The Project Challenge
The setting for the project is the Philippi North station, located 20 kilometers from central Cape Town. Philippi is synonymous with the historic South African township – a peripheral context of limited resources, lack of investment and poverty. In spite of the structural limitations, parts of Philippi are undergoing transformation. This occurs firstly as a response by ordinary citizens to shape their own public and private terrain and secondly, by the recent official initiatives by the City of Cape Town Local Authority, through investment in public space. The project contained potentials associated with transport interchanges; the possibility of diverse encounters, a vibrant public realm, and the opportunity for formal and informal trade.
Principles & Approach
Philippi Station is the third largest in Cape Town, with approximately 30,000 people traversing the site daily. This energy resulted in the local inhabitants defining a station forecourt through dense informal trade and a range of social spaces. In spite of the need of land for housing, the community and traders had demarcated and preserved a 200-meter by 70-meter urban living room – a place to sustain public life. The design reinforced the integrity of this urban space. At a practical level this included the accommodation of public transportation, new informal market spaces and access to basic services. At an imaginative level the key concern was how to include the community in the architectural process beyond cursory consultation. The initial analysis involved mapping the existing spatial and social rhythms. The site was then articulated around two primary public spaces. The first is the forecourt activated by a constant flow of people moving, watching, sitting and trading. It is profusely planted with trees and is formed by large seating areas or ‘urban lounge suits’. The forecourt is held on two corners by special trade areas concerned with food, outdoor restaurants and music associated with the shebeen culture.
The second public space is edged by a line of trade units with a generous ‘urban verandah’ that allows for the traders to spill out of their shop areas.The verandah establishes a civic scale to the precinct through its robust columns and seats and has become an active social edge. A large and continuous red band extends the length of the verandah and provides a surface for traders’ shop signs. As township expressions, these signs serve more than a basic function. They are representations of people’s status and aspirations and are important township artefacts. The shop areas are set one layer back from the public colonnade. The individual units are not fitted out as the design energy and limited resources are focused on collective areas. It was also intended that individuals could adapt their units over time, thereby investing individual expression into the scheme.
The design focuses on areas where the opportunity for social interaction is maximised. The architecture is described in its most essential and elementary forms of seats, verandahs and outdoor living rooms. These elements are made to be generous and robust and allow spaces to be appropriated in different ways. Most significantly the intervention is underpinned by an understanding that the space will be defined by social activity and expression over time. The challenge was to provide a layer of urban legibility within which a number of readings and interpretations can occur. The emergence of a new South African urban expression develops from the idea of co-authored space; the design of a robust urban framework by the architects and the articulation of surfaces, formal and informal activities, and individual expression by the community. In this process the space is most activated once the design team has retreated. The unpredictable occurrence of music concerts, evangelical meetings, community gatherings, entrepreneurial growth and day-to-day happenings is testimony to the capacity of communities to actively transform their local place.