Shaft Versus Klap: Acclimatization on Johannesburg’s Gold Mines 1950-1975

Presented by Megan Eardley

Monday, 29 July, 2019 - 15:00

Today the idea of environmental architecture is typically associated with ecological sustainability. A growing body of literature suggests however, that its origins lie elsewhere, in military and industrial research designed to instrumentalize the methods and assumptions of the human sciences; to optimize the body’s climatic, biological, and perceptory milieus in the face of hostile environmental conditions. My research on the environmental management strategies pursued by South Africa’s mining industry contributes to this literature, while raising new questions about the politics of controlled exposure. By the mid 1950s, the world’s deepest mines were prepared to operate two miles below the surface. In South Africa, prospective miners were required to undergo an extensive acclimatization process in order to cope with the intense heat, humidity, and pressure that build up in the ultra-deep gold and uranium mines. To streamline and increase the efficiency of this process, the Transvaal and Orange Free State Chamber of Mines commissioned a series of experimental chambers that could replicate extreme subterranean conditions above ground. The design of climatic room prototypes addressed racial as well as material and physiological concerns, as industry scientists sought to establish a ‘standardized work rate’ among miners that were subject to temperature conditions that range between 30 and 35 C. In studies concerning the performance of ‘underweight’ ‘heat adapted Bantu workers,’ as well skin removed from ‘African’ and ‘European’ cadavers, researchers revealed both distain for and intense interest in the exposed body, as well as the racial classification schemes exploited by mining companies in an effort to maintain control underground. This paper analyzes when and how plans for the climatic room were distributed to mines across the country. Alert to the complex legal agreements that bound mining companies together, as well as the uneven circulation of technical expertise between mines, it argues that building practices that sought to reproduce (rather than mitigate) extreme environments controlled the cost of cooling and ventilation systems while generating liminal spaces that tested the industry’s capacity to manage definitions of race and tribe.

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