How our cities shape our future

Mokena Makeka
Creative Director and Managing Director, Makeka Design Lab
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One of cinema’s best fight scenes involves Sean Connery as James Bond, grappling with an assassin in a narrow cabin on the Orient Express. The rumble of iron wheels against steel tracks as the landscape glides by provides a calm backdrop to this dramatic moment. For me, trains and railway stations have always had an association with romance and danger.

So when I was commissioned to reimagine Cape Town station, as a part of the 2010 World Cup festivities, I wanted to channel my fantasies into what was at the time a derelict, dysfunctional criminal hotspot. What I found was more than an engineering problem, it was a social one.

In South Africa during apartheid, transport planning and infrastructure were a key aspect of racial segregation, and the station was no exception. As I perused the smudged blueprints, drawn by hand in the 1960s, I could see several duplicated architectural features. From stairs and passages to elevator shafts, it seemed that architectural obstructions had been put in place to prevent the two races ever coming into contact. This was not just the act of a wayward official, for indeed when the station was opened, President Hendrik Verwoerd himself extolled the building as a shining example of apartheid logic.

A poisoned ecology

The dysfunctional nature of the station’s architecture and public spaces was compounded by the lack of any proper refurbishment. As the terminus of various railway routes, all serving particular racial groups, the station embodied a strange doublethink: that while people of all races had a right to transport infrastructure, not all of them had the right to the same experience of it.

Apartheid-era urban planning nurtured poverty and inequality. It was a poisoned ecology that had a profound effect on social dynamics and economic growth. The result is not only the prevalence of dual economies in most South African cities, but parallel and sometimes counterproductive cultural ecologies emerging for different class groups, such as gangs and corruption.

I wanted to design the station according to a more democratic logic, one that would subvert the character of pre-1994 state thinking, and heal social and civic wounds. But on a technical level, could this ideal accommodate the logistics of 270,000 travellers, all rushing in different directions?

Democratic building blocks

As the first public meetings on the regeneration project got underway, I was confronted with statistics on the levels of drug use and violent crime going on in the station. Four hundred street traders accused the state of abandoning its duty to citizens and demanded architectural justice. Three railway unions had needs that far exceeded the meagre budget. In public architecture there may only be one legally defined client, but there are countless social ones.

I set out with my team to explore how to make public spaces that would lift the spirit, and bring dignity to mind before oppression. By radically changing the layout of the building and introducing artwork, for instance, we made the station a more welcoming place, where traders and business travellers could be equally accommodated.

Architectural principles of abundant natural light, formal elegance and clarity of sight lines, along with a reduction of cacophonous signage, allowed a new democratic space to emerge. Surveillance improved the safety of the station, and spaces were created for city events. A new cultural ecology emerged, which invested its faith in human universality. In some ways, I ignored the demands of FIFA and the World Cup, because I knew that if I properly addressed the local citizen, the tourist would be served as well.

A place for everyone

It’s not quite James Bond, but a democratic romance has returned to the area. Prior to our design intervention, 60% of the crime in Cape Town’s centre emerged from the station. After the redesign, this dropped to almost 5%. The street traders were given secure storage and trading facilities. The building has even been used as the backdrop to films and television programmes. Above all, the station is now loved by citizens. President Verwoerd’s dark fantasy has been consigned to the past; the station has become a meeting place for different races, nationalities and income groups.

A city’s economic possibilities are not only shaped by its social and political make-up; its spatial configuration also has a profound influence. Why some cities are magical while others are unnerving is not just about good architecture and reliable public transport. Great cities allow us to find a niche in their economic ecology, whether as a blue-collar worker or a high-flyer.

Unprecedented demographic changes are taking place in several cities. While the metropolises of the north and west outsource their manufacturing capacity, cities of the south and the east are experiencing a growing youth demographic, high unemployment levels and population demands that are greater than the resources available.

Slum cities have become politically tolerable in many countries, and the ecology of their economies is a mystery to many financial and political scientists. Their spatial logic may once have had a recognizable physical order – around which economies could be framed and monitored, and perhaps even regulated – but the cities of tomorrow can barely be managed, let alone visually understood.

The megacities of the future, and their vastly complex markets, will emerge in Africa and South-East Asia, presenting the planet with new abundance. These centres will contain rogue and noble elements, which is why we need to address the relationship between the spatial and the economic. Poor urban planning can lower the barriers to religious fundamentalism, state-sponsored corruption and economic stagnation. We need to start laying the foundations for cities that are prosperous and safe.

Winston Churchill once said: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is as true for a city’s economy as it is for its architecture.

Author: Mokena Makeka is Creative Director and Managing Director, Makeka Design Lab, South Africa.

Image: Panorama of Cape Town railway station. MakekaDesignLab

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