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  • Writer's pictureJulian Raxworthy

PROJECT REVIEW: Pixley House by Designworkshop:SA

Updated: May 12, 2019

I reviewed an urban renewal project, Pixley House, in Durban undertaken by Designworkshop:SA, published by The Architectural Review under the title "Durban Renewal" in 2017. The uncorrected proof is below:


South Africa is a country full of stereotypes: evil whites who made apartheid; humble and wise black liberators like Nelson Mandela; incompetent and corrupt governments but the model for Africa; abounding with wild animals that are the very definition of the term, but potentially too unsafe to visit. Of course, like any place in the world, it is all these things and none of them, and much more banal and everyday in between. People, like me, live here and like it.

The stereotype would have Johannesburg (or “Jozi”) at the crazy slash dangerous end, and Cape Town (or “slaapstad” or sleepy city) at the safe end. The intelligencia know that there is actually much more happening in Jozi but the landscape of Cape Town is awesome. In Cape Town one immigrants from “up north”, places like Durban, who have experienced serious crime and have “had enough” and decided to move to the Western Cape. On my way to visit the new development by Propinquity, Pixley House, with architecture by Design Workshop, I talk to my Uber driver, one of the most cross-racial experiences that a white person can have in South Africa, who is a local Zulu man. I ask about Durban in comparison to Johannesburg, and he is offended by the comparison, saying “it was unsafe but everything is cool now”, adding, “and look at the roads: they don’t have potholes like Jozi!”. My colleague from planning, Dr Nancy Odendaal, a Durbanite herself, says “Falling between the cracks of Johannesburg and Cape Town, Durban is just getting on with it”.

Pixley House is named after the street on which it is located Dr Pixley Kaseme Street, in turn named after South Africa’s first black lawyer, Pixley Ka Isaka Seme. Pixley, from aristocratic tribal stock, studied at Columbia University in the Unites States, and moved to Oxford University where he read for the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law. He returned to South Africa in 1911, and was a founder of the African National Congress in 1912. The renaming of streets in South African cities is proceeding apace, an important, if symbolic process, where symbols have nonetheless become very potent and therefore challenged since the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town, my home institution, removed its “patrons” sculpture. Asking a Durban friend about the street, she doesn’t know it but when I zoom in on the map she says, “oh, Smith Street? Yes, that is a spine of the city”. Perhaps the English name “Smith” has even more need to be decolonized since it is so ubiquitous. Considering that the market the project is aiming at is young, black professionals, that it is named after/branded on a pioneering black lawyer is not surprising.

Dr Pixley Kaseme Street links Warwick Junction, one of the most exotic informal trade sites in Durban, and a key tourist location, with the harbor and recently renovated foreshore and beach promenade, one of the safest public spaces in the city. The architect for Pixley House tells me that the street will have bike lanes. I look at its haphazard parking, vehicles double parked, people wandering across wherever, the heavy carts of informal traders pushed with laboring shoulders. “They say it will be the greatest pedestrian city in the world by 2020”, she says but qualifiesit , looking around, “maybe by 2030, eh?”. This gap between strategic desire and emergent conditions is the space of pregnant possibility that Pixley House has located itself in, quite different from that of its Johannesburg cousin Maboneng.

Pixley House is a renovation of a 1938 art deco office building, its Gotham fins made even more so through a coating of black matt paint that makes it even more so. Against this, the Pixley House brand is gold on black, a black man with rotund cheeks and a top hat on the façade recalling jazz great Louis Armstong. I am shocked when the word “bling” comes to mind and later I check to see if “bling” is racist: interestingly its not, but “chav” to describe whites with more money than sense is. Keeping the original tenant of the building, the supermarket Game, the foyer is, while again quite gold, more restrained and slightly out of scale of the grandiose character of the black monolith.

Entering the residential floor levels, I am struck by the projects studied roughness and the juxtaposition between raw brick and existing structure and moments of its stylized Art Deco bling. It is only later when I see the photographs of the old building that I can really see what has been done and how inventively existing materials are used, how the old open plan building has been neatly subdivided to make it open to the circulation core/light-well, the previous windows set back into the new wall that edges this core. These are smart actions that balance light, public space and yield. They center of the light well, making me hope, as a landscape architect, that the plants will grow since ones focus is down that volume.

The developer of the project “Propinquity” has been a major innovator in the rejuvenation of Johannesburg. The agenda of Propinquity is evident from their website straight away, “Bringing City Back” (hear: “bringing sexy back”), and indeed their right to claim this slogan is reasonable in the context that their flagship project Maboneng. South Africa has a history of the market leading the way politically. The business community was meeting with the ANC before the apartheid government was to begin to negotiate a rapprochement. The concern of business was that 2/3rd’s of the population was not able to participate in the economy. Clearly this is self-interest – more profits were there to be made if more people were consuming- but a self-interest that corresponded with the right thing to do. The same is true now with the investments of Propinquity in Durban, however there is some more nuance now because the ownership of the economy has remained in white hands, and there is now a history of formal business cannibalizing the informal, using it’s scale to outcompete smaller entrepreneurs in the informal sector.

Many architects prefer Braamfontein, where the market as a whole is leading neighbourhood development to Maboneng, which has been called a “theme park” or even an “external shopping mall” since most of the stock is owned by Propinquity developer and its diversity is therefore cosmetic. In an article from 2013 about Maboneng, Malcolm Rees questions how inclusive Maboneng really is and quotes a Spanish urban designer Marta Postigo who was disturbed by Liebmann’s idea of “creating community” since one already exists, however she did see it as an important “first step”, a point on which I would concur. In the same article Liebmann, who owns Propinquity, says that he has learnt from Maboneng and proposes that Maboneng “2.0” will be much more inclusive in price point terms, allowing for differences of rentals from “3K ZAR to 100K ZAR”. He ends the essay talking about how he intends to expand Propinquity’s approach of “leading neighborhood development” to Durban, and presumably Pixley House is one of the developments that he was alluding to 3 years earlier.

“Middle class” is a VERY relative term in South Africa, meaning different things to different people, reflecting either the positive or negative influence of racial and economic inheritance. If one is a white academic from, say, Australia (its important and expected to acknowledge ones privilege in South Africa), the idea that one could not walk the streets of ones neighborhood is unacceptable, a right that one could expect in any western city. In Cape Town, this desire locates one in the city bowl, where a rental of 20,000 ZAR per month for a 2 bedroom flat is now cheap. Correspondingly, when I ask the architect about the rental’s for the flats and she tells me they are approximately 3,500 ZAR per month, I ask her if the flats constitute affordable housing. After Maboneng, other developers in central Johannesburg, like Jozi Lane, are also aiming at this 3,500ZAR per month price point for young professionals. The architect is almost proud that the rental stock is “not affordable”, commenting that the interiors are “bespoke”, pointing to details like fittings etc that are indeed carefully, if thriftily, customized. Nonetheless, its clear that the designers worked very hard to deliver the project to enable this rent and still hae a strong sense of design, even if much of it comes from contrasting expanses of raw against moments of bespoke and bling.

An entrepreneurial architectural technologist who works for Propinquity lives in the block and we visit his apartment. The deco styling shifts into 60’s retro in the apartment interior, with wave patterned hollow concrete block dividing his studio apartment, and astro turn on the exterior of the apartment. I look through his books to find Ayn Rand and an interesting range of art, thinking to myself how cool this guy is, how I was never that cool as a student and certainly never had housing directed at me, instead living in crappy share houses. He has to leave us because he has a side business leading visitors from the youth hostel on a pub tour around the inner city. I wonder how many local white people would be either willing or interested to see this side of Durban, where racial identities are not as titillating ion their differences as they might be to a tourist for whom black South Africa is the very icon for racial reconciliation.

While the stairwell and the lift core is the really the main social space of the building and well designed to be,I was initially disappointed by the lack of public space in the project, but on reflection I realized that despite being a Propertuity project, its not Maboneng. In the face of a Johannesburg that was “deserted”, the city a “no mans land”, Maboneng created a welcome gentrified safe boundary inside of which the norms of the western city could be enjoyed in stylized post-apocalyptic glory. In fact Jozi was not abandoned or empty, it just suffered white flight. It had turned into an African city with a rich street life. I had expected Pixley House to be the same but in Durban, however it is fundamentally different because it is a part of the new Durban, not an oasis from it. Because it is aimed at young, relatively well off, black professionals, the public space is Durban itself.

In contrast to Maboneng which was a precinct, Pixley House offers a more catalytic approach that works with the city as it is, rather than as it should be, engaging emerging demongraphics through smart and well designed buildings that sacrifice per m2 yield for volume and thereby to encourage people to live in the city. Whereas in the west architects deride developers for their lack of ambition, Pixley House is an example of where developers are leading the way into allowing architecture the agency to have the effect it always strives for, not in the utopian project but in the city, as found.

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