Place making and public art


The commuter at Baragwanath Taxi Rank by artist Clive van den BerghThe commuter at Baragwanath Taxi Rank by artist Clive van den Bergh

PUBLIC art was a key place-making strategy for creating identity, said the Johannesburg Development Agency's Sharon Lewis.

Lewis, the agency's executive manager for planning and strategy, was speaking at a one-day place-making seminar organised by the JDA and Urban Genesis Management this week, standing in for the acting chief executive, Thanduxolo Mendrew.

"As a place driver, [the] JDA is responsible for enhancing the competitiveness of place primarily by facilitating and often by undertaking or managing investment in physical infrastructure, real estate and the urban realm," she said.

"Place making is turning a neighbourhood, town or city from a place you can't get through to one you never want to leave," said Cynthia Nikitin from Project for Public Spaces, the guest speaker at the seminar.

The JDA is 10 years old this year; over the past decade it has been engaged in focused regeneration of the inner city and certain township nodes. Initially it worked mostly in the inner city, targeting areas like Newtown, Braamfontein, Ellis Park, the Fashion District, Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, and the CBD. But focus has shifted to the rejuvenation of township nodes like Kliptown and Vilakazi Street in Soweto, and Stretford Station in Orange Farm.

It has revamped numerous public spaces, from Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown and alleyways in Hillbrow, through to Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown and Bara Taxi Rank in Soweto.

"Neglecting public places is not an option," she emphasised. The big spin-off from the investments that the JDA undertakes is that they result in greater confidence, and therefore investment, by the private sector.

The JDA has overseen the installation of 156 public artworks.

Creating identity

Lewis pointed to public art that had created identity in the Joburg CBD. The sandblasted glass artwork on the Rea Vaya stations had defined them with a distinctive, recognisable stamp.

Public artwork adds to BraamfontienPublic artwork in Braamfontien

Certain areas in the inner city – Braamfontein, Newtown and the Fashion District had logos, bollards, and mosaic pavements that made them instantly recognisable as distinct precincts.

The Fire Walker, a towering steel artwork by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx, welcomed Joburgers into the city centre and defined the workaholic city in the form of a woman who plied her trade with a burning brazier on her head.

Optic Field, an artwork by Maja Marx depicting a soccer field in the form of red poles placed on an island in Joe Slovo Drive, hinted at the city as a soccer mecca, with its new and refurbished stadiums.

Function and use

In addition, Lewis said that the "scale of place-based developments must be appropriate, and infrastructure must respond to the function and use of the space".

An example was Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, with its soaring columns, symbolic voter crosses and African towers, of large proportions to fit the large space, and in appropriate recognition of the origins of the Freedom Charter.

The large double sculpture of the late Walter and Albertina Sisulu in Diagonal Street perfectly fitted the triangular square, a busy thoroughfare for Joburgers, overseen by two the city's most caring citizens.

Robust and low maintenance

A third lesson from the past 10 years of place making, Lewis said, was that "all public infrastructure must be robust and low-maintenance. And urban management partnerships are important."

The Diagonal Street market was a good example of robust infrastructure – two years later it was still enduring the daily hustle and bustle of traders and their customers. The Bus Rapid Transit infrastructure, another project overseen by the JDA, was being constructed to last.

Public artworks were often created in concrete, bronze or steel to ensure their longevity.

Competitive advantage

And fourthly, "local context and identity should be treated as a competitive advantage for any place". The bronze figure of musician Kippie Moeketsi outside the old Kippies jazz club was an example of placing an artwork in precisely the right location to take full advantage of its context.

At Pigeon Square near Chinatown in the CBD, dozens of pigeons had found a home on a paved triangular island. Three oversized steel pigeons were placed on the square, and perfectly complemented the home of the live birds.

The Constitutional Court on Constitution Hill, the site of two notorious prisons, was the ideal context for the country's most respected court. It had been designed to blend with and enhance the existing infrastructure.

The artworks that dotted Vilakazi Street in Soweto, a street of much struggle history, reflected that significance in a concrete sign-language word, two metal bulls representing Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and metal protestors. These artworks couldn't be placed anywhere else – the place dictated their location.

"Good design matters," stressed Lewis. These artworks made the places where they were located, creating public spaces that communities could enjoy and where they could get involved in the care of those spaces.

Careful balance

Lewis emphasized that a careful balance had to be reached in making an intervention, but at the same time respecting the place and what it stood for. Close consultations with local communities had always taken place, and at times artists from those communities had produced the public art.

"We have had positive urban results, particularly in the inner city and Soweto," she concluded. "I like to think we're getting better at it."

The JDA spends 1 percent of all projects of over R10-million on public art. Its capital budget is around R500-million a year, while its operating budget is some R45-million a year. In the 2011/12 financial year, it will spend approximately R85-million on refurbishing and creating public places.

"The JDA will be exploring [private-public partnership] models for funding future projects that the public sector cannot afford to fund alone."