Thomas Chapman is the founder and principal at Local Studio Architecture & Urban Design, and a panellist for this year’s Africa Architecture Awards. He holds Masters degrees in both architecture and urban design and spent time working as a researcher in the fields of oral history and civic engagement before going into professional practice.
With a particular interest in spatial design in the public realm and in the design of processes, Chapman says, “We have been involved in public space upgrades for the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) for the last three years, which has been a very good foundation in terms of understanding political processes around the making of public space.
“Since the local government elections last year, we have seen a significant difference in how public space is conceived, funded and implemented in Johannesburg. It’s fascinating, because it feels as though the global political climate, which seems to be heading towards the privatisation of cities, is making its way to South Africa. It’s now about how to make good deals to ensure that the City gets what it wants through open relationships with private business.
“For instance, a new unit in the Department of Economic Development is specifically focussed on how the City can be more strategic in funding new urban upgrade projects and creating economic development zones around these initiatives – both in terms of attracting ratepayers and investment. So work around public space upgrades now centres on how to collaborate with developers in the execution of a project, and the management of ongoing costs.”
In partnership with IYER Urban Design Studio, Local Studio has just finished the Westbury Pedestrian Bridge and Park, a major public space project linked to a BRT station. Chapman observes that, while the cost was more than R20 million, no focussed strategizing took place in terms of a return on investment and possible densification and commercial opportunities around the space. This has changed considerably in the commissioning of new work.
“As a practice, we are very entrepreneurial. We have already made the transition to the new model where the City is very open to engagement with the private sector; and a lot our work this year will focus on public space interventions for private clients. We are adaptable, but our fundamental values don’t change. We have always been more comfortable doing work with the bottom 75% of the economy; and we have strong opinions about what public space should and can be, and its relationship with architecture.”
Chapman explains that great communal spaces inevitably attract more and better tenants, and that Local Studio fits into that realm where public space makes economic sense. The practice is also well known for attracting transformative projects that have significant social impact such as schools, healthcare and housing initiatives. Current projects include a school in Soweto, and a trauma counselling facility in Hillbrow which stands adjacent to the Outreach Foundation Community Centre, winning project of the inaugural Social Gain Award 2015.
However, as a young practice, Local Studio has also experienced its share of setbacks. Following the success of the first African School for Excellence in Tsakane, Ekurhuleni, venture capital funding was sourced for the development and operations of ten more schools over the coming 2-3 years. The approach was an easy to roll out hermit-crab toolkit for micro-schools suitable to dense urban environments, using existing industrial or commercial spaces. A week before completion of the first of these, funding for the planned schools was pulled to the extent that the school did not open and the space is now being used as an office.
“We do a lot of work on risk, and put ourselves out there by leveraging relationships with our professional networks and the media to make projects happen. The danger is that, when projects fall through, it can be damaging for our reputation. So the risks need to be calculated and approached with caution.
“The reward for being an architect in this city is being able to test things, and to make projects happen in quite a free environment. For example, we are busy with the renovation of Braamfontein Gate (the old Total House tower on Smit Street), and we have spent a lot of time and sweat equity on trying to get the City to upgrade the surrounding spaces, to create a safe, beautiful, comfortable walk to the Gautrain.
“Part of the deal-making process was to convince the developer of the building to open the ground floor, which is currently fenced, into a public space. The vision is to open the 5,000sqm space around this and two adjacent tower buildings into a public reception area and park with a promenade, playground, swimming pool and soccer court.
“It’s taken a year, but at last the project is being implemented.”
So how does a young and emerging practice guarantee its survival? “Being an architect and an entrepreneur is not the same thing. The character of an entrepreneur is comfortable with risk, able to live lean, and keep eye on cash flow. The only place where the two intersect is in believing in the product you are selling. Building a practice incorporates the skills set of an entrepreneur and running a business, together with loving architecture enough to be able to passionately sell it to the client – because a client can sense whether or not you are excited about a project.
“For me, the excitement of architecture lies in the intersection of form and public space. This can happen in different ways and for me it started with public art projects, helping artists to make things happen. If you know what you want to do, keep hunting for it and you’ll be able to satisfy the urge in a variety of different ways.”
Chapman believes that, in the current local and global context, people need to develop more of an entrepreneurial mindset. “As an architect, if you have any inclination towards entrepreneurship, you should absolutely chase it. More than 50% of what I do involves managing cash flow, marketing and finding new clients. It’s about designing processes.
“The dilemma for me is that architecture is not a particularly good business in terms of sweat versus financial success – which is the hallmark of an entrepreneur. Our practice is now in the process of developing great intellectual property that is helping to make our clients better developers. I think that, as some point, property development is a route we will explore.”
This vision is becoming more tangible as the new Local Studio offices in Brixton near completion. Owned by Chapman and his partner David du Preez, the renovation of an old corner shop involved building a new steel structure within an existing shell. The building will house a coffee shop (opening in March) and two retail units with a public courtyard at ground level; the practice’s offices for 11 people on the first floor; and two residential units on the top floor. The sale of the property took two years to negotiate, and Chapman believes that this mixed use approach will generate enough buzz to activate the public courtyard space.
With an eye on the future, Chapman believes that the Africa Architecture Awards are an ideal platform for platforming emerging practices, and setting up professional networks for young and student architects. “If implemented correctly, this awards program has the potential to change the way we practice in Africa by awarding architectural innovation above project scale and budget, as can often be seen in traditional awards programs. The awards also have the power to engender a culture of popular architectural criticism, the likes of which has been largely absent from our continent since the modernist era.”