Thomas Chapman says he is not of the generation of architects "who set out to create monuments; to have their buildings outlast them or leave a legacy". The founder of Johannesburg-based architecture firm Local Studio is conducting an interview on his car phone at rush hour on a Friday, negotiating the rapids and eddies of the urban commute.
His book, Hustles documents his practice’s first five years. Downtown Johannesburg is Chapman’s locus and where most of Local Studio’s first 12 projects are located. They serve very different functions but share a strong social ethos and exceptionally tight budgets.
There’s the restaurant pavilion built on the foundations of a razed lunatic asylum at the Old Fort in Hillbrow. A futuristic school on dusty ground in Tsakane in Ekurhuleni, and a clever steel pedestrian bridge and park in Westbury.
Local Studio designed affordable housing, including Braamfontein Gate on Smit Street. Once the headquarters of Total Oil, the high-rise tower now has 400 housing units, a swimming pool and gym.
Chapman hopes that Braamfontein Gate — tied to the pedestrianised Rissik Street Promenade, which connects Park Station and the City Hall — will become a new direction for the city; a move "towards a more neighbourhood-based economy and society".
His key concerns, stated in essays in Hustles, are maximising communal space and relationships with the street. "A building is only as interesting as the context it is in, and … the use that it holds," he says. "My interest is a bit more immediate. If anything, my buildings are reversible.
"They’re recyclable, in the literal sense in that you could unscrew a wall panel and use it somewhere else," he says.
Key materials such as polycarbonate and steel appear to be signature elements in the firm’s first designs. Yet they are just part and parcel of finding solutions that both suit his ethos (more space for users) and his clients’ constrained timeframes and budgets. The result is structures that are innovative but not slick in the way many architects measure quality.
Co-authored with photographer David Southwood, Hustles is a multi-layered map of the firm’s ideas and the structures. Place and context come first — so the photographs of street life in Cyrildene and Mayfair that bookend the volume don’t actually showcase the firm’s architecture. Instead, they show "aspects of these areas that we appreciated most — as if we had designed them", the text reads.
You try and give a little bit more value than what’s the norm in housing, and you’ll be amazed how versatile people can be. They find a new way to live in these structures, and it becomes home.
Images of actual projects also shy away from "money shots" and embed the buildings in the streets in which they stand. "It’s very unusual to have an architect give the sense that buildings grow out of the street," Southwood writes. "Normally one is presented with an edifice, and the relationship to the street is a mumbled afterthought."
Interior shots in the book tend to show the spaces occupied and alive. The architecture of the book includes pointers to place, essays and site diagrams.
It is aptly arranged by neighbourhood. There are compact "conversations" with people who live or work there. Dr Sean Robinson of Westbury, for example, provides a very humane and personal description of the suburb, the bridge project and its shortcomings.
Southwood writes about his process. He walks the area, engages with locals, examines key foot-traffic routes and popular shop entrances, to identify what he terms the "structural rubric" of a place.
Then he positions himself "within complex vectors of movement and vanishing points to make photographs that provide the viewer with the opportunity of looking at Local Studio’s work through the lens of the rich context that gave rise to it". The photographs reflect the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic — also a key concern for Chapman, who writes that city infrastructure should facilitate "convenience and dignity for human beings when they are at their most vulnerable, namely whilst on foot".
Local Studio’s buildings chip at and twist old patterns of living. Many of their projects are repurposed structures, but their new builds fill voids and grow "parasitically" from existing buildings. Hillbrow’s Outreach Foundation Community Centre is partially built on an unfinished hall, adapting, leap-frogging and improving on structures built in the 1970s. Its dance studio has a 12m window facing Twist Street. On the other side of the road, a steel bench gives weary commuters a place to pause and watch the dancers.
Hustles is a slice in time. Chapman, who in 2018 won an Architectural Vanguard award which recognises top emerging architects and who teaches at the University of Johannesburg, says he published the book in part to "draw a line in the sand".
The firm now plans to focus on projects with slightly fewer time and budget constraints. But the ethos will remain. His buildings are for the users, "not for architects, but [often] for very poor people".
Private developers are building affordable housing in Johannesburg. This investment, Chapman notes, has an impact on "social infrastructure like schools and clinics and important things like that".
He is an advocate of New Localism: finding very local solutions to problems. He doesn’t think South Africans should rely on the government to build houses as there isn’t capacity. But if private developers can provide homes, cities can invest in public spaces and services and, ideally, residents become involved in their communities and new management structures evolve.
The important thing is to create buildings that grant users the ability to live with more agency. "You try and give a little bit more value than what’s the norm in housing, and you’ll be amazed how versatile people can be. They find a new way to live in these structures, and it becomes home," Chapman says.