Wits City Institute Seminar

Never Modern: High-rise Housing and Race in 1950s Johannesburg

Presenter: Jonathan Cane

Discussant: Margot Rubin

This draft chapter intends to account for the unique rejection of high-rise housing solutions for poor black urbanites in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century. What was then called the ‘native housing problem’ was dealt with by extensive CIAM-type research into low-rise detached bungalows which resulted in the infamous 1951 design template that has proliferated across the country until this day. Whereas, internationally the mid-century high-rise block came to stand as low-income housing, including in other parts of southern Africa (Southern Rhodesia, for instance), in South African the ‘match-box’ house or NE51 continues to both over-determine ways of building and has lead to low-density low-rise planning and continued urban segregation. The chapter aims to (a) account for this historical anomaly and to place South Africa apartheid-era planning in world-historical context and to respond to histories of high-rise low-income planning internationally; and (b) to extend the discourse of verticality and to provide Southern postcolonial contributions to the debate.

Friday 20 April / 13.00-14.30 Anthropology Museum, Robert Sobukwe Block

Image credit: D. M. Calderwood, NE 51/9, Native Housing in South Africa (1953)

In 1996 the Housing Generator launched a competition to design post-apartheid housing for the “New South African City.” On the cover of its “Overture” publication, an illustration showing a row of three identical houses—like children’s drawings or computer-generated wingding houses—bore an unmistakable resemblance to the ‘matchbox’ houses which had come to dominate Black residential areas since the middle of the twentieth century. Unlike practically every other country in the world (Urban 2012), South Africa explicitly rejected high-rise housing for the poor and instead favoured single-storey detached houses. One specific design, the NE51 (Non-European 1951) by D.M. Calderwood, became the basis for planning modern housing on behalf of the so-called ‘urban Native’. Modular, rational and replicable, the NE51 system was ultra-modern and yet, as David Dewar argues in his Housing Generator essay, it was “strongly anti-urban” (1996: 82). What is perhaps even more peculiar than South African’s rejection of low-cost high-rise housing has been the persistence of the matchbox—as a typology, a preference and an ideology—even after the end of apartheid. There is a great irony that the housing stock built under the framework of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) has reproduced the low-density segregation of apartheid, except, it is sometimes argued, in even lower quality and less generous proportion than before.

This research aims to address the seemingly interminable horizontality of low-cost housing by examining three discursive themes which have constrained vertical imaginaries and built propositions for the poor. The argument put forward is that Black urbanites have been constructed as heterosexual, provisional and, paradoxically, anti-urban. Through analysis of a Johannesburg-focused archive consisting of plans, legislation, dissertations, exhibitions, public presentations, industry publications and built environments, the chapter shows how planners and officials struggled to come to terms with Black urbanization and to imagine a place for Black lives in the city. By considering the ‘politics of verticality’, a novel set of theoretical questions is opened up: What do we learn when we ask questions about power and verticality, when we consider power at work through the vertical, especially in cases where the vertical is denied? Further, how does horizontality work to obscure the vertical problematic, what is occluded in that, what heights and depths, what ways of living?