Oct 29, 201310:00 AMPoint of View
The METROPOLIS Blog
Stress and Wellness in Johannesburg: Part 3
(page 1 of 3)
Johannesburg, like many cities, has a serious low-income housing shortage. I took this problem as a starting point for my GSAPP project.
Despite globalization and the proliferation of information online, research in Johannesburg was deceptively difficult as much of Alexandra township is undocumented. Mapping and data collection are limited and, in addition, there’s a strong informal sector in the city. Due to this lack of data, my preliminary research was restricted to panning Google Earth aerial views in an attempt to discern urban patterns. Many of these patterns were inherited from apartheid era state planning and housing policies.
Alexandra Township, familiarly known as Alex, is one of the densest areas in Johannesburg. Population estimates vary wildly, but approximately 500,000 live within an area the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. At 55,300 people per square mile, it is 10 times denser as the average 5,100 people per square mile density of metropolitan Johannesburg. Alex is a combination of formal and informal dwellings with insufficient infrastructure for its population. As I was familiarizing myself with the organization of the area, a few obvious breaks in the mostly informally built housing fabric stood out. Most noticeable was the massive hostels’ rational and imposing form and bright turquoise roof. The diamond shaped structure of the Women’s Hostel is 750ft by 400ft at its extremes, roughly the same area as a Manhattan block. On our studio trip to the site, we saw that the incongruous form of hostel stands out from the ground just as it did from the aerial view.
Research into the history of these buildings revealed that in 1957 a decision was made to eliminate all family housing and to re-house entire populations of Alexandra in single-sex hostels. In Alexandra, 25 such hostels were to be built, each home to 2,500 workers. Clearly the segregated living was an attempt to control the black worker.
Courtesy Allison Schwartz
The hostels represent an architecture of control, designed for optimal surveillance and minimal personal space to disrupt the family structure. Only three were built in the early 1970s: the Madala Men's Hostel, the Nobuthie Men’s Hostel and the Helen Joseph Women’s Hoste. The two men’s buildings have since been converted into apartments, but the Women’s Hostel continues to operate as a dormitory. Because of their affordable rates, security, and favorable location the hostels have continued to be popular despite their restrictive conditions.