Who are we designing architecture for anyways? Both intentionally and inadvertently, architecture has often enforced and maintained a racialized white European worldview, marginalizing the experiences of people of colour in the built environment. One of the most overt examples of architecture being used to serve this ideology can be seen in the spatial politics of apartheid South Africa. In Cape Town’s District Six neighborhood, the presence of over 60,000 black and coloured individuals was physically and socially erased and removed from the city between 1966-1978. Not only were their homes and communities demolished, these residents were forced to live in undesirable conditions in townships outside the city center. To this day, urban infrastructures and land uses developed during apartheid -such as railways, highways and vacant buffer zones- continue to marginalize and isolate these past residents of District Six and their subsequent generations from the city center, limiting their access to essential services which provide spatial, economic and social mobility. This dislocation of people erased not only houses and communities, but three of their fundamental human agencies: mobility, voice and view.
This project therefore uses agency as a fundamental premise to question and posit new understandings about who we are designing architecture for. It does so by reconceptualizing the infrastructure of the train under the following lens: the train line as a highly visible spatial connector and claim to the city (mobility); train stations as township cultural centers for conversation, counselling, education and cultural activities (voice) and the train car as a mobile vessel and low rent facility for offices, public services and vendors (view). The three agencies are unified through an evolving tapestry that is continuously generated by data from the residents of each township above the train stations. In this process the train car acts as a data collections tool, using WIFI to download data from station to station. People riding the trains and those from the community volunteer personal messages and observations, news and images. Giant sewing needles occupy the landscape, surrogate weavers that translate these messages into a canopy of colorful, woven threads. On the original site of District Six, a final station provides a singular destination for these threads from the townships. The canopy that forms over this former vibrant neighborhood, so aggressively erased through apartheid, becomes a blueprint for a new ground-scape on the original site.
The entire dynamic structure with its myriad elements, challenges physical realities, histories, traces, memories and limitations of the existing urban landscape. As a catalyst that traverses space above the ground, the canopy is not limited to the boundaries which determine land ownership or jurisdictional authorities which were shaped by the apartheid regime. While the existing infrastructures have worked to control, divide, limit and imprison people in their townships, the train’s ecosystem establishes a new layer of interpretation of the landscape. It is both counterpoint and antidote to the repressive conditions of the ground, while simultaneously positing new narratives of connection, empowerment, creativity and agency.
The project was developed at the Carleton University.
KOOZ What prompted the project?
GA In 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa for a 6-week intensive studio. During this time, myself and 10 other students learnt about the history of Cape Town, surveyed the remote, fire-devasted community of Wupperthal and visited the black township of Langa where we designed and built a pergola for a new, community marketplace. One of the first day’s I was there I visited the Company’s Garden, a park in the Cape Town city center with two local girls I had been paired with, when I took a picture you of a young, black man sleeping on the grass. The two girls informed me that he was most likely a homeless man from one of the townships who had come into the city center to find work. I was struck by the fact that someone would sleep in a such a public space on the grass. Though I found it odd, and different from what I had experienced growing up in Canada, there was something beautiful about how peaceful he was lying there in that moment. But accompanying that moment was a story…a painful and difficulty story of a life shaped by the spatial politics of apartheid. I hesitated to take the picture, scared that I was just another white tourist objectifying a young, black man in a context I did not understand.
I was however, unexplainably moved by him and took the picture. We were around the same age and I began to think of all the events that had led us to that moment that day, which allowed our paths to cross. I was from Canada, he was from South Africa, I was white and he was black. Being around the same age, but from these very different contexts made me realize what a profound affect the places we live in and the design of the urban environment can have on our basic human agencies. For the remainder of the trip, I was consumed with questions regarding agency. I decided to explore this topic further, using District Six as a case study to try to understand the role of architecture and the architect as tools in creating spaces of discrimination, stratification and erasure – and conversely, spaces of agency, human dignity and justice.
KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?
GA This project is fundamentally concerned with the topic of agency as a premise for examining the urban environment. Through this lens, this project raises questions such as: if space and architecture can take away agency, can they also help to restore it? How can individuals become fundamental agents in shaping their own environment? As architects, who are we really designing architecture for, and what is the role of the architect in creating an environment that gives dignity and justice for all?
Architecture has historically been used as a device to perpetuate narratives of those in power, excluding, and in fact often erasing the perspectives of others in the process. This is especially evident in the case of District Six, as through the violent physical erasure of the site, the residents lost their ability to exert their fundamental human agencies of mobility, voice and view. Thus, this project addresses the residents erased agencies, using texts, images, architecture, palimpsest, weaving and collage as tools to bring forth and create new narratives of empowerment, connection and agency. The architect and architecture are also addressed as critical tools and catalysts in imagining and creating the conditions for a more just and inclusive urban environment.
KOOZ How does the project challenge and explore the role and power of architecture beyond the built artefact?
GA The idea of a built artefact supposes the idea of a fixed final form, in tandem with an idealized goal or way of viewing the world. Often, a built artefact does not reflect or embody a composite narrative of ideas and voices. For spaces with such politically charged historical meaning such as District Six, the built artefact does not give justice to and is not able to encompass the many layers involved in the story of such a rich and complicated site. This project thus explores and challenges the idea of the built artefact, thinking of District Six as a palimpsest urban space. Using text, imagery and techniques of sewing, video and collage, this project explores the site using and layering multiple points of view, multiple voices, multiple interpretations and emotional recollections and presents them as a continuous and evolving way of understanding a people and a place. Texts and erased images give voice not only to what was lost, but present a potential for what can be possibly be reinterpreted and regained.
Through the process of exploring the site as palimpsest, new ways of understanding are unlocked. The inclusion of multiple layers of voices and ways to approach the subject have the power to shift how we think about design. Rather than just having the focus be on a fixed end result, we must understand space and the environments we create as part of a process in constant motion. What we design must go beyond the built artefact. Architecture must not only speak to its current moment, but act as a bridge, uniting multiple layers of interpretation that transcend time and space.
As architects, who are we really designing architecture for, and what is the role of the architect in creating an environment that gives dignity and justice for all?
KOOZ To what extent can we talk about architecture as 'inclusive' or rather as having marginalised the experiences of people of colour?
GA Architecture has always been designed with a specific intent, to fulfill a certain purpose and to create a specialized narrative. The spatial qualities of our environment have more often than not reflected those in power, laden with their inherent values. Architecture, space and the architect have worked as significant tools used to marginalize the experiences of people of color, whether complicit or not. To what extent has architecture been inclusive in terms of reflecting people of color is a complicated question, and one I feel I am not justified in answering.
Being a white Canadian I have yet to feel discriminated or marginalized based on the color of my skin. I know however, that this is not the same experience for many people of color, and therefore I am not at liberty to say whether we can talk about the extent to which architecture has attempted to be ‘inclusive’ or marginalize them. We can absolutely acknowledge the fact that architecture has played a vital role in marginalizing specific groups of people – but the extent to which it has done so can only be communicated through their voices, stories and perspectives.
How can we quantify and measure these things? Sure, we can look at demographics and statistics and we can understand to a relative degree about the inequality that exists, the structures of power used, the methods of violence perpetrated against these people. And of course, these are all valid ways of looking at ‘extent.’ They do however not always address the human side of equation, and it is the human side of the equation which allows us to see ourselves in others and to view others with dignity and respect. Architecture has the power to be inclusive when it used as a tool to speak to the human element. It must address their stories and their perspectives so that others might be educated and enlightened to their way of seeing, feeling and being. Space and architecture have the capacity to be used as devices for understanding this fundamental human component and as a catalyst for creating meaningful social change.
KOOZ What drew you to explore infrastructure as a metaphor to challenge this condition?
GA In the case of District Six and within the context of apartheid, infrastructure such as the train, highways, waterways, land buffers and town planning strategies were specifically implemented to control, divide and monitor black and colored populations. These spatial strategies continue to alienate and subjugate these past residents and their subsequent generations in the present day. I began to think, if infrastructure can be used as a tool to create these inherently repressive spatial qualities, conversely, can it also be used as a catalyst for change, instead promoting values of agency, inclusion and empowerment? The reimagination of a new train system works as the most viable piece of infrastructure for opposing these existing conditions as it can traverse space above the ground, opposing existing spatial and social restrictions. Instead, a new condition is created which connects the estranged diaspora of people back to the city. As such, they become visible, mobile and creative participants in the creation of the urban environment. The train as infrastructure acts as a catalyst, allowing these past residents to create a new, visible fabric and layer of interpretation of the landscape. Infrastructure thus becomes a tool with more than just a pragmatic function. Instead, it is a critical social agent, generating more inclusive and dynamic possibilities for the urban environment.
KOOZ What are for you the greatest challenges which we as architects should address today?
GA As architects, one of the greatest challenges we need to address is our own architectural approach to design. We must consider our own biases and the narratives we are complicit in when we thinking about the spaces we are trying to create and who they are for. Our designs must not only work to serve one dominant way of being, but rather must address other subjectivities of racial, ethnic, sexuality and gender identifying perspectives. As architects, we cannot assume we understand and inherently know how to address these different perspectives. Instead, we need to take the time to listen, hear other voices and participate in conversation.
We must also address the need to create flexible, adaptable and changing spaces which work to promote values of liberty, human dignity and spatial agency. Space should be a device that works for all, and reflects all bodies. To do so, it must be designed to be versatile, so that it can be continuously socially and physically rewritten. Existing spatial constructions must also be part of the conversation, being challenged and subverted when necessary to create opportunity for other voices and conversations.
[...] if infrastructure can be used as a tool to create these inherently repressive spatial qualities, conversely, can it also be used as a catalyst for change, instead promoting values of agency, inclusion and empowerment?
KOOZ What is the power of the architectural imaginary?
GA The architectural imaginary acts as a storytelling tool to help us imagine how the world could be, and not necessarily how it really is. By doing so, architects can help others to imagine new and alternative possibilities, as well as to question and pose different ways of seeing and being. Through imagination, there is also the possibility for collective conversation and the constant creation and recreation of thoughts, different narratives and expressed identities. By doing so, the world can be understood as a more complex place in which understanding is a constantly shifting and evolving process, rather than a singular way of being. Often, architectural and spatial reality present a fixed view of the world that is beholden to time, power and ‘determined’ knowledge. These conditions are often not quick to change or do not always present opportunity for immediate critical rethinking.
The architectural imaginary instead has the power to be used as a storytelling tool and imaginative device, posing new ways of seeing and being that are not restrained by the logistics and limitations of the existing world. This approach has the power to contribute to, affect, inform and change future perceptions of the places we live in.
KOOZ What is for you the architect's most important tool?
GA The role of the architect has always been one which includes a great amount of moral responsibility. Through education and practice, architects are imbued with a wide variety of tools such as technical skill, historical knowledge and an ability to read and analyze space and the environment. However, the most significant tool an architect can use is their critical thought. Without exercising this skill, the other tools that have been acquired become void of meaning and significance as they can not be implemented to create thoughtful and meaningful solutions to the many complex socio-spatial problems we encounter today. We must also be critical in our role in the narratives we are either helping to perpetuate or subvert, and ask ourselves: who are we really designing architecture for?
Gabrielle Argent is an architectural designer based in Ottawa, Canada. She recently completed her Master of Architecture (2020) at Carleton University and also holds a Bachelor of Arts Honors (2015) in the History of Art, Design and Visual Culture from the University of Alberta. She currently works as a Communications Coordinator and Research Assistant at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism at Carleton University. Recently she completed a research project which examined plantations in the American south. This research set the groundwork for a third-year critical studio in which students had to subvert the design of their respective plantation sites. Gabrielle is also the Assistant Editor of OBL/QUE – A Journal on Critical Conservation. Her philosophical approach to architecture is one which critically examines the role of the architect and architecture in regards to agency and the built environment. She hopes to further explore this topic through the lens of race relations and spatial justice.