Kimeshni Manikam

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Turning Narratives Around: Re-imagining Materiality in the Design of Public Space in Athlone, Cape Town

Abstract

Materials communicate directly with those who experience them on a site. They convey messages through the medium of the material whether it be figurative or symbolic (Weilacher, Herrington 2017:112). The symbolic materiality of building materials used in the construction of homes in Athlone, Cape Town has deep significance due to the legacy of Apartheid policy. The suburb of Athlone, Cape Town was historically designated as a “coloured” area under the Population Registration Act (1950), and it remains an area inhabited by majority Coloureds. Following the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the City of Cape Town established the Assisted Housing Scheme which began the building of wood-and-iron buildings that are characteristic of the area, and which have its ties to the working class, poorer inhabitants (Dumbrell 1998:4). This choice of material is deeply significant to the social status of those in the area and it extends into the public spaces. The concrete grounds of the playgrounds and the lack of shade and vegetation depicts the historically neglected nature of the area. This thesis explores the significance of this experienced materiality by the residents of Athlone which is used as a design informant in creating public spaces in Athlone which reflect the needs and desires of the community. Investigating the symbolic significance of the use of corrugated iron and wood as building materials in the public spaces of Athlone is integral to designing spaces which are sensitive to the socio-historical narrative of Athlone. This thesis refocuses this narrative away from the conceived notion that wood-and-iron buildings and the ephemeral qualities of corrugated iron are lower class and understood as being associated with the “poor”. Rather, this thesis celebrates the history of the materiality of Athlone and design public space in a way that pays homage to the site’s inception.