Western Native Township

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Author:Mallows, E.W.N
In:For Us
Date:1962
Pages:4-5, 10
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Western Native Township

E.W.N. MALLOWS

"We are here," Mies van der Rohe is said to have said somewhere, "to solve problems": and presumably the converse is equally true, that problems are here to make us solve them. Whichever way one looks at it, the interest in life consists in finding them; or rather, not so much in finding as in selecting the right kind of problems to solve. For on the selection of what one does, in the direction in which one's effort is expended, half at least of the value of our lives depend. The hotter the potato, the more rewarding is the handling; the harder the discipline, the better the experience.

If one wants to know a strange town quickly, then ask to see the slums first. For here you will see all the problems in their most concentrated form: here you will see the inverted image of the place, painted in miniature and with violent colours; here you can taste at once the strongest flavour and the hottest spice.

But the real significance of the slum — in fact what makes it a slum — is the significance of the flow of time. A place where poor people live is not a slum: it may be untidy, it may be bone-poor, but it may still house a proud and coherent community. What dissolves it into a slum is the suggestion to its inhabitants that it is time to move into another place. Then slum conditions start. Then the people lose heart and defection snowballs: rents are not paid, buildings are not maintained, painting is never seen.

This is simply growth and change in an acute and painful form, when the old is not yet dead and the new not yet born. It is here that the planner and the designer is most needed, to help ease the death of the old and create with imaginative foresight the pattern of the new. "Putrescence" as was said once to the writer by a friend long ago as we gazed contemplatively at a manure heap in an old farmyard, "Putrescence is the essence of growth": and there are few remarks that carry so much truth.

Western Native Township is a prime example of all these aspects of planning — in its coherence and colourful expression when untouched; in its rapid decay when shaken by legislative decree; and in its acute challenge to the designer — architect or planner, economist or sociologist — as the change-over proceeds. The more so, to any student: for faced with the future as their prime concern they naturally are more acutely aware of the challenge and the implication for their lives. Therefore for any student, anytime, anywhere, hot potatoes are a "natural". These are the challenges that develop the muscles of the mind and spirit and without which no training can reach its maximum, no student be fully extended, strung to the utmost of his abilities and resources. It is not the practicality of such a problem that gives it such strong academic validity, but rather the reverse — namely that severe intellectual and spiritual challenge it presents to the eternal objectives of youth to make a better world.

The actual project as carried out by the third-year students in 1963 to my mind amply proved the correctness of the choice, and perhaps four aspects can be isolated as suggested validity tests for future projects.

  1. The project must represent an acute, or at least a difficult, challenge. If there is no difficulty there is no enthusiasm, no reaction, no concentration of response. On the other hand it should be not completely overwhelming. This is a perfect illustration of Toynbee's theory of history — the theory of challenge and response, where the challenge must be enough to extend but not enough to overwhelm the challenger.
  2. The project must be capable of accurate definition in its total context. This means in fact people who know what they are talking about must be available to guide and discuss the projects as it proceeds and hold themselves reasonably available to students when required. In this project W.N.T. seemed exceptionally lucky: the experts were both available and enthusiastic.
  3. The project must have a quality of reality: that is to say, it must deal with a subject of which the student, explicitly or implicity, has had some experience and can emotionally participate. It should also permit him to inspect the actual locality concerned, the total environment, natural and man-made, of the project. (This means in fact the site should be well-mapped: and this is not so common as might be assumed).
  4. The project increases in stature and interest if it can provide a framework of reference for several sub-projects. This teaches the art and science of inter-relationships of part with part, of the part with the whole and the nature of construction of wholes. These problems lie at the root of all conceptual thinking and are fundamental to mental training. A sense of proportion, a sense of scale is not limited to visual matters only: it is rooted in life itself and has to be trained as much as any other faculty.

The actual results in the writer's opinion justified the above remarks. The response to the challenge was of a high order and was due at least in part to the application of some of the above principles. Above all, no punches were pulled, the full story was given, ample site visits made, and full documentation was provided.

The designs themselves, in general, were remarkable for their intensity of application, in their insistence in applying completely new approaches to the problem: often at times, no doubt, with disregard to a sense of scale or proportion. At times they had a sense of positive violence but even the most violent had a sense of humanity: a sense that the human component was fundamental and in the end man is still the measure. Certainly it is time our environmental skills showed some tendency to return to the humanities, in this present world of increasingly skilful, and powerful, technological barbarisms.

The preference for sharp contrasts, shown in most of the designs was also interesting, both visually and conceptually — between high and low densities, between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, between nodal centres of movement and dispersed areas where movement slowly originates — such things, to my mind, show a greater awareness of the need for strong design, of pleasure in strong forms, in strong light and shade, solid and void, all qualities which old Alberti would have warmly welcomed as "voluptas".

If the next generation of designers can live up to their principles in action as much as they show it in their thought, then the future human environment should be in good shape, for it will be infused with the strength of the imagination. For to live in an environment untouched with the imagination is a living death and the imagination is essentially a violent thing. But its violence gives it strength to endure: that is why one's maddest ideas are always the sanest, and alone worth realising. There is nothing else tough enough to do the job.


Powerhouses in the Johannesburg area