Guest Article: What’s in a title? – Misgivings from a “socio-technical architect”

Designers and community planners mapping together

Designers and community planners mapping together

A young architect from Johannesburg muses upon her role in the local communities

By Sumayya Vally

Thabang is meticulously tracing over pencil lines on a somewhat accurate plan that he drew up of his settlement. “Here’s where we have the tap points, and this is where there is a mama growing vegetables,” he tells me.

It’s my first time working in Meriteng informal settlement, and my colleague Jhono Bennett ( introduces me as “the new socio-technical architect”. Before I have time to worry about what this seemingly weighty, slightly pretentious title means and how I am supposed to live up to it, Thabang is explaining the community’s intent to re-arrange their space, which includes proper plot demarcation, better placement of community facilities and amenities and widening of roads. I mention that double-storey walk- ups could be quite successful in this particular settlement, but this idea is immediately dismissed by community leaders, arguing that they need to be close to the ground with “Badimo”, the ancestors. Jhono cleverly steers the conversation around using the formal infrastructure of the stand-alone concrete toilet cubicles that were provided by the municipality as a starting point to support surrounding infrastructure.

Making friends in Magandaganda

Making friends in Magandaganda

On the same day, later that afternoon at the CORC ( ) office, Thapelo is giving me an update about the Marlboro Warehouse Crisis Committee’s progress with their court-case against the Municipality for illegally evicting 11 sites in Marlboro South. The committee was formed by residents of the settlement in response to the evictions.

Like these, there are countless other examples of community-based governance and organisation in settlements – community members getting together to build a church or hall facility , for example, simple time-tables drawn up by women in the settlement for cleaning duties and child-minding, or rules about noise, litter and fire prevention set out by community leaders in the settlement.

Material collected for recycling on clean-up day in settlement (community organisation)

Material collected for recycling on clean-up day in settlement (community organisation)

As a young designer, it can be quite daunting to engage with projects that have such a vast social component – I have learned from previous experiences that most often the challenges we face when designing with informal settlement communities aren’t technical, but social, political or socio-political. I have often questioned the role of the architect in informal settlements, indeed if there is one at all – the solutions that residents come up with are often far cheaper and require less effort than anything designers, with their endless safety and regulation concerns, can provide.

Now, being more involved in the life of settlements, I believe that designers do have something to offer – and that these social challenges, like any design restrictions, make the brief more intricate, so that the outcome can be more exciting. Designers need to capitalise on this social capital, and on the resources and good spatial qualities available in the context – it’s easy to see that the government’s Redevelopment Settlement Programme ignores the intimate scale developed; or the way that people live out onto the streets in some settlements; and that there is much vibrancy that comes about when residents build their own communities.In Magandaganda settlement, approximately 45 government-provided toilet cubicles were broken down by residents because the barrier that the toilets formed became a place for “tsotsi’s” (thieves) to hide behind . Without romanticising too much, and staying focused on the fact that safe and adequate solutions still need to be provided – what if we could take the social structures present, and the same resourcefulness that allows people to build gallery-level walkways out of shipping-crate pallets and “plug-in” to existing electricity connections (what residents call “izinyoka” electricity or “snake” electricity) and turn it into something positive?

Space quality in Magandaganda settlement

Space quality in Magandaganda settlement

It is imperative to design with the social component as a major contributing factor. Rahul Mehrotra, an architect in India, for example, designed a slum toilet around the ever-present caste system (discriminatory system of division of labour and power), so that members of the lowest caste – toilet cleaners – had their quarters placed above the toilet-block, giving them the prestige of having the highest homes in the settlement. He also incorporates a public space, and a study space for students to use at night, something that they don’t have space for in their homes. ( )

Site where residents destroyed toilets

Site where residents destroyed toilets

In our context, designers had to design a communal washing-area where washing lines and tap stands were repeatedly vandalised, no matter what “vandal-proof” idea the team came up with. Working with the community, a local woman saw a business opportunity to sell soap at the taps, and a space for this was arranged next to the washing area; which in turn provides passive surveillance to the facility.

Our context provides a platform for designers to contribute positively, even in the minutest of ways, to humanity and dignity.

Thabang's map

Thabang’s map

Knowing that somewhere in Ekurhuleni, there is a smiling mama making an income selling soap, makes me somewhat more comfortable (albeit not completely) with the title “socio-technical architect”. As architects and design professionals, we should be aware of the responsibility that we hold in the social realm – it is a profound responsibility, one which I feel honoured to have taken on.

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1 Response to Guest Article: What’s in a title? – Misgivings from a “socio-technical architect”

  1. sarita90 says:

    Very interesting article! I’ve been exploring shack settlements and the transformation of space in South Africa for a bit, and in some of my discussions and research in one particular shack settlement, one thing came up constantly: the distance between the “technocrats” and “experts” (incl. planning govt. officials) and the actual communities. Plans are imposed on poor communities, who are deemed as the “poor unknowing” and as such, unable to engage in the decision-making in shaping their spaces. They are largely excluded from planning processes, and any public involvement is simply to comment on already formulated ideas and designs. The problematic popular discourse of “service delivery” links to this too – the poor as subjects to who services and infrastructure are given, and who should be grateful for whatever it is they receive.

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