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Warrick Sony

Future Shacks

by Warrick Sony image by Henion Hahn / 28.10.2010

* Text taken from a speech delivered by Warrick Sony for Architecture ZA 2010 Conference Joburg 22-24 September 2010 – The theme was “REIMAGINING JOBURG”.

I’d like to begin by quoting from a poem by Lesego Rampolokeng: “Johannesburg my city paved with Judas gold deceptions and lies… dreams come here to die…”
My name is Warrick Sony. I am a composer, sound designer and songwriter. Lesego’s poem pretty much sums up my feelings about the Johannesburg I knew and spent a good part of my life in.

I lived in this city for 15 years (between 1983 & 1997) – and for most of that time I lived in an old mining house where Shifty Studios was located off the old Baragwanath Road, (now called Nasrec Rd) near Soweto. The house was surrounded by disused mine shafts and mine dump slimes, with their dams of poisoned waters. It belonged to the Concordia Mining Company, and had originally been the mine doctor’s house.

The small river that ran through it was once the site of the AmaWasha, the Zulu men who, at the turn of the last century, made a living washing the clothes of the early inhabitants of this mining town. I have always been interested in the way the past and the future impact on the present. As artist and musician Don Van Vliet said: “The past sure is tense”.

From my bedroom window, I looked out over a ruined tennis court and pool. Gum trees lined Baragwanath Road and formed a sort of hideaway where one would often observe the illicit love trysts of couples making out in cars. Mine dumps in the distance and disused mine shafts were a short walk away. I could see the highway that led to Uncle Charlie’s Roadhouse and intersection which sent you off to Soweto or the Golden Highway to Lenasia, Eldorado Park, and eventually the industrial heartlands of Vereeniging and Vanderbyl Park.

Newtown Johannesburg

I was reading Charles van Onselen’s social histories of the Witwatersrand at the time, and living in the vicinity of an abandoned mining operation gave me a strong sense of the ghosts of the past. It seemed to me that the industrialisation of landscape and the architecture of control were ongoing preoccupations of capital and the state. A climate of fear prevailed then in which the individual anticipated the worst. It was in this atmosphere that I wrote the following song: It is titled 1999, and it appeared on my album Living in the heart of the Beast.

These are the lyrics:

“mutilate that poster face
if voting could change anything it would be banned
we spray paint slogans on the walls
of railway buildings in Joubert Park
is it raining?
these walls have eyes and ears
gentlemen in gun black suits
move in on us from the quiet corners of the city
in 1999 will we still be around
A cold wind blows through barbed wire surrounding the old showgrounds in Baragwanath road – no funfair this – the army guards all entrances
we work on minedump slimes building them up high to form a great divide between the city of gold and the city of sweat.
in 1999 will we still be around?”

I wrote these words in the year 1984, the title of George Orwell’s most famous novel, which I thought was apt. I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the present Johannesburg from the perspective of a song I wrote 25 years ago, when I was imagining what the country, and the landscape would be like in the last year of the 20th century.

At the time there was a bleak uncertainty about the future which permeated most of my work then. In South Africa in 1984, the idea of reform or a peaceful revolution seemed ridiculous.

A new Rand Showground was being built on the boundary of Concordia. They named it NASREC and the high barbed wire fences and check point Charlie gates looked suspiciously like they could be used to keep people in as much as to keep them out.

JG Ballard’s, novels with their nightmarish world of high tech malls and exclusive gated communities, had a profound effect on me too. My personal “Ballardian” fantasy was that the show-grounds had been designed to double up as prison camps, so that when and if the revolution happened, miscreants would be herded up and locked in. This was also the time of the Cold War, of Reagan and Thatcher, so imaginations ran rife with doomsday scenarios!

It has been 13 years now since I left Joburg (shot in a hijack) and in 1999 I returned to find the area that we had lived in totally unrecognizable: The Concordia house had been ransacked by thieves, stripped of its wooden floors and fittings, and reduced to dereliction.

A neat lower middle class suburb had replaced the site of the Amawasha, now called Ormonde extension 23, the inhabitants struggling with the waves of crime in the no man’s land between the two cities but… finding great benefit, I am sure, when the FNB Soccer City Stadium was built further down NASREC Road for the World Cup. Had I been looking out of my upstairs bedroom today I would see the giant calabash stadium* in the distance. I could also walk to the Crown Mines Golf Course or to the Apartheid Museum from that same location. Barbed wire fences and check point gates have been extended to the suburbs and indeed all over the city.

Soccer City

The built environment has changed in many ways beyond recognition but a different climate of fear prevailed and it’s corresponding architectural solutions are testimony to that fact.

Here again we see how the present is balanced between the future and the past.

In this spirit of imagination it is interesting to look 25 years hence, and wonder if these “barricades of boredom” will prevail. What social pressures will be brought to bear as Johannesburg moves towards the half century mark and resources like water and energy become increasingly scarce?

The nightmare scenario could be summed up in another song I wrote at the same time titled simply “Underground.”

This was inspired by Charles Van Onselen’s accounts of the criminal gangs of the early 1900’s taking refuge in the underground tunnels of disused mines. It is also a play on words. I worked with international news crews in the late 80’s and we were always trying to get secret interviews with secret leaders who were always underground, ducking from the apartheid police.

This is the first verse of “Underground”:

“The power lines have fallen down there’s a curfew in the town
I take your hand we must escape before it is too late
we can hide out near a lake of poisoned water
can you see how the smoke from burning houses hangs over the city
and our leaders have all gone underground
we head towards a mine shaft where some other refugees are organising shelter and resistance to the siege
a message to the civilised red faces in the west
bring your hammer and your bi-sickle and fix this bloody mess
our leaders have all gone underground”

I loved the mine dumps. There is a photo of me by filmmaker Henion Han sitting naked in the lotus position with a huge slime pipe behind me spewing out grey cyanide water… They were freaky in the true sense of the word. I felt a bit like a Russian living in Chernobyl. I loved the anti-nature-ness of them, the very idea that they came from the same mentality we see now with Shell and the giant oil spill. Everything they epitomize speaks to me of what our world has become. Profit over loss. Today I see that the issue of the poisoned water from mine dump seepage is a huge threatening reality.

The mine dumps come from the “Underground” – they have an incredible architectural quality –even today, the strip of them South West of the city forms a clear buffer between the city and it’s labour reserve. You can see it on Google Earth. The 2 cities still live cheek by jowl. But the city of Gold has relocated northwards and the city of sweat has spread downtown… invaded by the armies of the poor… but certain things remain the same.

I quote another stanza from Lesego’s poem (written in the late 80’s): “Nothing is secure neither politics nor prayer can guarantee the future just existing to keep the money belt spinning”.

It is interesting to note that the first thing dictators do is bring in the architects. Palaces, bridges, stadiums, roads, airports, stately homes, renovations – these are all important elements of good dictatorships.

How many of you have been to Moscow? The streets are designed to accommodate tanks; 4 abreast or maybe the massed armies of Stalin. It’s all about mass control of the many by the few. The word “development” springs to mind – I think architects need to re examine this idea. Why they embrace the religion of development as progress? Is it a positive, progressive notion?

The Developed Nations are better than the Developing Nations, Undeveloped being the worst. There is a desperate need to develop and get everyone developed. The architects of apartheid came up with “Separate Development” and the ministry of Cooperation and Development but we can’t blame everything on apartheid.

Orlando Soweto

I recently had a run in with a “developer” whose plans for a gated village were being objected to by the community. He threatened that the alternative was a horror called “uncontrolled development”. What is this? He saw irregular houses built by normal folk at their own leisure with their own aesthetics as a worry. A loss of a centralized control. He was subtly threatening us with the spectre of shacks. In many undeveloping countries this is the big worry. The big fear: that your investment will turn to nothing with the overnight arrival of a shack dweller community. (The new Leon Shuster film had a “candid camera” sketch of this very phenomenon. Where residents in million rand flats in Sea Point woke up on a Sunday morning to discover a whole shack community going up opposite them on the common where Fifi the dog is walked and watered every morning. His films are not very funny anymore: they are more and more prophetic and sad).

These developer people are in control of much of our environment and many of them are architects. And it is not just about money – these guys want the glory – “there is my development on the hill over there. See that golf estate? I did it!” It’s the power and the glory.

Have we not just recovered from 40 years of social engineering and mind numbing control?

Let us not forget which profession Albert Speer was in before he applied his social engineering skills to the armaments industry.

Remarkably, Johannesburg has always had the uncanny ability to reconstitute itself, to recover from some of the most determined forms of interventions of control: Hostels, forced removals, homelands and hastily built townships.

Left to their own devices people will make a plan with or without architects. The flip side of the gated village is “the informal settlement”. The simplest unit of which is the shack. The ultimate individual access to immediate emergency accommodation.

I’d like to end with a verse from a song I wrote bearing this title (it too is set in the near future):

Lets Build a Shack –
running from the city from the fires and the shouting
looting and the burning through the night they’re taking everything
confusion driving everybody mad from dusk to dawn
come with me together we need shelter from the storm
we need some flimsy apparatus to pull over our heads
watch your back
let’s build a shack

* another architecturally inspired song I wrote in 1986 was titled “Mafikeng Road” off the Sleep Armed album. It was about the cracks which were appearing in the new stadium they had built (with Israeli expertise) to set off the new homeland of Bophuthatswana.

“Imposing structures dominate this capital
Homeland experiments in architecture
Airport and parliament buildings stand firm
Things fall apart with the stadium they built on
Mafikeng Road – Israeli building experts disappear into the night
Mafikeng Road – so it goes we were told that the centre would not hold”

**Text taken from a speech delivered by Warrick Sony for Architecture ZA 2010 Conference Joburg 22-24 September 2010 – The theme was “REIMAGINING JOBURG”.

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