South Africa’s bold designs

As the World Design Capital 2014, Cape Town has a platform to redefine its urban areas and embrace transformation, while Johannesburg is using design as a tool to generate a fresh perspective. Sherelle Jacobs heads to South Africa to find out more...

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Cape Town, South Africa’s most famous city, is World Design Capital 2014. The annual World Design Capital award is bestowed on countries that see design as a tool for economic development as well as cultural and political improvement. The news has been greeted with enthusiasm in South Africa, a country which was found to be “the most unequal country on earth and significantly more unequal than at the end of apartheid,” in a recent Oxfam report. South Africa’s gini coefficient in the report – at 63.1 – was the worst in the world.

Less than two fifths of the working age population in South Africa have a job and a third live on less than $2 a day. Cape Town is no exception to this trend and over the course of 2014, this sublimely beautiful coastal city, which is also grappling with massive poverty and inequality issues, is hosting 460 design projects aimed at transforming Cape Town and improving the lives of ordinary and often less fortunate Capetonians.

According to Cape Town’s Executive Mayor, Alderman Patricia de Lille, as well as the 450 projects, the World Design Capital programme will also feature a design project, which the communities in each of Cape Town’s 111 wards will come up with.

Ms De Lille stressed the social and economic mission behind the design year: “The central thesis of the city of Cape Town’s approach to the World Design Capital 2014 is to use excellence in design, to design the change we want to see in our city, using the very building blocks of which our city is comprised.

“All of these projects are united by their use of design and design-led thinking, to help us drive the social and economic change we want and need,” she said.

“I am confident that the projects we have recognised for the official programme are true to the overall theme of ‘Live Design. Transform Life’ and through design and design thinking, improve lives for people who are challenged everyday in their communities,” Cape Town Design CEO, Alayne Reesberg, said.

Playful and cutting-edge

The projects featured in World Design Capital year include initiatives recently completed, those that were undertaken in 2014 to coincide with the World Design Capital year and projects that are in the pipeline. They are grouped under six clusters. The first three are: lifestyle enhancers, which are design endeavours focused around areas like fashion, the arts and sports; business that builds, which focuses on economic development and social entrepreneurship; and sustainability solutions, which are centred around sustainable food, energy and water. The final three are: connections that unite, which is all about design which focuses on communication, transport and social cohesion; education that elevates, definable as design focused on knowledge-sharing; and community improvement, which is design focusing on areas spanning health, urban development, wellness and housing.

Some of the design projects are playful and cutting-edge and can be seen at Cape Town’s biggest beauty spots and leading tourist attractions. This includes the V&A Waterfront, an area of Cape Town which embodies the spirit and power of urban regeneration. Formerly a run-down port, the Waterfront was transformed in the late 1980s. The 123-hectare space attracts more than 23 million tourists a year with its arresting harbour and Table Mountain views and high density of restaurants, hotels and retail units. A stand-out World Design Capital project at the V&A is Moyo restaurant and urban farm, the brainchild of Tsai Design Studio. The restaurant, which serves African cuisine, ties into the sustainability theme of Cape Town as World Design Capital. The eaterie raises fish and grows its own vegetables for its menu through aquaponic farming systems. The theme of the restaurant is sustainable design. A solar panel powers the aquaponic system. The waste that the fish produce also provides nutrients that the restaurant then uses for food.

“Visitors can dine on produce and proteins raised on site, as well as locally-sourced goods and regional favourites,” according to the World Design Capital.

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, recognised as one of the best botanical gardens in the world and a big tourist attraction, is also tapping into the environmental themes of World Design Capital. It has a new canopy forest walkway which aims to educate visitors about the need to protect the country’s precious flora and fauna. The walkway has been erected in an under-visited part of the gardens, the Arboretum, which has more than 450 South African trees as well as various birds, animals and insects.

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Vibrant enterprise

Many projects are taking place in the less affluent quarters of the country, which tourists rarely visit. This includes Cape Town’s black townships. Townships are black settlements on the edges of South Africa’s cities. They have been a fundamental part of the country’s urban scenery since the 19th century and were created as a way to provide accommodation for indigenous South African urban workers, while at the same time keeping them away from formal towns. Although Apartheid has since melted away, townships remain and are bigger than ever. They were never “designed” but rather grew and took their shape in an ad hoc, gradual way over time. As a result, many lack a lot of the facilities and attractions that the richer areas of Cape Town and other cities in South Africa enjoy. A number of aspirational World Design Capital projects in Cape Town aim to address this.

Such projects include “Ikhaya le Langa” in Langa Township, Cape Town. The project is made up of a number of design and enterprise initiatives that are being driven in an area of the township under development, known as the Langa Quarter. The Langa Quarter is being spearheaded by Tony Elvin, the former right-hand man of British chef Jamie Oliver. His vision is to create a vibrant tourist and enterprise hub in the township, centering on a single street, Harlem Avenue. According to Mr Elvin, the street, which has 87 houses and 480 residents, features 28 noteworthy residents and 87 potential enterprise opportunities. Langa Quarter will include attractions like a new community centre and coffee shop, jazz evenings, a bed and breakfast, restaurant, arts and crafts, and a traditional South African pub, known as a shebeen.

A World Design Capital township project is taking place in another township in South Africa, Philippi. The project is called Philippi Village and aims to create an economic, cultural and social hub in the township that will offer new opportunities to locals. The development project focuses on developing an old cement factory into a site that will include support facilities for local entrepreneurs and startups, an entertainment centre, sports facilities, a venue for conferences and an educational space. “When a potential development hub lies under-utilised for years, sometimes what is needed is an injection of confidence. The former cement factory in Philippi is such a place,” according to an official statement on the World Design Capital website. “The Philippi Business Place has been located on the site for some years, but other attempts to stimulate investment on the site have not borne fruit.”

The design of the project is intended to encapsulate the spirit of the township, World Design Capital say: “The design retains the township grit of the site, overlaid by a contemporary architectural intervention, thus providing a strong visual crossover between the genius loci of this particular industrial site and cutting edge design and styling by emphasising universal principles of good place making.”

There is a similar project unfolding in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township. Hubspace Khayelitsha is a business hub, which functions as a space where locals can access support, whether in terms of training, advice or capital. The initiative is using the World Design Capital award as a platform to promote and further develop its project to create more opportunities in the community.

Another design project in Khayelitsha being promoted through World Design Capital status is a district hospital with 230 beds, which is the Western Cape’s first new hospital in forty years. In terms of the hospital’s design, the aim was to create a “patient-centred healing environment which is an accessible, sustainable, state of the art African hospital”. It features internal courtyards, which are landscaped, and artwork by local artists around the building.

World Design Capital year is exciting for any city bestowed with the honour but in Cape Town it could provide a real boost. Fun design initiatives that tie into themes like sustainability and protecting the environment are firing some fresh, cutting-edge energy into Cape Town’s tourist hot spots. But game-changing design projects in the townships are also coming into the spotlight. In a city that has one of the worst urban Gini coefficients in the world, that can only be a good thing.

Exploring the design projects

On arrival in Cape Town, I checked in at Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, a stunning grand dame of a hotel with a formidable reputation for gastronomy set in seven acres of parkland along the banks of the Liesbeek River. At first I was reluctant to leave the hotel. It has immaculate lawns and gardens, where the resident tortoises are sometimes seen roaming.

There is a luxurious spa, state-of-the-art gym and fantastic restaurants, including award-winning chef Mike Bassett’s Myoga restaurant, famed for its seven-course tasting meal menu with wine pairings. I was on a mission, however, to break away from the luxury setting in affluent suburb Newlands for a portion of my trip to Cape Town, and discover how design initiatives are transforming the poorer areas of the city.

The South African tour company Coffeebeans Routes offers both a World Design Capital Tour and a Township Futures tour, which takes visitors to transformational projects in black communities. Through the company, I got the chance to visit the Langa Quarter. There I met with Tony Elvin, the man driving the initiative to create a new tourist hub in Langa. We sat on plastic chairs in an echoey old community hall as Elvin described his vision:

“In places like Langa, when people talk about urban development projects it is normally in terms of basic infrastructure, like schools and hospitals,” Mr Elvin mused. “It is rarely in terms of aspirational projects. It’s not just about attracting foreign tourists. White South Africans don’t come to the townships for a variety of reasons. Wouldn’t it be great if a few years from now when this project is finished, after their dinner at the Waterfront or cocktails at the Table Bay, well-healed Afrikaaners turn to each other and say: “Hey, let’s go listen to some jazz in Langa?'”

Mr Elvin pointed to a photocopied map of the township tacked onto the wall and traced the border separating Langa with a prosperous, predominantly white neighbouring township called Pinelands. “South Africa is the only country I can think of in the world where a city would have a physical wall separating black and white.”

Vineyard Hotel also organised a trip to the township Khayelitsha, where I visited the Learn to Earn centre, a building designed to offer training and classes to young people in the community. Learn to Earn was actually one of the projects showcased in Cape Town’s World Design Capital bids, and the difference it is making to young lives was clear to me as I peeked inside the classes taking place that morning, which included a baking class for people keen to set up their own local cake businesses, a woodwork workshop and a dressmaking course.

Few tourists visit townships when staying in South Africa but, even with projects like the Langa Quarter still a work in progress, they should. When visiting the townships there was also ample chance to trawl the markets and sample street food in between these encounters. The braai section of Khayelitsha’s main market was thick with barbecue-scented smoke alluring enough to tempt me to try the sheep’s cheeks, and a crunchy variety of corn on the cob. In Langa I sampled deep-fried pastries called vetkoeks and home-made ginger beer.
With a firmer sense of how design projects can improve Cape Town’s townships, I decided to head to a more affluent area of the city to discover something of the cutting-edge, experimental and playful Capetonian attitude to design in areas like fashion and interiors. After all, it is a reputation which helped the city to secure its place as World Design Capital, and design is about more than buildings. To do this I headed further into the centre of the city, to the iconic Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

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Khayelitsha, South Africa

Boutique shopping

I stayed at the Victoria & Alfred Hotel, bang in the middle of the Waterfront, which is known for its hard-to-beat views of the harbour and Table Mountain. The accommodation clearly embodied the spirit of transformational Cape Town design; it was the first hotel to open on the Waterfront and the design of the cavernous rooms are modern and clever – think exposed brick set against luxurious red curtains and genteel wooden furnishings.

Steeled by the hotel’s luxury buffet breakfast on the harbour, which included oysters (although I skipped the champagne), I headed out to explore the Waterfront’s most cutting-edge shopping offerings.

The Waterfront is dense with boutiques showcasing some of South Africa’s most talented designers. Not to be missed is Olga Jewellery Design Studio (Shop 6274, Upper Level, Victoria Wharf) where goldsmiths come up with elaborate one-off pieces for customers. Barbra Allen (Shop 124, Ground Floor, Victoria Wharf) does unique hand-made jewellery and accessories, including unique button covers. Ngwenya Glass (Shop 500.50, Lower Level, Red Shed Craft Workshop, Victoria Wharf) offers intriguingly-designed hand-made glass pieces, such as vases, drinking glasses and ornaments. The elephant bookends, made from recycled glass, are a favourite. African Wire Art (Shop 30, Ground Floor, V&A Waterfront Craft Market & Wellness Centre) has a range of innovatively-crafted decorative items from baskets to magazine racks.

The city centre also pulls in some big fish in design. I ambled down the famous Long Street. One place worth a visit on the road is Merchants on Long (34 Long Street), Africa’s first concept store, which is set in an Art Nouveau building and sells fresh up-and-coming African marques, such as Bantuwax, Lalesso and Suzaan Heyns. There are also modern furnishings set out next to deconstructed clothing at David West Dokter and Misses (113 Long Street). David West is a South African designer who has made a name with his 1950’s-inspired attire and bold shapes.

Johannesburg

Johannesburg may not have the accolade of being World Design Capital this year but it still has much to offer in terms of cutting-edge design. I stayed at the boutique 54 on Bath Hotel. Design-wise, 54 on Bath is a triumph and the perfect setting for a city break in Johannesburg. Set in a ten-story building with a formidable brick façade, the interior is elegant and modern. Clever use of the colour grey in the rooms has created a unique but also sleek, just-out-of-a-catalogue look. Original artwork by South African heavyweights like William Kentridge and Tinus de Jongh and Ryan Hitchcock also lend further credibility to 54 on Bath’s design credentials.

I took a short taxi ride to the Maboneng Precinct downtown. Previously a rundown area in the eastern part of the central business district, it is now a fresh, buzzing area bursting with design shops, galleries and interesting places to eat, as well as a museum and creative factory space. In the area called Main Change I enjoyed sifting through the individually designed t-shirts in Love Jozi, and drinking in the unique range of merchandise in 1886 boutique. Loin Cloth and Ashes was my next stop, an airy boutique filled with vibrant structured dresses, many with African prints. Next door was Serai Interiors, showcasing African-made furnishings and ceramics. I ambled around the David Krut gallery in the main part of the Maboneng Development, which is called Arts on Main. It is both a gallery and a print studio featuring a colourful range of fine art works by William Kentridge, Senzo Shabangu as well as others. I paused for a bite to eat at one of the restaurants to spring up in the new precinct, called Pata Pata, a funky eaterie which is big on its African meat including Zebra and Impala. Sitting out in the sunshine on the terrace and watching the passers by, which included suited businessmen and trendy youngsters, I felt I could have been in the cool part of town in any European city. It was a poignant realisation of the power of design and a dream.