Architecture and the Media: the case of Warwick Junction

Warwick Junction aerial 2010: Andrew Griffin with kind permission from Asiye eTafuleni

For some time now, the relationship between the architectural profession and mainstream media seems to have been, at best, mutually disinterested and, at worst, strained. Each seems to regard the other with suspicion. The publication of architecture and urban planning is largely limited to industry-related publications, thus circulating knowledge, insights and criticism within the built environment professions and limiting the evolution of a larger public awareness and discourse.

A glance through any of South Africa’s local or national newspapers reveals considerable space allocated to business, sport and motoring, while any commentary around design and development is restricted to short-lived human interest news items, or superficially addressed under ‘lifestyle’ or ‘property’. Intelligent, interrogative pieces on relevant built environment matters are thin on the ground.

Warwick Junction is Durban’s major trade and transport hub. Around half a million users pass through Warwick daily and the area provides commercial opportunities for up to 8,000 traders, most of whom are women. Rich in history as well as religious and cultural diversity, the site has received varying degrees of infrastructural support over the last twenty years, and has been widely and inconsistently featured in the media over this time.

Creating the ‘Warwick’ Brand

Prior to 1994, Warwick’s informal trading activities were viewed by authorities and the public alike as undesirable, and the situation was ‘controlled’ by exclusion, limitation and policing. With the instigation of Durban’s Urban Regeneration Programme in 1995, the area became “the site of a collaborative planning process that within a few years had become widely recognised as a model of sensitive integration of street traders into urban plans” (Skinner, C: Challenging city imaginaries: Street traders’ struggles in Warwick Junction).

Throughout this process, the media provided a useful platform to swing public opinion. Richard Dobson from Asiye eTafuleni explains that the area was deliberately re-branded and re-imaged. “As part of this post-apartheid spatial development, the media was used as an agent in terms of creating a public awareness around Warwick, including the name ‘Warwick Junction’. Post-1994, people were curious and wanted to engage with things they hadn’t known in the past – human interest stories around informal trade, the significance of this work, and the heroic actions of some of the traders.”

Although the inclusive approach of the city towards its urban regeneration strategy was significantly different to the approaches of other South African cities, ‘architecture’ and ‘development’ still did not feature in the subject line. Stories focussing around civic issues, human interest and conflict took precedence, and the architectural and urban design approaches were lost among these other layers.

Nonetheless, local newspapers The Mercury and Daily News published some useful articles on what Warwick Junction could do for Durban’s growth, linked to the success of the International Convention Centre and other Inner City programmes. Jonathan Edkins, former Head of eThekwini’s City Architecture Department, recalls that a communications strategy was set up to publish articles on Warwick Junction through the media in order to build up public support. This included successful alliances, in the form of one-on-one engagements, with open minded journalists who published very positive pieces which helped to garner public awareness and support.

At this point, the establishment of the Inner City Thekwini Regeneration and Urban Management Programme (iTrump), in response to the urgent need to prioritise the regeneration of the inner city, meant that architecture began to be seen as a driver for positive intervention. This, together with the Durban Changes Forum (architects thinking and publishing about Durban), helped to raise media and public awareness around the work that was happening below the surface at Warwick.

Dennis Gilbert courtesy of Working in Warwick: Including Street Traders in Urban Plans

Protest sparks media interest

In February 2009, as the country ramped up to the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, the city announced plans to build a shopping mall in Warwick Junction – news that came as a shock to many.

The site for the proposed mall was the Early Morning Market, the hub of fresh produce trade. It was estimated that hundreds of people derived their livelihoods here, and that some of the traders were third- and even fourth-generation traders. In addition, the proposed development included a spatial reconfiguration of the public transport hub, resulting in commuters being redirected to formal shops and away from informal traders.

doung Anwar Jahangeer of the creative collective dala has been professionally and personally involved with Warwick since 2000 through his project City Walk. He says, “Warwick Junction is quickly becoming a useful platform for dissecting the post-apartheid South African city because the scale is appropriate to allow for an understanding of the macro. Our engagement has been very much at street level. While thinking about architecture, we have prioritised and personalised relationships with people, getting to know their names, ages, families – which is very important when trying to understand place making.

“By 2010, we already had a 9-year-old relationship with trader organisations and had started an awareness of how artistic practices can relate to daily struggles. At the time, people in the market had no idea that the mall was planned. They were informed not consulted, and their lack of exposure to the issue was shocking.”

Tasmi Quazi, also of Asiye eTafuleni, recalls that the city used its in-house media outlet to promote the proposed redevelopment, while civil society used the media to counter this approach, resulting in a balance of “man vs machine”. However, in profiling the agenda, the media, community agents, traders and the city alike chose to sensationalise the issues by focussing on popular hype that sells – riots, rubber bullets, the strong characters behind the controversy, and conflict with polarised positions. Although more cerebral built environment pieces were written, these were not the focus of mainstream media attention.

Clean up Campaign: Mercury 13 May 2010

Following legal pressure from the Warwick community, the municipality withdrew the lease on the land to the developer on 12 April 2011. However, in December 2013, the Sunday Tribune’s article “Shopping mall for Durban's Warwick Junction will be 'step backwards'” by Dobson revealed that a formal retail offering for the area was again under consideration. Then, on Monday 4 August 2014, at the 25th International Union of Architects World Congress at the Durban ICC, Edkins responded to the frustrated voices of traders taking part in a panel debate by commenting that the city had made a mistake when it “stopped listening” to its own people (The Warwick Avenue Mistake, The Mercury).

While the stalling of the mall development to date is viewed as a victory for public opinion, it will be interesting to see how this project, currently under redesign, eventually rolls out and, more importantly, how communications between stakeholders and the Warwick community are handled.

Quazi notes that, while the process of media and public engagement has succeeded in raising the perception of a higher degree of agency in Warwick Junction, it has also fragmented the community and its leadership around the implications of potential development. “Today, depending on which trader is quoted, the viewpoint changes. So the media is accurate in reflecting the state of elusiveness and confusion that currently exists.”

Over recent months, mainstream media has been quiet on the subject and tends to feature only objections published as letters, or human interest stories around dysfunctional buildings, evictions and poor living conditions. However, even to a casual observer in the area, the uncertainty around the mall is evident in stalls in the vicinity that are now standing empty.

Media as influencer

While the standoff around the mall proposal has not yet resulted in significant spatial transformation for the area, the process has helped to change public perception of the precinct, particularly with regards to the stigma of crime and grime. This is also thanks to initiatives like the Markets of Warwick community tourism programme, which received a Mayor’s Award for Excellence in December 2012. Recently, Warwick Junction was profiled as one of the top ‘things to do’ in Durban; and almost all the private high schools in the city have participated in these tours where school children experience an environment of architecture that highlights social transformation – with a considerable knock-on effect of coverage through social media.

Dobson observes that media coverage has also been effective in broadening the Warwick agenda. Trader activists have become practised in accessing the media, and now often take complaints highlighting communities’ contestation of issues (such as dysfunctional toilets and police harassment) to local journalists, resulting in coverage on radio and in the press. This, he says, is a victory for architecture with a little ‘a’ as a driver for positive change, rather than as an iconic built intervention with a big ‘A’.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a lack of understanding within the media of the impact of design in the built environment on people’s lives. Edkins says, “The media could be a lot more influential but coverage needs to be driven from the media without being derailed by political agendas. For example, journalists do not seem to be paying attention to the mall development. While formal processes are being observed, the picture is being painted with very broad brush strokes. And the architectural profession is not involved in the discussion, so informed opinion is being held back until it is too late. There needs to be a far more proactive and investigative approach by the media.”

Engaging the media

The reality, at least in South Africa, is that most journalists are not sufficiently educated or experienced in communicating the complexities of built environment issues, and often only skim the surface and portray those aspects of a story that are likely to sell.

Dobson agrees. “The subject matter is often trivialised around sensationalism and human interest, and there is a huge lack of skill in addressing architectural and developmental issues. The reality is that journalists struggle to contextualise South African society. Warwick Junction has been successful in overcoming this obstacle to a certain extent in that its contribution to architecture is to create an integrated environment.”

Quazi adds that this is also a reflection of social blindness in respect of the transformative role that architecture can play. “As a society, we are behind in our thinking about urban development, architecture and spatial transformation, and this is reflected by the quality of our journalism.”

Drawing from the previous experience of the municipality in the 1990s, a viable solution could be one-on-one engagement with skilled, experienced journalists who are able to contextualise what architects say within the bigger social, economic and political ambit. This individual understanding of the positive benefits of involving the profession, while building relationships based on mutual trust, could then be coupled with stories that engage directly with people on the ground.

“People should take pride in their daily struggle because it validates their practice,” says Jahangeer. “When articles are personalized, the ‘human' in the reader inevitably empathizes with the stories and struggles of others.”

This approach might be particularly useful in communicating the latest development in the Warwick saga and in engaging proactively with the necessary public participation processes – namely, the development of an Integrated Inner-City Local Area Plan & Regeneration Implementation Plan for the Inner City, including Warwick Junction as a priority precinct, for which a multi-disciplinary consortium has been appointed for a 2-year period in response to a tender issued by eThekwini Municipality earlier this year.

Rethinking the message

In order for a broader, more public analytical and critical discourse to emerge around relevant built environment issues, the media and the profession will need to begin exploring a relationship that is deeper than superficial reporting, marketing and propaganda. The critique of what constitutes good design needs to be related to the whole, to the social context, and to people’s experiences.

Here, the onus is largely on the profession, which Jahangeer believes has been reluctant to expose itself to other disciplines. “The South African profession is emerging out of a time of crisis that involved providing solutions in the built environment. We have found comfort in the built form as the solution to the problem. But architecture for me is psychological, not just spatial and certainly not just about the built form. The struggle of evolving discourse is because the fear of relinquishing our power as the architectural profession makes us fortify ourselves in practice.

“The way forward requires us to look outside our discipline and render ourselves vulnerable. We need to throw the net out without expectation of we want to come back to us. When different practices dialogue with each other, there is more potential for us to learn and to ‘conscientise’ people to develop new thinking and new forms of knowledge.”

Dennis Gilbert courtesy of Working in Warwick: Including Street Traders in Urban Plans

Without this interaction, the media will remain a distant and passive tool rather than a platform for the profession to develop dialogue with other practices. In addition, the media, which responds to public appetite, does not seem to have much enthusiasm for harder-hitting, more interrogative material, the result of which is uncritical, undeveloped journalism.

“Architects are taught about process, lateral thinking and problem solving. But many people don’t see the process and its inherent agonies, only the end product,” says Dobson. “So the media should be given a better understanding of process, of how works are commissioned and implemented, the embedded struggles to find land and money, and that community interaction is not always popular with developers. By going through these processes, the end result will be different because different priorities are highlighted.”

Quazi observes that the notion of public space and intersecting space is a very recent one. “The profession tends to locate itself only within itself, and generally prefers to be profiled in select journals. This does not do justice to the ethos of sustainability with which many practices are involved.

“As architects, we need to be more critical about the mainstream perception of architecture. We need to locate architecture within the social agenda by actively provoking the media to feature innovative solutions in disadvantaged areas, to celebrate the idea of ‘designing with the other 90%’. We need to provoke consciousness and critique the current approach head-on and in subversive ways by looking at people and the environment through a transformative lens, and profiling this work as an emerging process.”

Collaboration, education and provocation

Electronic media channels such as social media and film have undoubtedly opened up accessible communication streams between the profession and the public, but the sheer volume of information available electronically means that public interest is still largely guided by topics featured in the mainstream media.

Whether through collaboration, education or provocation, a more energetic and responsible engagement is needed between the profession and the media in order to meaningfully interrogate current agendas, practices and perceptions; and to develop an educated and empowered client base and citizenry who know their rights.

It is my belief that, through this engagement, a deeper mutual understanding of each discipline will emerge, together with a legacy of accurate commentary and insightful debate to inspire current and future thinking and practice.

WiW Book Review: The Mercury 19 August 2010