Modernist/Modernising South Africa

Monday, 17 May, 2021 - 15:00

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[Please note the unusual time for this event.]

While many of the recognizably distinctive features of the major urban centres in the Cape, Boer republics and Natal were well established by the end of the nineteenth century, modernist planning – the infrastructural project of directed demarcation and transformation of space and the built environment in the name of ‘improvement’ and efficiency - emerged in South Africa via two distinct strands, two decades apart. The first of these was via an essentially Fabian kickstarting of municipal and central government on the highveld in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer war, under Lionel Curtis' supervision, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire which marked the earlier period. What followed was hardly pretty, but it might be said that the city and country were saved from the arguably worse fate of enclave capitalism. The second strand emerged in 1938, on the occasion of a town planning exhibit organised by the students of the Le Cobusier acolyte Rex Martienssen, lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, held in the foyer of the gleaming art-deco headquarters of South Africa’s electricity-producing state-owned corporation, Eskom, which had opened just the year before, in downtown Johannesburg. Offering utopian solutions to the problem of housing indigent Africans, but accepting the segregationist premises of the time, such thinking was subsequently channelled, in more or less perverted form, into Verwoerd's township housing project. It probably makes sense to think of the official modernism of post-Boer war reconstruction as the dominant approach to planning in the twentieth century. Drawing upon established models and expert networks within the wider British empire, it incorporated occasional infusions from the more avant garde sources we associate with modernism in the strictest sense. The Sisyphean nature of orderly planning in a region seeing massive demographic growth, and the collapse of a racially circumscribed political economy by the 1970s is highlighted, moving into the post-apartheid period where planning, again infused with progressive thinking designed to overcome the legacies of the past, appears exhausted, defeated, and increasingly irrelevant.

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