From Sea to Mountain: time to re-frame the City?

Amphitheatre

Concept Sketch for Foreshore development (1940) from Town Planning Advisors Report to the South African Railways and Harbours Board

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Photograph of Proposal B: Foreshore exhibitions 2017

One of the more visionary elements in the current Foreshore Proposals is the ‘eye’ which would frame a view of Table Mountain from the harbour-side and create an iconic picture, especially for visitors arriving at the port. The idea has echoes of the earliest concepts for the area found in the 1947 Cape Town Foreshore Plan drawings, which highlighted the vista of those arriving by sea.

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Artist’s impression of view from Maritime Terminal, from Cape Town Foreshore Plan (1948)

Planners at the time created an over-arching concept for the area with a Monumental Approach from the Harbour towards the City Hall, framed by the Mountain Amphitheatre. For the consultants in the 1940s the Foreshore area was a “…a National rather than a Department or Municipal asset” and the planning was a “…unique opportunity, never likely to recur, of investing Cape Town with the dignity that is appropriate to the ‘Gateway to South Africa’”.

Over the following decades sea arrivals dropped in importance compared to air arrivals, and the words “Gateway to Africa” fell out of step with how Cape Town imagined itself. It is interesting, then, to see that the current Foreshore proposals include cruise terminal ideas. Is it is time to revisit the sea-city connections and the tourism and city marketing possibilities that could bring?

Cruise terminal B (2)

Detail from Proposal B

Table Mountain and its sea approach is a widely loved, and globally known connected vista. As a City have not made much effort to frame it, physically or otherwise, in any meaningful way. In an increasingly competitive tourism environment can we afford to underplay the ‘romance’ of the approach by sea and the iconic vista that few cities can even aspire to? Or is the maritime ‘romance’ too associated with a European history many would rather forget? Could we find a way to physically re-frame this sea approach to Cape Town as part of Foreshore developments? In the process bringing forward the sea stories of all who sail and have sailed around the Cape, not only the wealthy few?

 

 

 

Dreams of freeway utopias: who benefits?

Futurama viewers

Viewing Futurama (Prelinger Collection)

In the Spring of 1937 Shell Oil Company employed stage designer Norman Bel Geddes, to create a scale model of the future, utopian auto city for shows in New York and Detroit. Shell promoted this model, dubbing it the ‘City of Tomorrow’. The head of the Bureau of Street Traffic Research predicted that American cities would be rebuilt in this way in the next 25-50 years. During 1939-40, General Motors (GM) put on a major exhibit at New York’s World Fair, commissioning the same Bel Geddes to expand his Shell model to much bigger proportions. They called it ‘Futurama’.

In the first summer of the Fair, more than 5 million visitors traveled on conveyor belts to look down on the GM ‘Futurama’ model exhibit, as if from an airplane window. In Futurama free movement of autos was evoked across vast panoramas. The film of the exhibit, ‘To New Horizons’ (1940), evoked an America where there was freedom from want, and where mobility – social and physical – meant movement in cars on free-flowing expressways.

In the 1940s South African engineers toured US highway engineering departments and in 1951 the Cape Town City Engineer’s department published ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’. The document suggests that Futurama-style thinking was important to the South African engineers too.

Sixty-five years on, looking at the Foreshore exhibitions, I wonder: are we still dreaming of a South African Futurama where road space is abundant and a free-flowing utopia is possible? And if so, who benefits from such dreams?

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Detail from Proposal C

 

“Lean and elegant”: The poetics of freeway building

Graphic from Proposal B

Graphic from Proposal C

“Our proposal starts”, said one of the Foreshore bids “by re-arranging and completing the elevated freeways in a lean and elegant way, thereby resolving the key traffic bottlenecks and improving traffic flows all across the surrounding road network.”

‘Lean’, ‘elegant’ and the resolution of traffic bottlenecks is not text-book civil engineering, but these words do evoke a long poetic tradition in traffic engineering texts.

When the first high speed roads for the foreshore were proposed by City Engineer Solomon Morris in 1951 they included a plan to depress part of a ring road across Government Avenue.

Morris wrote: “The bridges will be sympathetically designed in keeping with their sylvan setting, whilst the terraces and rockeries forming the banks will be planted with shrubs and other flowering plants so that no interruption or disturbance of the garden effect takes place…Indeed there is no reason why these proposals, if effectively carried out, should not enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the gardens and the Avenue promenade. The new vistas and the additional interest created by the difference of level, as well as the movement of traffic below the level of the gardens, will all help to enliven the scene, adding a touch of activity to the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. One may well imagine the pleasurable contemplation with which the passer-by through the Avenue will, from the quest seclusion of his elevation, gaze undisturbedly on the swift-moving traffic below.”

1951 Government Avenue

From: Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1951

Sylvan settings, lean and elegant roads, pleasurable contemplations, new vistas and gazes….Despite the use of scientific rationality and logical connections traffic engineering is, ultimately, about planning for the future. Planning, as Throgmorton has so memorably argued, is the art of persuasive story-telling. And as we can see from the texts it produces, engineering will try to persuade using whatever means have most power: numbers, graphics, models, presentations and even, if required, poetry.

Freeways and “as-built” bias: elevated, depressed or something else?

 

Citylift proposition

Citylift’s proposition for the Foreshore – a built earthwork ‘berm’ to replace the existing foreshore freeways, with buildings elevated, and cars hidden – looks radical at first glance. We must be careful, though, not to suppose that just because something (elevated freeway structures) are familiar, they are necessarily best. A rummage through the engineering reports of the 1960s, when the built schemes were under design scrutiny, tells interesting stories of early design decisions and the rationales behind them.

The much mooted underground tunneling of the freeway scheme was actually considered in the 1960s, but rejected on cost grounds. Professor Holford, one of the assessors on the Shand Committee which deliberated on the scheme at the time estimated R3,500,00 for a depressed (underground level but open) scheme and R1,600,000 for an elevated Table Bay Boulevard scheme. Quite how this elevation should take place, though, was undecided until the late 1960s. The 1968 engineer’s design report estimated that elevated structures (as we see them today) would be 8% more expensive than an earth retaining wall…but the engineers argued they would be justified on aesthetic grounds, and on the ability to retain parking underneath. The costs subsequently escalated well beyond these early estimates.

We need to beware of bias towards what is familiar and judge each scheme on its merits today.

Freeways: who decides what’s re-presented?

Foreshore dragon

Source: Cape Times. April 7, 1973 and Louis De Waal clippings collection

The Foreshore Freeways have been controversial from the outset. As the Long Street extension to Culemborg section was being built in the early 1970s the National Monuments Council unleashed an attack on the City of Cape Town for ‘indiscriminate development’. Fury focused on the potential impact of the planned Buitengracht Freeway section of the scheme.

Consultants warned that public opposition could stop the Buitengracht Freeway section and advised that the road be depressed, in order to alleviate the visual intrusion from the scheme. The costs, though, did not impress the Council Executive Committee, nor did the prospect of a ‘canyon’ through this part of Cape Town. Three years later the Buitengracht Freeway issue was still unresolved, and was deliberated by a new inter-disciplinary Environmental Advisory Board, who rejected both the elevated and depressed schemes and instead proposed a ground level alternative. A year later the matter was still unresolved, and residents in De Waterkant also weighed in with opposition, claiming that ‘a huge elevated freeway’ would be a tragedy for the townscape of old Cape Town. A new Committee of the Institute of Architects was formed, called ‘Urban Vigilance’, who countered the engineering consultants’ sketches in circulation with their own.

Buitengracht freeway

Engineering sketches of Buitengracht freeway

Urban vigilance Buitengracht

Architect sketches of Buitengracht freeway

So I am wondering, will we get to see any street level views of the proposed schemes? And if so, who decides what gets re-presented?

God-tricks and the Foreshore

Dec 2010 093 edited (762x1024)

It has been seventy years – a lifetime – since the first models for the Foreshore were presented to the Cape Town public. The 1947 model proved to be surprisingly resilient, even if the sweeping boulevards and monumental parades that it presented fell out of fashion. The three-dimensional 1947 model lived for many years in a civic centre lift foyer, beguiling passers-by.

2017 Foreshore proposal (576x1024)

The models and visuals of the latest exhibition of the Foreshore are equally entrancing. They allow the visitor to get a full sense of the scale and grandeur of the current proposals. Visitors can move, as if in an airplane, through the air above the city and see the future visions below.

Donna Haraway calls this way of seeing the “god trick”. Being above such models distances the observer and creates an illusion of all-knowingness. The observer is omnipresent, the Foreshore is under control. The view from above is cleansed of complexity. Looking at models like these of the Foreshore creates a fantasy view. No human will live this version of the Foreshore.

Donna Haraway suggests that instead of god-tricks we could we pay more attention to “diffracted views”. These deny the idea of a single Foreshore story, whether based on roads, or elevated urban parks, luxury apartments or low cost housing. She challenges us to become more open to knowing from a location, and from a particular body.

In practice, what would that mean?

It would mean moving beyond god-tricks, and getting into human bodies, from the proposal stage. It would mean representing experiences of humans in and through the Foreshore proposals, in all their complexity. The woman driver on freeways, on streets, in parking. The man on foot. The child in pram. The householder in high-rise, under freeway, next to port. The business woman in the waterfront, in the City, in the Bo-Kaap. The refugee.

This is not common practice. It feels too complex for planning purposes and for certain it would require Cape Town’s built environment professionals to stretch even deeper into their creativity. But the history of planning in the Foreshore area shows that the many voices of Cape Town will have their voices heard and their experiences validated, despite the god-trick arguments of the engineers and planners. History shows that people can and will call loudly and powerfully for attention. Which is partly why the Foreshore is “unfinished” to this day, despite the impressive models of the decades before.

Parents, pangs and walking to school

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There’s something aching beautiful about the sight of young children walking, cycling or scooting to school. Hair flaying, rosy cheeks, eager faces…there are few parents whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight.
I may be a hopeless romantic, but the sight always brings pangs of wistful nostalgia for my own school days. For most of us with school going children we, too, walked those streets, making friends with the neighbours’ dogs, and the neighbours along the way, getting to know the corner shop, the post box, the dip in the footpath where the rain always lingered. For those children unable to experience that freedom to roam the streets, something very special has been lost.
In Cape Town’s poorer communities the picture of children daily en route to school is more out of necessity than choice. In the more affluent suburbs the gleeful children who do walk the streets are usually accompanied by ashen and rather anxious looking parents, and for once their anxiety isn’t about crime. Rather it’s about the other suburban parents driving their own kids to school. In a hurry. Not looking. The fear is of collision, crash, worse….no wonder so few of us who have choices take the risk and let our kids loose to get to school under their own steam. And yet by accepting this situation, so much is lost. Not only for our kids, but for ourselves and for our cities. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota calls children “a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”
By this rubric Cape Town is failing miserably.
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