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A collaborative workshop hosted by Dr Stephan de Beer. Dr de Beer is a theologian and activist with a special interest in the relationship between the built environment and marginalised society. His workshop is centred around helping various stakeholders and participants ranging from social workers, policemen, pastors and theology students to visualise and imagine scenarios which could change existing spaces. Dr de Beer then invited architects to share their skills of communication, mapping, problem-solving and translating ideas into tangible solutions. 


Stephan invited me, and two other colleagues, Johan Swart a lecturer in architecture and Maria Cronje, ex-architect, now writer and activist to develop a workshop which initiated the conversation and imagined spatial solutions and interventions. 




Maria hosted an embodiment exercise at a vacant site. The site is an old tunnel underneath the train bridge adjacent to the University of Pretoria. This site is on the periphery of a residential area but has become dangerous and neglected over the years. It has been used as shelter by transient users or urban nomads, and sadly as a toilet too. A group of artists started ‘The Freedom Gallery” which sought to transform this tunnel into a safe, democratic, public space for all. Artists have since painted artworks on the walls of the tunnel and events are hosted there such as meditation, music performances to bring awareness to the site and the vulnerable people who seek shelter there. 

The embodiment exercise started at a nearby park where I presented various spatial devices which have an effect on our experience of a space. These included tangible and intangible qualities, objects, etc. which including the following: 


  • safety and vulnerability 

  • barriers: real and imagined

  • cleanliness and dirtiness

  • vegetation

  • building typologies

  • types of users

  • light

  • changes based on the time of day

  • activities on site

  • movement - pedestrian and vehicular

  • smells


After introducing the team to these items, we took a walk through the beautiful Magnolia Dell Park in Muckleneuk, Pretoria. As beautiful as this park is, it an incredibly dangerous area. In the two weeks around the time of our workshop, four homeless men were murdered in and around the area. This is where our journey started. We moved through the park and across the road to the spruit, a small stream where homeless people bathe and rest. A place of solace despite being exposed and at risk. We led the team to the large concrete bridge of the train. With a busy road to your right and an ominous concrete mass to your left, you are left feeling small and vulnerable.


We arrived at the tunnel, The Freedom Gallery. We gave the team an opportunity to walk around the site, admire the art on the walls as well some political commentary, see the remnants of past occupants. We then all found a place to sit and Maria led us through a guided meditation as part of the embodiment exercise. This functioned as an introduction to the site, personifying it so that we may experience it as a person, relating characteristics to the site and understanding that it has a history. The team were then encouraged to write a story or poem about the site.


Once at the seminar room I introduced the idea of mapping their experience. This entailed using aerial photographs on which they created markings to signify tangible and intangible experiences they had while walking that route. They were encouraged to use what they had written to guide this process. 


The goal of this exercise was to have a better connection with your mind and body’s response to certain stimuli and how this determines your experience and relationship with a site. The next stage was directed by Johan Swart. In response to the mapping exercise, the teams were asked to make suggestions of interventions that could be hosted at this site. These ranged from the pragmatic to the fun. Some of the suggestions were:

  • public ablutions

  • lighting

  • art installation

  • a stage for music performances

  • a pancake shop

  • street furniture

  • vendor stalls

  • educational spaces

  • gardens (aesthetic and edible)


The team were asked to imagine how one could make this specific site a safe and democratic space for all. Groups of three teamed up, and using cardboard and paper they built various scenarios guided by the previous exercises and the question “What would be necessary to create a place of free exchange which people can take ownership and appropriate the site?”.


The concluding question we posed to the team was: 

“How has this exercise informed your thinking about your own neighbourhood and vulnerable spaces? How can we facilitate and encourage people to actively shape their neighbourhoods and communities, without the risk of gentrification?”


Concluding remarks: 


The goal was to initiate a conversation and experiment which explored the relationship between space, objects, events and our own bodies, and subsequently, guided by this process, how would one intervene in a vulnerable space which serves vulnerable people to create a resilient and adaptable public place of exchange through the use of incremental projects?

The journey I took to get to this workshop was an enriching experience too. It started by designing a layout and illustrating Dr de Beer’s phd - Motherbird, which looked at his life growing up in Sunnyside, Pretoria and the transformation that occurred before and after 1994, and how urban environments play a role in making homeless more vulnerable. This then led to me designing the layout for a publication celebrating the 25th anniversary of the organisation The Tshwane Leadership Foundation. I was invited to bring the story of this amazing organisation to life. 


What if you simply respected how your body feels in a moment?


What is key in this approach is a collaborative, participatory effort. It is necessary for us as professionals to include the necessary stakeholders and community members in the research and development of the project.

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