Southworth still stresses the importance of high-quality public space for a sound residential environment. ‘What we don’t need are more of those boxes on random plots,’ she adds. But policy is slowly changing. A new document from the central government, entitled Breaking New Ground, is regularly cited by the current Minister of Housing. It pays greater attention to creating quality environments, broadens the spectrum of what providing housing actually means and how you can involve the market in realising housing for low-income groups. That said, reality still lags behind stated policy.
At the same time there is this push for numbers, and quality is usually sacrificed to quantity. And understandably when you realise that official figures indicate a shortage of 260,000 dwellings in Cape Town alone. Unofficial and according to municipal employee Southworth not very reliable figures are as high as 400,000 dwellings. This results in initiatives such as the N2 Gateway Project that involves construction of 20,000 dwellings within 6 months along the motorway from the airport to the city. An impossible task launched by politicians with great fanfare and plenty of media attention. The first 700 dwellings have been completed one year after the scheme started. Southworth is reasonably pleased with the results. ‘For the first time ever, we’ve built 700 medium-density units, 2 and 3-storey blocks, with landscaping, public space, facilities, the whole package.’ But the project won’t continue in this form. The costs per unit are too high and the tempo too slow. The project was handed over to the Province (Western Cape), and when it didn’t proceed fast enough the central government assumed control of the area.
While the Digest of South African Architecture in 1997, the year the competition was staged, was entirely dominated by exclusive villas on mountainsides, corporate headquarters, hotels and conference centres, we have since seen a shift in focus in the South African equivalent to our Architecture Yearbook. In the most recent addition the number of substantial villas has been halved and space has been made for community centres in townships, monuments to celebrate democracy, and memorials to the apartheid era. This would seem to be a sign that South Africa is genuinely catching up when it comes to developing public space, even in townships. To which Southworth subtly adds that the editorship has changed a lot as well since then.
In 1996, two years after the first post-apartheid elections were held in South Africa, the Academy of Architecture in Rotterdam initiated the Housing Generator Competition for South African Cities, a project that involved various South African institutions. The task was to design housing for low-income groups. Participants could choose from three different locations: the townships Cato Manor (Durban), Duncan Village (East London) and Wattville (Benoni). The project concluded in 1997 with a publication, an exhibition and a conference.
In Durban, where Cato Manor was selected as competition location, 41% of the 3.2 million residents lived in ‘informal settlements’ or slums in 1996. The design by Barbara Southworth, Suzanne du Troit, Joanne Lees and Theresa Gordon consisted of an urban grid measuring 300 x 300 metres that provided space for 3100 dwellings and public facilities such as a school, a market, shops and leisure facilities. The project was a criticism of the models for low-income housing that prevailed at that time. According to the designers, those models created no meaningful or decent public environment because they were limited in focus to individual units on individual plots. The crux of their competition submission was a desire to create a more integral approach and a higher density that would result in more affordable dwellings and a better quality of public space. Southworth’s work is still shaped by this attitude.
Asked about the importance of The Housing Generator, Southworth says that it wasn’t the only housing competition at that time. But because of the Dutch involvement (in the form of organisation, financing, a publication and the involvement of the chief government architect Wytze Patijn) it had more impact than nationally organised competitions that addressed the same issues. But what did the competition change in concrete terms? Southworth: ‘It changed some people’s thinking with respect to housing and it filtered through to the policy makers in South Africa’.
Some years after the competition, Southworth and her fellow team members were invited to develop a new plan more in line with the planning procedures followed by the 'Cato Manor Development Agency'. In the eyes of the developer, however, the new proposal was still too radical. The notion that you have to invest energy in high-quality public space as a basis for low-income housing was still a step too far for the prevailing policies and funding environment. As far as Southworth can remember, the other competition submissions for Benoni and East London weren’t realised either.