Many cities across the world are home to old, abandoned buildings that take up space without serving any purpose. Since these white elephants cannot always be done away with, we need to think outside the box to come up with new ways to convert these constructions from one thing into another to cement their rightful place within a dense urban landscape.
Dubbed ‘adaptive reuse’, this rising architecture approach offers a practical solution to breathe new life into cities by repurposing empty structures into functional builds. Turning silos into corporate offices, hospitals into museums, and commercial offices into student housing – the possibilities are endless. However, handling the contextual intricacies of these projects successfully requires considerable experience and expertise. Enter Local Studio, a Joburg-based architecture practice that is no stranger to reacting to the needs of our ever-changing South African cityscape. Expanding on the definition of adaptive reuse by drawing from their past projects, join the team at Local Studio as they take you through their wide-ranging portfolio featuring multi-family housing, public space, and social infrastructure.
Once considered a global city on par with London and Hong Kong, the city of Johannesburg is a monument to human achievement. During the Apartheid-era, downtown Johannesburg sprouted up like an anthill: an impressive landmark above ground signifying a much more impressive subterranean gold-mining empire. The city’s horizontal growth since the end of Apartheid has been driven by the private sector, and reflects the blind fear of our still mostly white-owned economy in a mostly black country. Archaic, anti-spatial zoning laws have perpetuated rather than regulated this growth, and the city’s massive highways now read like a block-chain of the shameless flight of capital – each gated estate further away, larger, and more self-contained than before.
The work of our firm, Local Studio, founded in 2012 by Thomas Chapman, can be seen to defy this trend, in that we have sought out the majority of our work in and around the historic city centre of Johannesburg. To date, our firm’s largest projects have been the adaptive reuse of existing structures, and we have worked across this spectrum from a classical department store built in 1903, to a mirrored 1970s office tower built for an oil company.
Adaptive reuse in multi-family housing schemes
Downtown Johannesburg has the most liberal zoning laws in the city region, exemplified by a zero parking ratio and building heights governed by a 59-degree rule. This zoning is ideal for reuse, particularly the conversion of commercial and industrial buildings to multi-family housing. In most cases, private-sector housing providers have sought to nimbly inject affordable rental housing into a myriad of structures, capitalising on new arrivals to the city with limited economic means. We have designed over 2000 such housing units, built in the downtown area. These projects mostly involved the use of new, lightweight construction technologies due to the structural limitations posed by existing buildings. The spatial planning in these projects has mostly involved smart densification through the design of compact residential units, while always striving to convince our clients to invest in better communal spaces for residents.
In 2018 we designed and completed the tallest office-to-residential conversion in Johannesburg and lobbied the City of Johannesburg to invest in a public promenade alongside it. Braamfontein Gate involved the creation of 400 affordable housing units in the burnt-out shell of a 30-storey office tower built in 1976 for the French oil company, Total. Developers will often pick these buildings up for very low prices and try to maximise efficiency. The affordability level of the housing market in South Africa is weighted at 70% with a household income of R5000/month, forcing developers to build schemes that are accessible to this market, deeming it a version of (entirely unsubsidised) affordable housing.
Projects like this mostly involve the creation of internal partitions to define apartments within deep floor plates which previously were open plan offices. The cheapest way to do this would be with cement-stock brick walls, and this has far more to do with the low cost of labour: migrant workers are paid less than R150 a day. Fortunately, the structural systems of most of these buildings cannot support heavy interior walling, forcing the introduction of innovative light-weight walling systems and an upskilling of workers in much friendlier working conditions. The interior walls are rendered polystyrene, and the most interesting part of the intervention was the adjustment of dark glass sun shades, which actually obstructed the view of the city when you were standing up, into balustrades by cutting the steel frames and moving them up 800 mm. The glass was found to be brittle and the project couldn’t afford to replace it to the same specification, so we opted for white corrugated iron instead, which makes the building stand out on the horizon. We also designed the conversion of the building’s massive banking halls on the ground floor into communal spaces for tenants. This makes the building a very popular place to live today and a massive departure from other affordable housing developments in the area.
Situation East is a conversion of a former garment workers’ factory into residential apartments in Maboneng. Like many industrial buildings in this part of the city, the building is characterised by deep spaces and flimsy structural elements, making traditional apartment typologies and construction methodologies impossible. The design therefore called for innovative ways to bring natural light and ventilation into the space, while maintaining the market feasibility of the project. The intervention also included the addition of a new fifth- and sixth-storey of the building, as well as a roof garden housing a sculpture by American artist, Sam Chermayeff.
Apart from the efficient restructuring of the internal space, details of which were largely governed by a spray-on concrete and polystyrene walling system, we placed a lot of emphasis on the exterior elements of the building. These included pre-cast concrete breeze blocks, where the façade was punctured to bring natural ventilation to passages, as well as various contrasting textures and colours for the new rooftop addition.
Adaptive reuse in public space
Since its inception ten years ago, our practice has also conceptualised several urban acupuncture projects for the City of Johannesburg. This work proved to be the most challenging and rewarding form of reuse of all, in that it mostly involved the transformation of vehicular roads and Apartheid-era buffer zones into pedestrianised public spaces.
Rissik Street Promenade
Along with Braamfontein Gate, we lobbied the city council to develop the space adjacent to the tower from what was previously a dump site into a pedestrian promenade. The Rissik Street Promenade is a 300 m promenade connecting the Gautrain rail station to the Johannesburg City Hall, via Braamfontein Gate. The promenade allows for safe and comfortable movement of pedestrians in what was previously a high-mugging zone. Generally, the city is extremely conservative when it comes to design specs for public spaces, mainly because they don’t want to maintain anything. We were able to deviate from their rule book significantly by proposing that the apartment building subsidises urban management. The building owners were able to employ gardeners and security guards by adding less than R180 per month extra onto their apartment rentals.
Conceptually, this project fits into a broader agenda in our office to promote the development of more pedestrian public space in the inner city. We are significantly below the UN Habitat recommended quota of 15 m2 public open space per capita, because in the city the majority of open spaces were built over, leaving only vehicular streets as opportunities to create more open space.
Adaptive reuse in social infrastructure
The new-built projects we have completed in the city seldom exist as stand-alone structures, more often than not filling in a void or growing parasitically from existing buildings. These projects have generally been small-scale interventions for social organisations providing education and healthcare to underprivileged city inhabitants. In many of these cases, their spatial requirements could not be satisfied within available built structures due to the need for larger collective spaces, such as school halls and dance studios.
The Outreach Foundation Community Centre
The Outreach Foundation Community Centre is one of the first new social infrastructure projects to be built in Hillbrow since the 1970s. The project is situated within the broader Hillbrow Lutheran Church/Friedenskirche precinct, a site given to the Lutheran Church by Paul Kruger at the turn of the century. The Friedenkirche was designed by one of Johannesburg’s early architects, Theopile Schaerer (artefacts.co.za). The actual building site is the staggered rooftop of an unfinished community hall, built as part of the German Consulate in the 1970s.
The building houses three primary functions: a computer centre on the ground floor, a dance studio on the first floor, and offices and meeting areas on the second floor. These functions are collected within an angular volume draped over the two levels of the site. The building also presents its primary function, which is the dance studio, to Twist Street through a 12-metre window.
The building is in and of itself a small piece of urban design, housing a vertical street in the form of an open staircase, which leads users from a central courtyard up to the public roof garden.
The choice of white corrugated steel and clear corrugated polycarbonate as cladding materials abstracts the building’s image and clearly establishes it as a new addition to this part of the city.
Fulham Heights is one of the first projects to demonstrate the principals and guidelines of the Johannesburg Corridors of Freedom policy. The policy looks to promote mixed-use development and residential densification in neighbourhoods adjacent to the recently completed BRT network. The building is a conversion of an old corner shop, which was a Chinese restaurant and subsequently rented by us as office space prior to its purchase for redevelopment. Today the building houses Breezeblock Cafe and LAPA (an art residency and communal, experimental space) on ground floor, our office/studio on the first floor, and two residential units on the top floor.
Construction took the form of a three-storey structural steel frame inserted within the walls of the original building. Light-frame steel panels clad on either side with translucent polycarbonate were used to infill the façade on the east and south elevations, with glazing on the north and a solid wall of fibre-cement on the west. The new structure contrasts with the original concrete façade and pavement colonnade, which were restored as part of the project.
The project, like many others completed by us, intends to be a beacon of hope and regeneration in the area and is designed to promote passive surveillance in an area fraught with petty street crime and housebreaking.