no sense of place

While the poets and artists were asleep…

As I ascend 15 floors in an aluminium box, I think of all the other aluminium boxes we use for departure and arrival, from bus terminals to airports.

The functional has triumphed over the aesthetic; the global bland eliminates our sense of place.

Arrivals, whether by plane, train or lift should create a sense of expectancy, a prologue to the story that will unfold. Departures are the epilogue – a last glimpse, an invitation to return. This is as valid for the once in a lifetime trip as it is for the daily commute. The architects of New York's Grand Central Station captured the excitement & larger than life qualities of the city; the original train station in Johannesburg had Pierneef paintings of scenes around South Africa decorating the main hall, giving the place a sense of centrality - all railroads lead to & from the City of Gold.

Today, a sense of wonder is a luxury, as our places of transition have become conveyor belts filled with persuasions to buy. They induce a numbness from being anywhere & nowhere.

While inner cities across Africa have turned from New York to Dubai for emulation, suburbs race to lose any sense of history & place.

Peek into some gated communities of the rich. Overwrought Tuscany rubs shoulders with grandiose Georgian, Spanish baroque & Bali pastiche. Captains of industry glide to neo-classical office via a faux Tuscan entertainment complex.

Then travel to row upon row of RDP houses built far from jobs – built to solve a problem, without love, without flair.

While the poets & artists were asleep, we lose priceless opportunities to build the legacy of a new Africa..

Joburg is getting there

From Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, to Michelangelo's David in the main Florentine piazza, public statuary celebrates heroes & defines places.

Joburg of old paid public homage to the mineworker & today the inner city displays sculptures of more everyday heroes. Amongst them is The "Firewalker" – the unquenched spirit of an urban African woman, making her way with a burning brazier on her head.

This eleven-metre tall steel sculpture created by William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx is visual proof of the quest to become a world-class African city.

The Constitutional Court weaves heritage and modernity around 'justice under a tree'. Newtown is the home of architectural recycling – a disused fresh produce market has become an iconic theatre, an old power station is now home to a global gold-mining company, fashion shows & corporate conventions - accessed from the Northern suburbs by a symbol of new hope, the Nelson Mandela bridge.

Other parts of the inner city are being reclaimed, piece by slow piece. In its pomp, Joburg had more art deco buildings than anywhere in the world, save Florida. Some have gone, others have been restored. Past and present are layered in the rich patina of place


Our public spaces, whether they are a civic centre or a bus-stop, a street-market or a shopping-mall, define us. Our homes develop or deny our sense of place. In Churchill's words, "we shape our buildings & thereafter they shape us". If we shape global bland, that is what we are destined to become.

Poets & Artists can awake us all to the places where we are now, the journeys we still need to take. We need to mark our entrances and exits in memorable ways. We need to visibly inspire a new dialogue about what it means to live in a developing, challenging corner of Africa