Plastic Power

Chambers of Transition

– Olufolajimi Akinboboye

The politics of power cuts across many fields in its quest to achieve its objectives. Among these fields, architecture plays a pivotal role, due to its physical presence and infrastructure to hold basic operational functions. The physical form lends a degree of permanence that can be integrated in the public imagination and subsequently live in history – affording architecture the right and responsibility to be the representative and the bearer of the ideologies of its shepherds.

In transitional democracies, such as South Africa, cities filled with a series of outlived ideologies, political volatility and resulting architectures, certain sites have been pivotal in acting as hosts of these different political transitions. Constitution Hill in Johannesburg may be argued to be a good example of this, whereby it served four political masters, the British (as a fort – 1899), Dutch (prison – 1893), Nationalist Government (political prison – 1948) and Democratic South Africa (Constitutional Court – 1994). 

As evidenced in the Constitutional Court, in some cases, the architectural elements have transcended various political epochs – deliberately or accidentally. As such, these structures have served many masters through reconfiguration, reinterpretation or ambiguity. We are able to discern architectures that have political resilience to survive unscathed physically and those that are vulnerable and prone to erasure and archives. What remains and what is erased may be shown to be less attributed to random events, but rather based on a series of value judgements around architectural composition, siting, materiality, functionality and symbolic value. 

Using Constitution Hill as a basis, this research seeks to identify the logics, patterns and roles of architectural elements in holding or disassembling transitional power. Through a series of forensic drawings, mappings and cataloguing, the practices of permanence and erasure through architecture can be revealed. In so doing, the project seeks to build an inventory of tactics, forms, materials, programs and narratives that can produce an architecture that is deliberately contemplated for power and the transition thereof. 

Using Constitution Hill as a basis, this research seeks to identify the logics, patterns and roles of architectural elements in holding or disassembling transitional power. Through a series of forensic drawings, mappings and cataloguing, the practices of permanence and erasure through architecture can be revealed. In so doing, the project seeks to build an inventory of tactics, forms, materials, programs and narratives that can produce an architecture that is deliberately contemplated for power and the transition thereof. 

The intention of building an understanding is to ensure that adjustments are not violent, short-sighted and detrimental to the purpose of political power – to serve its subjects and meet political mandates. As such, the work aims to identify an architecture that is deeply representative of its immediate custodians, yet able to hold valuable echoes of previous power, while remaining dynamic in its make-up to allow and demonstrate anticipation for transformation and power yet to come.

The design intervention proposes a series of spatial maneuvers and tactics employed and deployed on a large consolidate urban political armature. It would specifically accommodate the three tiers of government and their immediate support functions. The project will be located on Rissik Street, Johannesburg due to its long-lasting history of hosting protests – It will treat this street as a broad site in consolidating both power and dissent. In so doing, it will test the capacity of architecture to i) consider previous and future iterations, ii) be a repository of political shifts while firmly holding authorities’ symbolic power – temporarily. The project aims to demonstrate the possibilities of architecture to facilitate more complex power transitions of politics in flux.

Someother Magazine

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