Corner Fox and people-centric design – A perspective by Gregory Katz
Upon the intersecting roads of Commissioner and Fox Street, proudly taking up the space of a whole block in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct, with its shweshwe-inspired facebrick façade, stands a build of cultural vibrancy and strength -Corner Fox.
Designed by Gregory Katz, who in his former years interned with ‘starchitects’ such as, Berlin’s Zvi Hecker and Daniel Libeskind, in Los Angeles, during his undergraduate studies. Having obtained his Masters in Architecture at Columbia University in New York, Gregory has a perspective moulded by observation and immersion in the urban environment he is met with, and truly appreciates the unique opportunities South African architects have. Now a lecturer himself at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, Gregory has spent the past year unpacking ornament and detail with his own students. “We’re revisiting ideas around ornaments in the local context, and pulling them away from the modernist conversation to find out what’s relevant here and now.”
SCAPE gains insight into Gregory’s involvement on Corner Fox, as an example of inner-city urban architecture melded into a residential setting.
Of the many endemic consequences of the Apartheid era, the spatial planning imperatives, the strict separation of urban functions, are part of a legacy of pervasive hardship for our disenfranchised citizens. During Apartheid, people worked together in the CBD and lived apart on the periphery, separated by vast distances. Since the late 90’s there has been a radical reversal of this framework with opportunities opening to live closer to the centre, nearer to affordable transport and to work opportunities. The inner-city has evolved into a vibrant, mixed-use community, attracting middle to low-income families as well as young professionals, students and migrants from across the continent.
Spurred by a less rigorous application of the zoning laws, (bizarrely the city planners have recently reversed the allowance for industrial or commercial zoned properties to be used for residential purposes), hundreds of existing multi-story office buildings in the CBD were successfully converted into residential blocks. Converting an office building to an apartment building, a practice known as “adaptive reuse”, poses several challenges; facades often do not meet residential fire-codes, natural light and air-flow are often an issue with typical deep office block floor plates, centralised plumbing does not fit the distributed residential model, elevators are used more intensively than originally intended etc.
New builds in the inner-city are a rare opportunity to craft from scratch an ideal lifestyle environment in complex conditions; Gregory Katz Architects jumped at the chance to design Corner Fox, a greenfield apartment building of over 300 apartments on a full city block, on the city’s eastern edge.
Joburg CBD is a melting pot where people from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds have made their home. “The challenge was to make an environment that fosters a harmonious community in dense urban conditions” says architect Gregory Katz. Joburg city blocks are typically crowded by several tall buildings with no open spaces apart from the occasional windswept corporate plaza. Corner Fox has a donut configuration the building hugs the site perimeter with lots of small shops facing the street at ground level to create an “active edge”. In the centre a generously proportioned courtyard, a sanctuary from the bustling city, is carved out. Affordable housing projects have zero fat, costs need to be carefully managed to deliver a product that is lettable at the right price. Lean contexts such as these often drive innovation. “The standard approach is to provide individual private balconies for each apartment… at Corner Fox we motivated for a trade-off – instead of the private balconies on the exterior originally budgeted for, those areas were allocated to the circulation passages that wrap the internal courtyard”, says Gregory. These internal undulating “public balconies” widen the passages from the regulation 1.5m to as much as 4.5m in parts. Not only are these areas spatially generous, but they also programmed with useful services for the occupants such as laundry troughs, wash-lines and seating. According to Gregory, “one of the main challenges for housing in the inner city is how one fosters community amongst residents that come from vastly different places and backgrounds.” By creating meaningful and useful reasons to spend time in these pause areas, the design actively encourages community building. The idea of community-building is taken further in the courtyard colour-scheme where to give each floor a unique identity, the passageways on every floor are painted in a different colour (all standard roof paint colours so they’re easily matched in future). The roof is another social condenser space – made of concrete with a Penetron additive (a chemical waterproofing agent mixed into the wet concrete), the roof has no sensitive waterproofing covering and is 100% trafficable. “Kids ride bikes and skateboards up there, there are braai facilities and stormwater storage tanks; we never anticipated quite how much people would use these spaces” says Gregory.
The building exterior is no less considered. The building stands out even in the advertising-heavy environs of the city. The facades have graphic pattern inspired by the vibrant “Shwe-shwe” textiles that are the signature fashion on the streets of the CBD. The various shades of pink lend the facades a shimmering quality. Gregory maintains that “smooth plaster is favourable for walls that you can touch, and it looks good for the post-build photoshoot but tends to crack in our climate and requires lots of maintenance”. For the exterior, the architects proposed painting directly onto the clay stock-brick, shifting the cost centre for plastering to pay for high-quality paint, portions of facebrick and additional labour charges to create a giant repeated pattern. By turning the bricks 90 degrees the bricks “pixelate” and allow for a fine-grained diamond pattern to emerge. “It’s a real testament to the high degree of skills possessed by our masons that we were able to execute a pattern of this size and complexity” notes Gregory. The fusion of patterns hints at a modern African aesthetic, opening-up a sense of possibility for the future of inner-city life.
Gregory Katz Architecture
Images: Dave Southwood Photography