In modern cities, money operates more as a divider than a connector. In this regard, Johannesburg has been labelled a “city of extremes.” Despite being the economic powerhouse of South Africa, a large portion of its population still grapples for lucrative roles in the formal economy. In the same way as money, architecture has the potential to divide and connect. Beyond refusal or consent granted by walls and doors, these spatial boundaries operate on greater scales in cities. In Johannesburg, the opulent financial district of Sandton and its impoverished neighbour, Alexandra township, are separated by the industrial area of Wynberg, which symbolises more than just a physical divide.
The divisive nature of architecture in these city regions is something Sarah De Villiers, a 2014 student at Wits University, chose to experiment with in her award-winning masters dissertation, which proposes the development of an “Idea Bank.” The envisioned deliberately “leaky” multipurpose building hosts idea ATMs on the ground floor, where township entrepreneurs can virtually deposit their ideas, or creative capital. Through gauging the popularity of these ideas on social media, potential investors and crowd funders take the ideas through their paces on the bank’s upper floors, engaging in trade spaces, open source refinement and mentorship programmes.
De Villiers’ project, which won her the regional title for Corobrik’s Architectural Student of the Year, aims to create a loophole for everyday people to otherwise inaccessible financial portals. UrbanAfrica.Net spoke to De Villiers about her ideas and architecture that can either inhibit or promote financial growth and social interaction in a riven city.
Megan Tennant: How do you explain the link between architecture and exclusion, especially in the world of finance?
Sarah De Villiers: What I’ve discovered through my studies of casinos, banks, stock exchanges and various kinds of trade infrastructures, is that they’ve become very protected: strong, heavy lines or boundaries encircle them and keep out the public. Although they exist within cities, they sit in their own worlds, which allow them to attract their own rules. Architecturally, financial institutions often appear very hi-tech or futuristic, which, for the everyday person, make these spatial manifestations very inaccessible.
MT: What was the starting point for brainstorming how your project could address these divides?
SD: In relation to walls and borders, I was fascinated by how the casino represents the epitome of the 21st century neo-liberalist dream where we all aspire to attain “money for nothing.” So I played on the idea of magic, of jumping into a loophole of money… and space. I was faced with the question, how does one actually get into these spaces of money? Architecturally, this would involve a spatial threshold. Thus, what are the architectural components that allow one to cross this threshold from one side to the other?
MT: How did your choice of location — Wynberg — inform how you would answer these questions?
SD: The township of Alexandra and the business district of Sandton are in notorious conflict in terms of their financial standing. Sandton is dubbed the richest square mile in Africa, and is five kilometres away from one of the poorest areas, Alexandra. Wynberg straddles these two, existing as an industrial buffer zone that breaks one from the other. I selected my site to position my future spatial proposition in a space of opportunity where people from both sides can come and somehow exchange in a manner that will grow each type of person in their own way.
MT: How did you address crossing the thresholds that typically divide Johannesburg’s realities?
SD: I had two concepts. The first was to create a space for financial opportunity that is a lot more “leaky” than normal banks or shopping centre types. They tend to have one very defined and protected border around them with few, controlled entrances. I positioned my building on top of a space earmarked for a future BRT bus interchange. The building itself allows for people moving from the upper floor, which is a highly pedestrianised walkway, through to the transport interchange below. Someone using the building as a thoroughfare route on the way to work in the morning would be able to look into the idea trading floor, where ideas are presented and crowd funded. This seed capital doesn’t happen in a private lounge somewhere: it happens in a very public space. It makes trade or seed funding look a lot more human, and makes one feel that it’s a lot more accessible to partake in. The ground level, too, is unconventionally porous so that a future owner at a later stage can’t just put a gate in to control how the whole floor functions. The space would remain bleeding out into the city, and become property of the street.
The second concept was the idea of loopholes: access to spaces that are fantastical or separate to everyday society. It seems unavoidable that money institutions will have their own rules and separate existences in the 21st century. In this project I question it and say, well fine, if that’s how it needs to be, what if we could change the rules? What if the rules could serve the people rather than exploit them? Through the architecture, a fantastical space still exists that is the trading floor, but it would still be an inclusionary space because it is so porous to the rest of the public experience. “The house that always wins” becomes a large group of people that actually need help.
More details about De Villiers’ work can be found on her collaborative studio’s website, Counterspace.
Megan Tennant is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and has a background in English, film studies and urban geography. She is currently practising as an urban researcher, with recent involvement in projects focusing on township revitalisation and mother and child urban health.
All images by Sarah De Villiers.
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