4.241J | Spring 2013 | Graduate

Theory of City Form

Lecture Notes

Lec 17: Spatial & Social Structure II: Bipolarity

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Lecture Summary

Racial segregation underlies all urban history in South Africa; as late as 1976, a government minister proclaimed that “blacks are present in white areas (cities) to sell their labor and for nothing else.” Five stages of Johannesburg’s growth over the century of its existence are explored according to an explicit social and spatial ideology, apartheid. The first city is a mining camp from 1885 to 1917, in which gold mining is the city’s raison d’etre and 50% of the city’s 100,000 people are black-African, Malay, colored, Indian and Chinese and at “locations” within walking distance of the center. It is a city of primitive, feudal relations and is compact until the plague epidemic of 1904 forces the city to re-house blacks some twelve miles to the southwest. Until 1948 the second city is an informal city in which social relations are determined largely by soft racialism and the city is spread south-westward for blacks and in the opposite direction for whites (recall Hoyt’s sector theory). Faced with an influenza epidemic, the city takes on for the first time the task of housing blacks, in Western Native Township which, together with the freehold housing of Sophiatown, becomes the heart of a new African urban culture of music, writing, political parties, journalism and gangs. Half of black housing is now supplied by the city (housing expenditure is equal to that spent on the zoo), but there is shared commerce on seams, a variety of journey-to-work options and a strong self-help presence. Due to the city’s industrialization during the Second World War and its overcrowding, the doctrine of strong apartheid and swart gevaar (black danger) leads to a rationalized city, supervised by a national policy in which racial groups are to be separated absolutely. Ultimately this leads to the virtual abolishment of all black space in the central city and the growth of the new city of Soweto (south-western township), now the poor partner of the white city across abandoned gold mine dumps. The state assumes unique responsibility for all black housing, building in Soweto as many houses between 1955 and 1970 as in the previous 37 years. Johannesburg’s city brochure boasts of having “perhaps the biggest housing project in the world.” Limiting black labor to only building black houses lowers building costs, thus producing hand-built housing for blacks. Soweto is also subject to internal tribal separation, and with a population of 1.5 million people it has few commercial or entertainment facilities of its own, forcing people to rely on the white CBD with a journey-to-work now costing 300% higher than in the second city. Following on the continuing economic decline of the apartheid system, the fourth city from 1970 to 1990 is a city of neglect. No more public housing is built and a futile policy of decentralization of workplaces to black homelands is envisioned. The first inclusive city follows the collapse of apartheid and leaves a new spatial and social form to be achieved after the death of racial barriers and the repair of the vast inequities of the past (the state needs about 600 new houses every day for the next twenty years).

To understand the bipolarity of Johannesburg in further detail, Western Native Township is studied in more detail. Between 1917 and 1960 in the informal city, this place of 2,000 rented houses for about 15,000 people is shown to be a community which, despite enormous obstacles, managed to organize itself as a place of pride and respectability. A large proportion of the minimal housing available to the renters is systematically enlarged by them and the street-facing facades are decorated according to an iconic imagery which operates both at a purely formal and symbolic level. The house of an ANC leader, for instance, has both a circular sun form typical in the community but it looks also like a rotor to establish the occupant’s allegiance to Russian industrial prowess. As the inhabitants stay in the city, they are influenced by urban circumstances; their first decorations are, like in the countryside, of mud and cowdung, then with throwaway tin and wood, and finally with decorated plaster. They have become urban citizens and their iconography proves their trajectory. The destruction of their homes and their multi-tribal community and their evacuation to Soweto represents the spatial and social tragedy of mindless polarization.


Handout for Lecture 17 (PDF - 1.4MB)

  • Page 1: Timelines for Johannesburg and Western Native Township.
  • Page 2: Black locations and public / private supply of black housing in Johannesburg, 1885-1970.
  • Page 3–4: Matrix of changes to housing, services and communal organization in Western Native Township, 1918-1962.
  • Buy at MIT Press Page 5: Excerpt from Tzonis, Alexander, and Liane Lefaivre. Classical Architecture: The Poetics of Order. MIT Press, 1986. ISBN: 9780262700313. [Preview with Google Books]

Examples, Precedents, and Works

Soweto huts, Charles Centre, Springs Station, Western Native Township, and housing typologies (Johannesburg, South Africa); Carlton Centre (SOM)

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