in Langa. The beerhall was abandoned after the student uprisings and hostel unrest in 1982. State institutions like the municipal beerhall were conceived as an instance of the 'total plan' as a fragment of its radical aesthetics and social practices. As a 'radical fragment' it was supposed to create new forms of social experience, collective association, perception and personal habit. At the same time, it was supposed to preclude those forms deemed undesirable by negating previous social and architectural expectations about urban life.

c1…program empowerment

eating/cooking
The urban restaurant with a large 'open' kitchen is located on the ground floor, thus allowing women to participate directly with social activity and to dictate the terms of such activity on their turf. The restaurant is a celebration and an articulation of the rituals of daily life: preparation - cooking - serving -eating.

drinking / talking
The bar is the anchor of the space yet is not central to the experience. The bar should also act as a bridge or mediator between the closed world of male kinship and the general shebeen population. The bar serves the dance floor as well as the smokers lounge for casual yet private meeting

Dancing / singing
The program locates a medium of abstract adjacency (community radio station) and real bodily experiences through performances art (dance studio) in one space thus infusing the building with a multi-layered preparation. Performance art becomes another mode of expression and creates a safe location for the expression of sexuality and sensuality. The relationship between the space of expression and cultural production and the space of consumption of cultural experiences should create a tension between two distinctly separate realms of existence.

Sleeping / playing
In the hotel, one can access a secret stairwell; it leads to the concrete roof of the old beerhall spaces of eroticism, intimacy…secret spaces, the bedroom, bathroom, the herbalist's aphrodisiac dispensary and consultation rooms and the massage parlour. The backdoor leads off from private parking for the customers, it is humble, unassuming and discreet.

Mpho Matsipa


TOPICAL THINKING - frames the discourse for the THESIS Bachelor of Architecture program. Although ‘design discourse' in the School of Architecture and Planning is directed at independent inquiry, current investigations by thesis candidates have tended to reflect the events and concerns in the contemporary SA city. The city, as perhaps the highest form of built human expression, therefore, becomes a natural locus for speculation and thinking topically.

Individual topics have been specifically identified through a process of research around issues of transformation in relation to emerging political processes, as well as to contemporary architectural theory. In particular, the critique of type and its associative limitations in relation to the assumptions and certainty associated with the <western|apartheid|colonial> position have predominated. The discretionary influence of both precedent and the linear <date|place|building> method promoted by the previous conception of architectural history demands direct confrontation.

Site and Program are interpreted as verbs demanding a researched and argued uncovering of ‘siting and programming' as core design generators.

These issues have been re-interpreted through a ‘narrative process' whereby interactive exercises sought to provoke difference and effect new sets of social arrangements. Consequently, process has been privileged above that of final product, in an attempt to overturn that other hegemony; formalism | material culture, which seemingly predominates global value. Phenomenal experience and temporal possibility have become checks for developing a thoughtful and resilient material culture within the architectural inquiry.

Mpho's scheme was selected for its provocative and meaningful contribution to debate surrounding the post-apartheid city. 'Social Condenser - Reconfiguring Apartheid Space' evolved a provocative and contemporary interpretation of conditions of transformation in Langa, the oldest Black township in the city of Cape Town. Through both in-depth reading and speculation on cultural reconstrucion in the emerging city, this project has presented new spatial dimensions for both reading and intervention in the condition of the transforming SA city. Consequently, with this submission, it has been the synthesis between topic and thinking process wiht architectural development, rather than purely formal resolution, that has premiated its selection.

2002
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