Street Values

Spatial analysis of Bree Street in Johannesburg questions the universality of globalisation and reveals potential for new forms of urbanity to emerge

Johannesburg’s spatial agents


ince the late 1990s, considerable ground has been covered by scholars of African urbanism who, while seeking to resist hegemonic narratives of modernity are working to banalise presumed differences between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ cities of the Global North and South – and their respective epistemologies.1 Although a few exceptions look at grass-roots engagements and experimental micro-interventions in the city,2 much of the literature focuses on aspects of urban governance and draws primarily on the analytical model of political economy.3 Within Johannesburg, an active but critically uneven, and globalising city, the role of the designer – of architects, urbanists, planners – remains unclear. And so does our understanding of the processes that underpin these changes and their spatial manifestations. How should built environment practices, whether active or reflective, reconfigure when traditional ideas about professionalism have lost traction? Must our activities focus on facilitating transformation in new and different ways? Are we all destined to become ‘spatial agents’?4

It is in this context of a city-in-formation, a city that embodies a multiplicity of desires for belonging, that future urban possibilities emerge. These possibilities treat the grand narrative of urban crisis as a platform for something new:5 for a way to accommodate and recognise the existing needs and wants of the city’s inhabitants as well as new subjectivities and aspirations. Numerous, often conflicting desires to occupy and claim the city, and to participate in its economy, jar with historical and global urban preoccupations with containment, surveillance and regulation. In much debate about African cities these preoccupations are caught between colonial and Modernist diagrams of urban order, measured against the contested yet prevalent motif of the ‘world city’,6 and symptomatic of our increasing reliance on concepts of security to define our citizenship.7 And yet this city of new subjectivities and aspirations – remains undeterred. It gathers momentum at interstices of migration, trade and global longing. For me, the question arises as to how best to conduct meaningful research in this city-in-formation; how to begin to clear a conceptual and methodological space from and into which other imaginaries of architecture, urbanism and the hidden geographies of the city might emerge.

My formative interest in the architecture and urbanism of the sub-Saharan region grew, during my student years, out of what I now perceive to be yawning gaps between my own lived experience, during the widely felt moment of profound political and spatial change ushered in by Nelson Mandela’s presidency, and my architectural education – which began at the University of Cape Town. The dislocation framed, in the 1990s, by the proposition of a democratic and putatively non-racial South Africa provided an opportunity for practitioners and researchers to critically engage with forms of architectural and urban knowledge that did not constitute the canon of legitimate, professional expertise: forms of understanding that operate outside the proliferating urban registers of ‘lack’ and ‘scarcity’.

The spatial violence of the apartheid era is a recurring factor in the unfolding of the future city – especially at its expanding peripheries. Apartheid-era Johannesburg was characterised by a clear delineation of peoples and spaces, by highly regulated notions of how – and by whom – the city is to be inhabited. The architecture of the city and its buildings was fragmented and segregated, most notably in the rationalisation of everyday life according to the twin logics of Modernist instrumental rationality, as embodied in the spatial policy of Grand Apartheid (dormitory townships for African workers and ‘ethnic homelands’), and colonial social hierarchies that were both racialising and gendered. On the other hand, Johannesburg’s present inner city serves diverse groups whose economic and social interests often reach beyond the urban core.8 Similar to other global cities, Johannesburg is undergoing processes of spatial reorganisation constituted by market-led real-estate redevelopment, by public-private management models such as City Improvement Districts (CID) that attempt to create distinctive thematised precincts in the inner city for middle-class consumers, and also by ostensibly unmanaged, rapid, informal urbanisation. The inner city has increasingly become a magnet for migration in the sub-continent, shaped by and leading to displacement of many of those who are the most economically and politically vulnerable.

Between global city and local identity

The inner city has also become a site where three-dimensional fixity continuously unravels, only to be reconstituted as an unstable assemblage of spatial and social possibilities – architectures of provisionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty. As both an urban concept and a metropolis, Johannesburg sits at something of a nexus of desires: to belong, on the one hand, to a community of globally competitive world cities and to come to terms, on the other, with pressing challenges associated with its own dynamic and somewhat fluid urbanity. The consequence is a city wrestling with its own emerging form.

Today, some 20 years since I began my architectural studies (and with a perhaps more worldly understanding of the gaps that determined my student preoccupations) it is to this dimension of urban life – not exclusively restricted to but associated with cities in the Global South – that I have turned my attention as a researcher. Part of my critical engagement with over-determined narratives of African urbanism as ‘crisis’ or ‘failure’ has been through a set of micro‐analyses of Bree Street, Johannesburg, working with Columbia University’s Global Africa Lab (June-July 2013), led by Mabel Wilson and Mario Gooden and a 13-week research elective with graduate students in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University (July-November 2013). At that time, the pedagogical framework of these student-focused projects complemented my own doctoral research, which investigated female vendors and touts advertising hair services along Bree Street. My PhD sought to unpack the complex, often hidden spatial and economic systems of a porous, dynamic transportation loop for mini-bus taxis in the inner city of Johannesburg.

Stop frame photography revealing the daily life of Geoff’s fruit stall
Video stills, Bree Street video by Tiffany, Ed, Megan

Treating transport hubs as epicentres of urban vitality, the Wits elective aimed to explore Bree Street through a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods. A major transportation corridor, Bree Street channels global, regional and local flows into a heterogeneous bundle – flows of people, commodities, images and ideas. Circulating in unanticipated ways through and within this corridor, these flows create new forms and new combinations of programmes, places, identities and practices. Constituted as an interface of processes of urban transformation, Bree Street is thus a productive site for understanding the hidden systems of the inner city.

‘Between Joburg and Dreams’ by Sabrina Barker, Rashad Palmer and Sumayya Vally

Rather than effecting a clear delineation between the formal and informal ‘sector’, or even privileging the designs and intentions of planners and architects, the Wits elective sought to critically represent and interpret the systems at play in Bree Street, through a visual and spatial analysis of the street. In addition to conventional ethnographic techniques, such as interviews and surveys, students explored stop-frame photography, animation and data sketching to bring these systems to the fore, and to better understand the layered temporalities and hidden architectures of the city.

Bree Street thus served as a microcosm of inner-city spatial politics, as a setting for ‘becoming’ for many migrant women,9 and as a contested site for large-scale urban redevelopment and illegalised street trade. Its complex intersection of spatial politics, global capitalism through real-estate speculation, synthetic hair imports and aesthetic practices called for an engagement with the street at multiple scales (including reaching beyond the inner city) and by means of diverse research methods and media. Furthermore, our ethnography of the street’s material and temporal intersections revealed new modes of urban dwelling, complementary economic activities with a single value chain, and new and fluid spatial typologies of sharing that refigured the relationship between inside and outside, extruding the vitality of the street into porous office buildings three to six storeys above the street level. It became clear, for example, that putatively derelict office buildings were being transformed through a range of transgressive spatial acts. Our reconstruction of the street, by way of the gendered tropes of hairdressing salons and the advertising of beauty services and products, articulated something of the dense network of spatial and legalistic power relations behind the patterning of the street and its surroundings.

Unexpected urban futures

Bree Street offered an object lesson in how large-scale transformations of the city (and the attempts at structured coherence represented by and embedded in urban renewal processes) inevitably subtend loopholes, slippages and gaps: opportunities brought to light by way of capitalism’s conceptualisation as a web of competing desires. Ultimately, these desires for the city, its assets and its public spaces, have the potential to initiate alternative trajectories and – if taken seriously – to propel unexpected urban futures. With regard to understanding African urbanity, Malik Simone has suggested a Deleuzian cartographic approach to the city. His focus on ‘becoming’ offers a useful way of thinking through the immanent fields that urban residents create and live by, even within environments mediated by capitalist development.10 However, such critically nuanced interpretations are largely absent from mainstream accounts of architecture and urbanism in Africa; the creative possibilities that they present to our understanding of what an African metropolis like Johannesburg can become or mean are, therefore, largely unexploited.

‘Gladys and Geoff: Life on Bree Street’ by Edward Molopi, Megan Murdock and Tiffany Rattray

Our understanding of the potential richness and relevance of cities will therefore surely benefit from investigations which set their sights on urban situations that are explicitly ordinary, and that adopt emphatically creative critical approaches. The multiple geographies of informality presented by Bree Street – an urban setting in no way unique, either in terms of its particular ordinariness, in the Johannesburg context, or its typicality when compared to a million streets in as many cities11 – suggest that the neoliberal rationalities which produce the inner city also complicate abstract claims about the universality of globalisation; about the usefulness of the widely adopted concept of the ‘world city’. This argument reinforces calls for more creative engagement with the lived spatialities of global connectedness. For engagements with urban practices of emergence to be meaningful, they must surely attend to the complexities and desires embodied in the forms of knowledge and spatial imagination of those who actually live and work there.12

While global capitalism is, as Anna Tsing argues,13 a ‘structured social system’, its contingency within Johannesburg creates openings that allow unexpected spatial typologies and innovative practices, which have the potential to create new and inventive architectures and identities, to emerge. These heterogeneous and creative inner-city spatialities produce new regimes of representation and geographies of possibility in ways that disrupt the apparent stability of the city. Despite their marginalisation by mainstream techniques of making and managing the city, the appropriation by such regimes of public and commercial spaces – of front steps, parks, infrastructure and interiors – is a manifestation of their agency and of their capacity to transform space.

Johannesburg is a crucial site for theorising the fate of the city in the Global South. It remains relatively porous – a city in which some lived spatialities challenge the limits of architectural and urban knowledge, thereby ushering in new opportunities to see, think, occupy and make urbanity. It goes without saying that the question of how we live in and represent the city, in the context of today’s reality of global property speculation and proliferating communications technologies, requires further analysis. However, in giving this topic our attention and pushing it up the research agenda for architectural academia in the rapidly urbanising Global South, we should resist becoming implicated in legitimising capitalist expansion and its attendant violence. From my perspective – whether in the studio with students, at my desk at Wits, explore and promote the agency of marginalised urban actors, with particular attention to limited conceptualisations of globalisation imposed upon the ability of architects to read the city and its spaces, and – together with other urban actors and residents – to craft an alternative paradigm for ongoing development.