Urban Places- Public Spaces (Joburg)

I recently attended the ‘global debate’ titled Urban Places – Public Spaces. It was hosted by the Goethe-Institut and was a live discussion between Munich, Rotterdam and Johannesburg. The Johannesburg panel consisted of Lesley Lokko and Jay Pather and was moderated by Rike Sitas.

The debate was initiated by screening three videos from the three cities which involved public interventions or public art in some way. The Johannesburg film was the “Chandelier” by Steven Cohen. As an introduction to this public debate, this film sets a complex narrative for Johannesburg. Although the film is very powerful it is also very problematic if considered as public art, especially when the ‘global’ audience does not necessarily understand the context. In response to this film both speakers on the Johannesburg panel agreed that the film was more contemporary art than public art, but still holds an important place in the discussion about public culture in Johannesburg.

The Munich and Rotterdam panels consisted of Johan Simons (München), Andres Lepik (München), Tobias Kokkelmans (Rotterdam) and ZUS Architekten (Rotterdam). The films chosen by Rotterdam and Munich were both focused on bringing public culture into everyday spaces.  The film by Zus Architects (Rotterdam) shows the re-appropriation of space by creating a public arena which starts out with a debate and ends up opening to view the city and a prepared public art production. The film focuses on community engagement and highlights the temporariness of this public culture in that city. The Munich film “urban prayers” is a piece that ‘brings theater to the everyday person’. More than that though, the film, which is centered on religion, shows a way to build tolerance and multiculturalism in cities.

After watching the films the panelists were all asked what their vision for the city was and what made a good city. Three very interesting and distinct themes emerged. Jay Pather, from the Johannesburg panel, focused on the idea of crisis resolution, improving dialogues and the role of public art as more than beatification in cities. He spoke briefly about the Rhodes statue and how this represents the value society associates to these ‘concrete’ art works in the city. While Lesley Lokko touched on the need for major change, she also spoke about her enthusiasm to be part of a city in the process of construction and the lasting legacy of this process.

The response from Rotterdam, as to what a good city is, was a city of ‘permanent temporarily’. A city where people are more than private investors, where society is constituted by politically active citizens with a common public interest. Basically, calling on the need for politically engagement by society in the city.

The panelists from Munich both spoke about the idea of a city that is ‘self-conscious’, a city that allows people in by opening its doors to those in need and being responsible for global problems. In other words a good city is one that understands its local culture and its global roots.

These three answers are evident of just how far apart these three cities are. Although it is clear all three cities are still trying to solve a ‘similar’ problem about ‘public culture’ it is clear that the way in which we must respond has be to individual and local. That is not to say that we can’t look to other cities as ‘role models’ but we have to adapt these ideas to a local context. It furthermore questions the relevance of the ‘world class’ city narrative and the relevance of that kind of thinking in regeneration and future city building in Johannesburg. Cities are a language, each one unique, and without the ability to decode this and have true understanding of the subtleties how can we possibly hope to ask the right questions?

What is a good city? Can this be defined on a global stage? And is this even the right question to be asking in Johannesburg?

Julie-Ann Tyler is doing her Master’s of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand and has a passion for all things Joburg but especially architecture and urban space. She is particularly interested in Joburg’s public space and how it is appropriated by the city.

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