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Other views, part two
17 September 2007

'Planning needs to be done by people with design/planning expertise coupled with sufficient experience to remain objective about their proposals'; we should look to France, Brazil, the US and China for examples of what is possible. A reader responds to Neil Fraser.

Neil Fraser
About Citichat

NEIL Fraser is a partner in 'Neil Fraser & Associates trading as Urban Inc', an urban consultancy dedicated to the revitalisation and regeneration of cities and of the inner city of Johannesburg in particular. He can be contacted on 083 456 0242 or 011 444 4895 or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Citichat is a free weekly publication concerning cities generally and Johannesburg specifically. Please forward Citichat to your colleagues who may wish to be placed on the subscription list. To subscribe please contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

READ previous editions of CitiCha

IN Citichat 33, State, statues and smart transportation , I wrote:
"In the meantime, the buildings bought by the provincial government five years ago have been empty and left to disintegrate, thus creating an added eyesore in the city centre. Surely it is incumbent on the provincial government, particularly given the premier's and the MEC's comments way back at the start of the project, to advise the citizens of the city just what it is now planning.

"Surely it is incumbent on the provincial government as one of the custodians of the built heritage and as the owner of these crumbling structures, to tell us what it is planning to do with the heritage (and other) buildings that daily degenerate?"

Here is a reply I received:

Repay taxpayer
"One assumes also that 'Surely it is incumbent on the [Gauteng] provincial government (GPG) to repay the taxpayer the lost interest/opportunity costs on the money wasted here to date and to reimburse the City of Johannesburg for lost rates on these properties'.

"Perhaps the City should sue the GPG for damages and reduced amenity on behalf of its citizens; perhaps it should come from the GPG salary packages.

"Surely there is some legal route to force a property owner to take appropriate measures (maintenance, for instance) to prevent this … even if it is as lowly as a simple clause in the by-laws. Oops, sorry, I temporarily forgot that provinces and politicians and such don't pay much attention to the rules and regulations that we all have to live by, that were mostly made by politicians using our money, to ensure rational development of our cities.

"I have great concerns about this problem but, like most others who also do, I don't have the time and resources to do anything about it - I'm too busy trying to stay alive under the load of paying my share of these buildings and the politicians and law-making expenses.

"I used to be a very charitable person, giving others the benefit of the doubt when listening to their ideas. Forty years of practice, marvelling at the schemes that come and go (starting with, in my 1960s Pretoria architecture student days, the 'Ring Road' elevated highway proposal to put a noose on the city) and I am perhaps more idealistic than I was then about where the future should be, and somewhat less idealistic (leaning dangerously to cynical) about the performance of the team partners needed to get there.

Design and planning expertise
"Planning needs to be done by people with design/planning expertise coupled with sufficient experience to remain objective about their proposals. The rest of the team need to learn how to resist the urge to be 'wannabe-designers-cos-it's-so-seductive-and-I-have-the-money'.

"What we are missing most in this country is mass awareness education (remind the politicians they also are members of the masses) on the need to socially coexist in self-and-mutual-respect and concern for each other's wellbeing and tax dollars. Cities are not bunches of buildings grouped around some hole in the street-grid for some politically correct concept devised by a few politicians as a personal legacy project, where they secretly hope that some future generation will place a bronze edifice of the conceptualiser.

"Concepts without vision and resources should remain concepts, that vanish like mist when the sun of reason comes out from behind the dark clouds of some hazy, likely-alcohol-facilitated adrenaline-rush delusion that real power is at hand and its destiny is a project in the city.

"A plantation is not a forest. We need some serious vision with serious clout behind it, like Hausmann (1) (who made Paris the undisputed 'most beautiful city'), with Napoleon for power, for Joburg to even have a slice of a chance to be a 'world-class African city.' We need a Rudy Giuliani of New York, or a Jaime Lerner of Curitiba, Brazil.

"Someone (anyone - even) with enough depth to know how shallow the current thinking is in these grandiose schemes. Haven't found any candidates yet, have we?

Solving transport needs
"Lerner solved the Curitiba transport needs (2) with a few hundred million US dollars - a city not much smaller today than Joburg. He did it with buses and IQ. R3-billion each for Jozi and Tshwane ought to do it, with another R2-billion for intercity buses and there'll be plenty of change left over.

"Any consultant in private enterprise who crafts a budget for a project that balloons from R2-billion (the original Gautrain estimates, as I remember them) by even so little as 100 percent (!) should lose his job and client.

"Any client that allows the budget to balloon the way it has (rivalling Zimbabwean inflation rates) should lose his job too. And after the Gautrain, the plan still needs the buses.

"The GPG precinct buildings are rotting away, probably until the contract for refurbishing them mushrooms into something one can really sink one's teeth into - something that can take a lot of gravy.

"Remember Hassan Fathy's (3) experience in Egypt pre-world war two? Politicians don't want to know that you can build a school for one third of the current cost, and thus have enough to build three schools. A tight budget has no room for fiddling 'adjustments'.

"And if at the end of the term of office, there are not enough schools, it's the incoming's problem, who can call it an inherited problem, justifying a bigger budget call.

Greater vision
"Fortunately for us, our politicians can see beyond all that - they have the greater vision, don't they?

"But who can blame me for thinking that the GPG precinct and the Gautrain are just 'me-too' projects that arose from the inner-room after-dinner cognac-and-cigar-smoke haze of discussions on the political survivability of the arms contracts of the late 1990s - great redistribution mechanisms.

"And having twice been the focus of attention of armed robbery in Johannesburg, I lost a little blood and plenty of money and income in the process (the most recent by Zimbabweans with guns poked in my face and spine - the ones we should embrace with compassion but without recognising the consequences), I have rapidly waning attention for these inventors of cart-before-the-horse schemes.

"Democracy is missing a 'money-back guarantee' plan."

(1) For a good read about cities and an excellent account of Hausman's Paris, see James Kuntzler's The City in Mind. (2) See entry in Massive Change by Bruce Mau and The Institute without Boundaries (Exclusive Books). (3) See Architecture for the Poor by Hassan Fathy.

A later addition
"As if to underline what I had written about the value of design-experienced-and-minded persons in positions of power, after posting the email to you, I read in the current issue of Wallpaper magazine about another architect rising to the challenge after being appointed deputy mayor of Qinpu in China.

"He made the city a landmark in the new China development surge (which makes our boom look like a ripple on a pond - I saw a statistic some few years ago that put over half the world population of high-rise construction cranes in Shanghai alone!) and an architectural talking point. Then they made him mayor of Jiading, another large developing region of Shanghai.

"I skimmed through your 24 October 2005 Farewell to Old Buildings. The Rand Water Board Building is something I should go and have a look at.

"I have recently been photographing some downtown structures - not necessarily with a specific purpose, but just to see what comes up, perhaps just for my archives, perhaps because I have a growing obsession of a personal vision of 'The City'.

"I had occasion late last year to go to the current Rand Water Board offices on Impala Drive on the edge of the Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve. At the time I wondered at the wisdom of locating an office building in that environment - even though the area south of Impala is not technically reserve, it probably should be.

"Again - parastatal privilege to ignore and override as they see fit. I wonder if Rand Water Board had a good look at the possibility of refurbishment of the CBD building before deciding to move. The most energy-conservative option in the process of new building, is not to build at all.

"It's a question that requires a lot of courage to ask at a boardroom table - 'Do we really need a new building?'. This goes for the GPG precinct, too.

Tokyo
"I am currently reading a 1999 article on Tokyo, some quotes:

"In Japan, buildings are designed in the expectation not that they will stand the test of time but that they will be torn down sooner rather that later and replaced by something more appropriate to the economic and technological demands of the future." John Thackara

"The city changes at dizzying pace, defying every attempt at control and planning. This internal, seemingly wilful force of change defines Tokyo." Judith Connor Greer

"In Tokyo, they demolish 12 339m2 of buildings and newly construct 62 861m2 daily, while 455 units of new housing start every day." Tokyo Metropolis: facts and figures (1993)

"The idea of a city that becomes like a museum, where you cannot pull down buildings simply because they are old is questionable … In that sense Tokyo is more liberated (than Western cities)." Sir Norman Foster

"Land in Tokyo commercial areas is usually 10 times more valuable than the building on it. That I agree with these thoughts may appear to be in conflict with my email but, in fact, it is not - I don't side either way with the demolition gang or the heritage hugger. Everything on its merits.

"It's the ill-conceived and wasteful stop-start that is the problem. In the case in point now of Joburg - it ends in limbo and strangulation of resources. In these heritage buildings as well as the 'more modern, meaningless buildings', is it the facade or the interior or the utility of the building that either needs protection or is expendable?

"Is it possible to separate these? Do the planning first, take options if you need to, get the decision, then spend the money. That looks like a logical plan order to me.

"At least an office building can be given new services to bring it up to current functionality. Last year I sat in on the Department of Public Works internal workshop on heritage buildings preservation, which case studied the Palace of Justice, the Old Synagogue in Paul Kruger Street, Pretoria (location of the Mandela Treason Trial) and the Capitol Theatre - the former restored and functional, the latter two rapidly decaying.

"The biggest question without an answer - to what function can these be restored and adapted, that will be viable, self-supporting and justifiable today? So far, no answers. The Capitol Theatre - once the largest, most magnificent cinema in the southern hemisphere, the suit-and-tie dress-up Saturday night Movietone news and movie magic of my childhood - is in the age of television a parking garage for less than 50 cars by day, useless by night."

Hmm - lots to ponder; thank you for the input.

Cheers, Neil

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