Cityscapes

What is a world-class city? This is the question that leads the second issue of the new urban-focused magazine Cityscapes, published by the University of Cape Town’s African Centre for Cities. The center’s director and consulting editor of the magazine, Edgar Pieterse, features prominently in Gary Hustwit’s recent documentary Urbanized which explores city design and planning, as well as the fate of the Olympic city once the games are gone.

The notion of the city as a subject of design has come up in recent conversation once again—besides Urbanized, last year also saw the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’ssecond “Design with the Other 90%” exhibition, this time themed on cities. Meanwhile the World Design Capital biennale celebrating urban regeneration through design is also growing in profile, this year hosted by Helsinki.

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Most of these initiatives brandish the fact that more than half of the world’s 7 billion people now live in cities, and that the world population is predicted to reach 9 billion by the year 2050—80% of whom will be living in cities. However, what’s not been talked about as much is the prediction that 97% of that 2 billion will be born in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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This “Global South” is what the Cityscapes magazine concerns itself with, while discussing why the question of a “world-class city” is relevant. Are the exponential growth rates of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) going to result in blind urban mimicking of the aspirational qualities of “world-class” Western cities without pause for redesign and improvement?

Co-edited by Sean O’Toole and Tau Tavengwa, the team behind the heyday of theArt South Africa quarterly, the magazine doesn’t simply rely on design to answer the question, but looks to academia, art, philosophy, music, photography and on-the-ground reporting to paint a comprehensive picture. At the same time, its application of a design lens to unlikely bureaucratic subjects gives the publication a refreshing, totally unique angle.

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The result has been described as Africa’s answer to Monocle, something of a gritty, pensive, self-aware, counter-revolutionary alter ego of the British “city porn” Bible. As the magazine’s designer Tavengwa has applied a design-style sheet that balances sophistication and earthiness, which is rumored to have brought in fan mail from Rahul Mehrotra, the head of Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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The first edition is completely sold out, but the second issue is currently available from the African Centre for Cities (contact them through their website to receive a print copy). Content includes design reports on the “world-class” development of Johannesburg and Bangalore, and an interview with the mayor of the most dangerous city in the world, Mogadishu. Contributors include Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, Kerwin Datu, editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist, narrative journalist Kevin Bloom and Congolese filmmaker Djo Tunda wa Munga.

Coolhunting.com, 4 June 2012

Woodstock: A work in progress?

Artist uproar as gentrification in the Woodstock Industrial Centre has threatened the suburb’s ‘run-down’ factory atmosphere.

An evening of misty rain is not typical of the otherwise oven-like month of February in Cape Town, but it matched the mood of A Word of Art’s last blast in the Woodstock Industrial Centre as it is now configured. The trademark flash mob bursting the building at its seams and the youthful elixir of invincibility had evaporated.

Established in 2009, A Word of Art has transformed itself under the leadership of Ricky Lee Gordon from an artist management outfit to an agency for art activism with live-in studios and a gallery. The gallery and most of the studios are being ­relocated during renovations. The gallery will be reopened in April and the studios in a different part of the building in July.

Although, strictly speaking, it was not the last blast—the party was even called “It’s not over”—the graffiti-lined corridors, already showing the licks of whitewash, and the guests, including a who’s who of the local creative class, gave it the feeling of a memorial service. Everyone knew it would never be the same again. Some of the resident artists had been evicted and the word was out that the entire tenant list was being reviewed.

The building was bought in December by Indigo Properties, which is redeveloping it. The company was behind the well-known Biscuit Mill development, also in Woodstock’s Albert Road. The change in ownership of the Woodstock Industrial Centre has already led to evictions from what had become probably the largest conglomerate of artist and designer studios in Cape Town—more than 75 at its peak.

Tenants told to vacate their live-in studios

Kathryn Smith, Christian Nerf, Love and Hate Studio, Senyol, Justin Southey and Gordon himself were given a month’s notice to vacate their live-in studios. Most of the other tenants who rented studios have been given the option of staying on with a 10% increase in rent.

Senyol, an illustrator widely recognised for his abstract street-art style, said he could not understand how the tenant list could be reviewed without prior notice, or even why the owners did not let the tenants know that the front of the building would be repainted.

There has been a widespread uproar on Facebook about the eviction of the Golden Plate Take Aways, a corner café that has been there for more than 50 years. More than 50 people voiced their outrage in response to a post on January 27 by Kent Lingevelt, a custom skateboard designer, who until last month had been a tenant there for seven years.

Responding on behalf of the Indigo Group, Nick Ferguson said: “Golden Plate has been in the property for a long period of time but, from my point of view, has become lethargic and don’t add any value to the building or the area.”

He added that Golden Plate did not contribute to the “face” of the building, had a large outstanding debt with the previous landlords and had a major kitchen-hygiene problem. Furthermore, contrary to the rumours, the owners of Golden Plate were offered an alternative venue in the building for a kiosk.

“If it [Woodstock] is being gentrified now, it’s all normal. It’s not a clandestine plot against poorer people, just natural economics that value can be created from neglected properties in good areas. It’s a positive thing that there is investment and improvements, or else we would spiral into a slum,” Ferguson said.

Gentrification is a ‘natural market response’

Independent researcher Andrew Fleming agreed that gentrification was a “natural market response” and said house prices had been increasing in Woodstock since the late 1980s. He said the proper definition of gentrification was linked to property prices and not the trendy coffee shops that many liked to associate with the word.

Fleming’s master’s degree at the London School of Economics in 2011, on the changes in the suburb, was titled “Making a place for the rich? Urban poor, evictions and gentrification in Woodstock, South Africa”. The African centre for cities at the University of Cape Town will publish it later this year.

“At what point does intervention need to happen to ensure that lower-income people can still live there?” he asked. Fleming said the historical significance of Woodstock was that it was the only inner-city suburb that was not developed after the forced evictions during apartheid.

He said informal renting contracts and a lack of awareness of how the Constitution protected residents made them vulnerable and President Jacob Zuma’s new housing policy needed to take the special circumstances of suburbs such as Woodstock into consideration.

“Making places like Woodstock affordable can undo the apartheid geography that divides Cape Town,” Fleming said.

However, with regard to commercial cases such as the Woodstock Industrial Centre and other “fortress-like” commercial and office developments that were being built in Woodstock, they drew in people who did not participate in the surrounding community. “Look at the way the Biscuit Mill has been designed. It’s very exclusionary with a huge fence around it and access control. The businesses are not owned by people from Woodstock and the goods that are sold are rarely from Woodstock. It’s certainly not a ‘neighbourhood’ goods market,” he said.

“If you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find that most high-end shoppers don’t want an integrated market. They just like the idea of shopping in Woodstock and being leftie-liberal.”

Ferguson was also sceptical about how far Capetonians’ liberalism went: “This Facebook protest is a handful of people who have probably never been to the Golden Plate.”

What about the creative gentrification? And what will happen to the artists? Many are angry and leaving, but some are regrouping in the nearby Side Street Studios, owned by Elad Kirschenbaum, who sold the Woodstock Industrial Centre.

But the majority, about 50 of the tenants, are staying.

However, the greatest loss will be the run-down factory atmosphere that invited an anarchistic mood of infinite possibility—the winding, maze-like corridors that were, for a moment, below the radar of the arts establishment.

Mail&Guardian, 19 March 2012

Paint the town with poetry

Lemn Sissay turns words into monuments, literally. Spending some time in South Africa, the poet gives Nadine Botha a verbal whiplashing.

Lemn Sissay is a seasoned interviewee. At 21-years old, he published his debut collection of poetry to critical acclaim and, in as many years, has since published seven anthologies and four plays. Telly-watchers will recognise him as the youngest Grumpy Old Man on the first four seasons of the hit BBC sitcom, as well as the subject of the documentary Internal Flight. In 2007 he became artist-in-residence at the Southbank Centre. Sissay has been turning poems into landmarks since the late 1990s.

Yes, this is a rare poet who has had enough interlocution with the media to remember his own catchphrases, yawn at the boring questions, predict my oohs and aahs, laugh at his own pull quotes and interject himself with a shake of the head – “I can see the article now”, he mumbles to himself throughout the interview.

But where the reporter always gets hooked, he says, is on the subject of his gruelling childhood. “And who can blame them?” he shrugs off the stark tale of an Ethiopian student who lost her son after placing him in temporary foster care in the UK. What happened was that the care worker renamed the infant Norman, after himself, and allowed a British family to legally adopt him. Religious zealots from Lancashire, the foster parents believed that God had sent “Norman”. When “Norman” was 11, the family came to believe that he was evil and was promptly returned to the foster care system to spend the next seven years of his life in-between children’s homes. The first time he met another black person was when he was 14. He reclaimed his name, Lemn Sissay, at age 18.

“It was an emotionally violent existence and I had to find a way of interpreting the world into a place without violence, so that I could see wonder, because I deserved to see wonder,” Sissay explains his turn to writing.

Since he was 18, however, Sissay knew that he had to find his family. “It’s become the narrative of my adult life,” he smirks at what has become one of his catchphrases. After finding every last one of them – from Ethiopian mother and dead Eritrean father to siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – by the age of 32, he coined another of his catchphrases: “I now have a dysfunctional family like everyone else!”

Sissay’s humour is so self-aware, so to-the-bone and so subconscious, it is often intestinal. “You know like a child who is laughing and then is kicked. They don’t understand the pain, but they do understand that they were happy. So their relation to laughter is really in contrast to the punch. But we all deserve to laugh. And… I’ve never said this before…” He breathes in: “Laughter is a shortterm hit, not the answer. Only a fool thinks it is!”

He beams, shakes his head at himself and rambles on: “The poems and writing for me are totally beyond my narrative. It just happens that I was lucky enough to find this great ship that can carry pretty much anything. There are small quarters on the ship that is my family story and every time I speak to a journalist, they want to go to that room. That’s okay.”

Turning to gloat, he says: “But actually, I’m rocking out to sea, riding the waves, putting up the sails and fishing.” Gloating because now, in his early forties, Sissay has come to realise: “My poems are my family.”

He lowers his voice: “I found my family all over the world, my actual physical blood relatives. But my poetry has been with me for longer. So when there wasn’t family, there was poetry. And to be honest, there’s more truth in my poems than I will ever be able to extract from my family.”

Imitating Dr Evil, he raises his eyebrows a couple of times. Sissay’s incomparable ability to wear fragility as armour is dumbfounding. We’re sitting in a coffee shop off Long Street in Cape Town, shortly after the Africa Centre’s Badilisha Poetry X-change, and Sissay flags down a passer-by only to find that he’d mistaken them for someone else.

Electrifying audiences with a mind that runs faster than his tongue, a few weeks later, Sissay headlined the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and went on for a run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. None of these are Sissay’s first visits to South Africa. He has been visiting regularly since 1994 when he participated in a Robben Island project. Of the country, he says: “I always find the greatest communities in the world have a very complex set of arteries surrounding their hearts.”

Similarly for this “first generation Ethiopian Eritrean Brit”, as he calls himself, the question of identity is like the colour of the sky. “It’s like saying the sky is blue, but it’s not actually, it’s a reflection of the sea. So you could say the sky is blue, the sky is invisible, the sky is grey… it’s all of those things. Stories aren’t simple, which is why we have creatives. And we’re all creatives,” he reasons.

Going on, he insists that “creativity is an integral part of society, it’s not on the periphery but at the centre”. This is the power of the arts for Sissay, beyond the needs for context, narrative or legacy, he vehemently continues: “We have never lived without art, yet society perceives art to be an addition to life and the fact is, if you look at our religions, they’re all told through great stories, literature and art – physical art. The artist is often employed to carry the message, but sometimes I wonder, isn’t the artist itself the message?”

Taken from a man who has transformed poems into physical landmarks throughout the city of Manchester, now infiltrating London, such talk is only mildly alchemical. What is gratifying about his poetic interventions is that, as Sissay says, “The beauty of a landmark, is it’s not a landmark by you, it’s by other people. You can’t build a landmark, people have to choose it.”

The first landmark was the result of a taunt from some mates in a local pub and Sissay decided to “show them”, resulting in Hardy’s Well being branded on the eponymous pub. Since then he has inscribed Rain above the Gemini Take Away, Flags on the cobblestones along Tib Street and Catching Numbers in the Shude Hill Bus Station, all in Manchester. Last year, he unveiled The Gilt of Cain in London. This collaboration with sculptor Michael Visocchi commemorates the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

“The beauty of a poem in the landscape is that you suddenly start to notice a building that you always pass without noticing. It’s not about finding the biggest spire, but about discovering your neighbourhood and bringing people to an environment that they might not have discovered by their own eyes and ears,” says Sissay. He shrugs: “The poems are architecture.”

Visible creativity is an urgent message for Sissay, as he reemphasises: “There is a structure and anarchy that an artist acknowledges and we need that, even if a lot of the time we are afraid of seeing it.”

“Why are we scared?” I ask rhetorically.

But this man of woven words has an answer: “Because art has always gotten to the truth of the matter and we have been taught to be frightened of the truth of the matter.”

ARCHITECTURE

Each cloud wants to be a storm
My tap water wants to be a river
Each match wants to be an explosive
Each reflection wants to be real
Each joker wants to be a comedian
Each breeze wants to be a hurricane
Each drizzled rain wants to be torrential
Each laugh from the throat  wants to burst from the belly
Each yawn wants to hug the sky
Each kiss wants to penetrate
Each handshake wants to be a warm embrace
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control

Each melting Icecube wants to be a glazier
Each wave wants to be the smooth stroke of a forehead
Each cry wants to be a scream
Each carefully pressed suit wants to be creased
Each midnight frost  wants to be a snow drift
Each mother wants to be a friend
Each night time wants to strangle the day
Each wave wants to be tidal
Each subtext wants to be a title
Each winter wants to be the big freeze
Each summer wants to be a drought
Each polite disagreement wants to be a vicious denial
Each diplomatic smile wants to be a one fingered tribute to tact
Don’t you see how close we are to crashes and confusion,
Tempests and terror,  Mayhem and madness,
and All things out of control
Keep telling yourself.
You’ve got it covered.

REMEMBER HOW WE FORGOT

We don’t cram around the radio anymore
We have arrived at the multidimensional war
Where diplomats chew it up  spew it up
And we stand like orphans with empty cups
‘There will be no peace’ the press release
Said  that  war is on the increase
We  are being soaked with a potion
Massaged with  lotion to calm the commotion
That hides in  the embers of the fire
There’s nothing as quick as a liar
Don’t you learn your lesson
Are you so effervescent that
When they say day is day and its dark in your window
You say ‘ok’ and listen more tomorrow?

Seems you heard the trigger word
Are you space to be replaced – dreams defaced
Heavy questions  quickly sink
Leaving no trace – a spiked drink
What kind of trip are you on
Don’t you remember the last one?
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan, will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen?
I’m afraid you will, you have taken the pill
And you are totally stoned on war.

Media Hype and the slogans they write
Is that all it takes to set you alight
There’s nothing better than a doped up mind
For a young unemployed man to sign up
Figures go down young men sign up
What better when losing votes than to erupt
Into the uniting sound of war fever
“We need unity now – more than ever…
We shall only attack to defend…”
Paranoia infiltrates…
“Are you one of us or one of them!”
Slogans fall like hard rain as government calls
For someone somewhere in some country
That is suddenly so vital to our history
More than ever we should pull together
These are the days of stormy weather
Patriots show  faces, nationalists recruit places
As the fear of the foreigner rises
The race attack count arises
Victims of the small island mentality
England is no mother country
He holds the fear of the Awakening
Of his shivering shores breaking
Like the those in the Middle East did
When he raped it –
will you take it – take this, without question
Fall in line with the press poet or politician
Remember how we forgot about Vietnam,
Afghanistan. Will you fall or stand
For a dream you haven’t seen.
I’m afraid you will, you’ve taken the pill
You are totally stoned on war.

Design Indaba magazine, 1 August 2009