The Congress as Architecture: modernism and politics in post-war Transvaal

Two significant strands of South Africa’s history - the precocious modern movement architecture of the Transvaal Group, and the political resistance that led up the Congress of the People and the Rivonia trial - remain the research subjects of quite separate disciplinary fieldsb. One of the few pieces of writing to span between the two is Rusty Bernstein’s autobiography, Memory Against Forgetting (), which traces his involvement in the political events of the 1950’s, while alluding how the theory and practice of architecture helped to support him in both material and ideological ways. Despite the optimistic title of Bernstein’s book, there is a real threat of memory loss around the way in which the events of the postwar period related to the ideals of modernity that, in both its spatial and social manifestations, was to inspire South Africa’s political transformations as late as in the 1990’s. This article revisits memories of the earlier period in order to suggest some associations between the apparently diverse areas of architectural utopianism and practice, political theory and activism, and the specific events around the planning of the Congress of the People in 1955. These associations suggest that there is an imaginative vision at the heart of modern architecture that is quite elastic, conceptually: one capable of translation into diverse manifestations, some physical, some unrealisable, and some only to be realised at another time. The article is inspired by the stories of a handful of radicalised white architects in the 1950’s, whose early formation overlaps with the emergence of the Transvaal Group. These architects, including Rusty Bernstein, Ozzy Israel, Alan Lipman, Roy Kantorowich and Clive Chipkin, studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in the late 1930’s, or in the immediate post-war period. These architects are not remembered for their designs but for the influence of their political positions on events. They were drawn to opposition politics as a way of achieving conditions of freedom and equality,conditions that would be necessary in order to implement the progressive modern architecture in foreign journals and books, including discreetly acquired copies of Architektura CCCP , that inspired them. However these conditions were not to be met in their working careers, and political events - the Sharpeville Massacre in 1961 and the Treason Trial - led them variously into exile, imprisonment, writing work and practice within the very limited circle of private clients who shared their ideals. Their most significant building, according to Clive Chipkin, was the ephemeral infrastructure that they designed and built near Soweto with hessian and timber for a political rally, the Congress of the People, in 1955. This event launched the Freedom Charter, a list of fundamental social demands including access to housing, schools and freedom of association, and in turn, in the 1990’s, became the basis for the spatial ideals of the new nation of post-apartheid South Africa. Rusty Bernstein played central roles in organising both the space and the written text of the Freedom Charter. The Congress architects’ political activities contrast with mainstream architectural activity, which was largely supportive of the capitalist apartheid state. To trace this history, it was necessary to use personal narratives as evidence, in the absence of a drawn or built archive: indeed, this may be a rare case in architectural history where the paper archive was swallowed in the face of a police raid. In its motives, this article, as well as paying tribute to a generation whose political choices led to personal hardship, tries to broaden the limits of architectural discourse to include not only built products but also their rebus, their exclusions. It suggests that what is not able to be realised does not necessarily disappear, but rather, might be translated into some other mode. Seeing the Congress as architecture draws attention to the other modernisms of the imagination that cross between transnational boundaries, between conditions of the built and the unbuildable.
Le Roux, Hannah. 2007. The Congress as Architecture: modernism and politics in post-war Transvaal. Architecture South Africa, 2007 Jan/Feb , pp72-76