Exclusive: Joburg gets a grand new welcome

2015-04-05 08:15

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Construction of a new public pavilion outside Park Station, designed by starchitect David Adjaye, will begin later this month, reports Garreth van Niekerk

We meet at sprawling Park Station in Johannesburg, Africa’s largest inland port and the country’s most significant transport node.

The mayor, the starchitect and I are discussing its latest addition. It’s a 10m x 10m pavilion constructed with hundreds of timber slats inscribed with words of welcome in all of Africa’s spoken languages.

It will hang in six consecutive arches, some more than 5m high, forming a towering portal to the continent for the more than 1?million commuters who move through here every day.

“Park Station is the largest railway station in Africa, so I think it tells a story about the movement of people around the continent that is increasingly important today, in the context of the new migrations and urbanisation patterns that have emerged in the past 10 years,” says world-famous, Tanzanian-born, British-based architect David Adjaye.

“It also speaks to that process of immersion because almost immediately you encounter the crowds, taxis and street traders that are so much a part of Johannesburg culture?...?The station has embedded in it a very painful history of exclusion and strife, but fundamentally it is actually a space where an incredible range of people can engage and interact, and that’s what made it a fascinating place to me.”


A ‘social sculpture’ for the city

According to a yearlong community research project undertaken by DesigningZA, the not-for-profit group managing the project, for a lot of these travellers, their time at Park Station will be their only experience of Johannesburg – their point of arrival and departure. It was with this in mind that the project’s initiator, Zahira Asmal, designed the brief.

“I have been a migrant in many cities globally. I know how it feels to arrive in a city and be completely bewildered,” she says.

“I wanted to create a beautiful place of arrival and welcome in Joburg – a respite from the grind, a place to meet and just be urban citizens.”

Tanzanian-born British Architect David Adjaye, Project manager Zahira Asmal and mayor of Joburg Parks Tau are working together to create a new urban space at Johannesburgs Park Station. PHOTO: ELIZABETH SEJAKE CITY PRESS

Asmal pitched the project to Joburg mayor Parks Tau in 2011, then she and Adjaye designed a plan for an unused paved circle on the northern edge of the precinct, situated between the Gautrain station and the newly renovated northern public entrance.

They initially considered erecting a temporary structure to act as “a giant piece of furniture” that will provide “gathering places from which to reflect on the state of the surrounding city”, but the project quickly evolved into a permanent building.

As a piece of architecture, the contemporary pavilion is becoming increasingly difficult to understand. Its use as an object fluctuates between architecture and sculpture, function and form – a luxurious typology potentially out of touch with the needs of Park Station’s commuters.

According to Penelope Curtis, author of Patios and Pavilions, the first pavilions appeared in China thousands of years ago and grew into their architectural role.

“Pavilions shifted from functional watch towers to attractive structures within which locals and travellers could eat, rest and shelter,” she says.

In a Joburg inner city almost devoid of public facilities, Adjaye’s pavilion is a bold experiment in what Curtis later calls “social sculptures”.

But as the experiment embarks on its journey towards completion, reading between the lines forged by the wooden slots and slats is a story of the nation’s station full of segregationist histories, xenophobia and the first attempts at a rebirth the likes of which only Johannesburg can muster.

Historical images from the 1930s show the Natives Dining Hall (left) and the ‘whites-only’ Park Station concourse PHOTO: The Transnet Foundation

The history of a station

If the walls of Park Station could speak, they would sing Hugh Masekela’s Stimela. The song begins with a rhythm perfect for driving, metal drums setting the pace: “There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique/ from Lesotho, from Botswana, from Swaziland/ from all the hinterland of southern and central Africa/ This train carries young and old African men/ who are conscripted to come and work on contract...”

The hissing train wheels roll on in the background. “In the golden mines of Johannesburg/ and its surrounding metropolis/ 16 hours or more a day/ for almost no pay...”

Later, he breaks: “And when they hear that choo-choo train/ they always curse/ curse the coal train/ the coal train that brought them to Johannesburg.”

It is on the back of this history that trains appeared in 1890 and The Halt, as it was known then, became the city’s first station – the now dilapidated steel, glass and copper structure that sits alongside Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown.

It was to be replaced in 1932 by a grander vision more in line with the city’s emergence as the gold capital of the world. Buried beneath today’s Park Station is a building designed by Herbert Baker’s protégé, Gordon Leith, among other architects. The new concourse at the foot of Eloff Street would give access only to white people for six decades. It came complete with the Blue Room restaurant – a shining example of an era of opulence and 1930s decadence.

In the 1950s, the old station was lowered to make way for the construction of new concourses. The remains of the old station are still 4m below the current structure.

The closest version of the Park Station we know today was launched by Nelson Mandela in the 1990s. He said in his speech: “The station has become a symbol of a divided Johannesburg, cut in two by a river of steel made of railway lines and unfriendly buildings.”

The vision for the new Park City made room for the inclusion of informal traders, minibus taxis and a central hub for commuters. It was realised in part, but continues to evolve.

The old Blue Room at Park Station was once a grand ‘whites-only’ station and is now buried 4m underground
PHOTO: The Transnet Foundation

Reversing colonialism

Adjaye’s plans for the project echo Leith’s Blue Room, whose doors have been locked to the public for more than 20 years, doing what they can to protect the staggering structure that’s been left behind.

Without being granted access, I can only rely on the horrifying stories being passed around Johannesburg of the state of the building today.

But historic images exist of its monumental cavern with three-storey pillars built from single slabs of pink marble, the 28 Jacobus Pierneef paintings that dotted its main concourse and metres of walls tiled in priceless delft.

Adjaye’s structure uses the rhythmic arches of the Blue Room to articulate the romance and grandeur of colonial travel for which the station was built.

He calls it “a way of creating a dialogue between the contemporary condition of the city and its history?... recasting it as a place of welcoming and inclusivity. It is very much a place-making project.”

The actual footprint of the project – a relatively tiny addition to the enormous station – tells a much bigger story by virtue of subtle design symbolism. Adjaye hopes that his structure will in some way remedy the injustices of urban planning the city continues to deal with.

“Most cities have division, but it’s implied. Johannesburg, sadly, is one of the few cities in the world that have a specific spatial architecture that is born from division. To undo that division requires a radical change in the operating mode from which you see the city. You have to be prepared to create new overlaps that do not make immediate visual sense.”

Adjaye is famous for designing “public-private” spaces that engage the urban environment, but still maintain moments of privacy.

Adjaye's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Adjaye in Africa

It took Adjaye 12 years of travelling to see every city in Africa. His epic journey culminated in a seven-volume book, Adjaye Africa Architecture – a photographic and textual adventure seen through the eyes of a man who, before he was nine, had lived in Tanzania, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon before finally settling in the UK.

“Johannesburg is one of the most cosmopolitan cities I have visited in Africa. It has such an amazingly diverse population, and the young people have created a unique and vibrant art scene that is incredibly inspiring,” he says.

Adjaye Associates – the influential company he founded that operates on four continents – has worked on a bewilderingly vast array of projects, from the R10?billion Piccadilly rejuvenation in London to the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

He has recently been awarded Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, been named Britain’s most powerful black person by Powerlist and been made the face of luxury brand Dunhill. He is architecture’s man of the moment, yet remains endearingly humble.

“It’s always the most magical when I’ve finished a building, especially a public building, and then you go in and see thousands of people or a few people just walking around and they use the building as though they’ve always known it was there?...?It’s what’s compelling about architecture for me.”

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