Painting the town Pink
Our views on bewareofColour’s activism in the Joburg CBD
We were recently alerted to a letter addressed to us, by Herbert Prins of the Egoli Heritage Foundation (and with thanks to the Heritage Portal for bringing it to our attention), in response to a draft post of ours, published on our website in error. The post dealt with bewareofcolour’s defacing of certain (heritage-protected) downtown Joburg buildings with pink paint, and tried to make sense of our own conflicting thoughts on bewareofcolour’s actions, specifically with that part of our gut reaction which approved of what has happened.
The draft post has been taken down and is herewith replaced by what follows below – a version of the post that still contains the gist of our argument presented in the draft, but which has been modified both by our editorial hand and our reflections on the topic since – reflections which were in part inspired by Prins’ engagement with us, for which we are grateful.
While we would thus like this post to reflect our views on bewareofclolour, we believe that one aspect of Prins’ letter calls for a direct response. Prins takes issue with our ostensible support of bewareofcolour in our guise as legal academics, pointing out that we, seemingly paradoxically (and, Prins seems to imply, unethically), appear in our post to be in support of illegal and lawless activity.
Indeed, we are fascinated by the limits of the law as much as by its contents, by the response of people and their physical environments to it, both in their everyday adherence to it and in their occasional opposition to or disregard of its tenets. The law, like the built environment, is forever present in the city and fulfils an important function. While, like Prins, we respect this function and generally advocate that the law be observed, we study not only the act of observing the law, but also of breaking it, and we contemplate the positive and negative consequences of both of these for the city.
Moreover, we are often critical of the law and of the boundaries that it draws, especially where (as is, in our view, often the case with many of the bylaws which Prins’ letter would like to see more strictly enforced) these are boundaries of exclusivity and exclusion, boundaries which, for reasons we have elaborated elsewhere, we believe to be morally and constitutionally suspect.
As legal academics, we view it as our duty to interrogate and question these boundaries, even where that involves expressing our personal views on their transgression. In this interrogation, we often draw upon theory expositing the right to the city, a concept which extends far beyond the law and which views everyday actions (sometimes lawful, sometimes not) as the true building blocks of the city.
Anyway – our post follows below:
By now, many of you would have been made aware of the bewareofcolour activism taking place through the Johannesburg inner city. Briefly, artists (who originally remained anonymous) decided to paint various buildings pink as a way of highlighting the state of neglected buildings in the Johannesburg inner-city. Many of these buildings were heritage protected, and often evoked a level of pride from a certain sector of Joburgers. By painting the buildings pink, so much so that the buildings would be “crying, bleeding, leaking colour,” the intention, it seems, is (a) to expose the fact that the buildings are abandoned, (b) to highlight that this is particularly problematic in light of a lack of affordable housing in the inner-city, and (c) to instigate a broader debate about the role of buildings within cities. You may want to also look at this excellent post written about the project by Urban Joburg’s interns, which includes a great map and some photography of the project.
As a creative initiative, we think that beyondthecolour is an excellent idea, not least for its ability to instigate a broader debate about Joburg’s shape and form, and the role that architectural heritage plays in this. This is incredibly important to do, because so often we unquestioningly accept the city’s status quo. We don’t question, for example, why Urban Ocean (which apparently owns some of the buildings painted pink, including Shakespeare House) should be allowed to simply hold on to buildings in the hope, it seems, of eventually capitalising on a positive inner-city property market.
Some of you may remember Urban Ocean from a few years ago – we ourselves went to the very glitzy launch in 2005 of The Franklyn, an upmarket apartment development in the inner city. Punting a regeneration narrative, the development brought about much excitement at the time of inculcating a vibrant, cosmopolitan inner city, albeit within a certain income group – similar, really, to what Maboneng has achieved. The unfortunate thing for Urban Ocean, it seems, were that they were somewhat too early in the game, and developments like Shakespeare House seemingly failed to get off the ground.
The result is that these buildings remain empty and abandoned. It would appear from Urban Ocean’s website that Shakespeare House remains in their property portfolio, as do various other heritage buildings, and one can perhaps have the opinion that such developers are waiting to take advantage of a more favourable property market in the inner city – aided in part by various exclusionary initiatives, such as Operation Clean Sweep.
The interesting aspect of this debate are the reactions of those whose mission it is to preserve the architectural heritage of the city. It would seem that both bewareofcolour and the heritage circle have an appreciation of the buildings, and both groups seem to take some form of communal ownership over the building. The difference seems to be the act of ‘defacing’ the building by pouring hot pink over its exteriors: bewareofcolour seems to see this as an exercise in caressing the building, while the heritage types seem to throw their hands up thinking, ‘oh no! Our beloved buildings are now even more damaged than what they were!’
Our point of view tends to favour that of bewareofcolour. However, perhaps because of our lack of architectural training, we don’t place so much value on the building itself. For us, the city and its spaces are more important than the particular buildings that populate it. This is especially so where (as in this case) buildings become artefacts of exclusion: closed off to a city in dire need of affordable accommodation; empty in the hope of one day attracting a high price tag; serving the interests of no one but its owner. Its usage value, in other words, is completely usurped by its exchange value , which is in turn largely premised on the fact of its architectural heritage.
We may be wrong on this, of course. We’ve spoken to quite a few people about the project, including architects who have a special interest in heritage. They note that architectural heritage is critical to a city’s history because it tells a story of a city, and inculcates a level of respect for its buildings and its spaces. But architecture, like great art, is also a reflection of incredible skill, in which there is much thought placed in how a particular building allows us to remake ourselves in the city. As Prins notes, heritage buildings are valued not because they are old, but because they symbolise a history of the city – a history that is less abstract and more tangible as a result. Thus, ‘defacing’ a building like bewareofcolour has done, not only flies in the face of this effort, but may also itself be seen as a selfish act – as selfish, perhaps, as the property owner keeping the building abandoned
For us, though, the value of bewareofcolour’s activism impacts more than architectural heritage, it speaks to the right to the city. By appropriating the building, there is an appropriation of city space – the building no longer only belongs to its ‘owner’, or to bewareofcolour, but rather to a broader city population. By painting the building hot pink, there is a positive appropriation of the city: pink is a warm and comfortable colour, a colour that makes a statement of peaceful protest. In fact, by painting the building any colour, the building begins to engage with the street, creating an esoteric synergy between its previously haggard exterior and the pedestrian previously rushing past its abandoned space. There is also, perhaps, a certain democratisation of the building: it is no longer a reflection of an apartheid or colonial past, but one in which people express themselves, an expression which, in turn, causes people to argue over the making of the city.
That said, we think bewareofcolour could have gone about the project in a cleverer manner. Much of the paint was splashed over sandstone, which according to one of our architecture friends, is very sensitive to paint. As such, although the paint used by bewareofcolour was allegedly water-soluble, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of the paint.
Be that as it may, we don’t think the actions of bewareofcolour should be dismissed as idealistic or immature because, in doing so, we do not really believe there is a substantive engagement with the reasons behind the protest. Instead, there is perhaps a somewhat blinkered view of the role of architectural heritage in the city. This isn’t to say that architectural heritage is not important, but there has to be a stronger articulation of WHY it is so important, particularly within the context of a contemporary Johannesburg (for a good example of this, see Guy Trangos’ piece on Radoma Court).
The remaking of Joburg is a multi-layered struggle, played out not only through construction and law enforcement but also through numerous dialogues. In these dialogues, the voices of heritage preservationists are incredibly valuable and important. But these voices, willingly or not, must compete with others, who speak not only in (written or spoken) words, but also, sometimes, in colour.
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