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'After' Modernism: Architectural Articulations of Apartheid's End in Cape Town


This dissertation is a study of the urban transformations that accompanied the struggles surrounding apartheid’s ending in Cape Town, seen through the lens of architecture. It examines the practices of a number of architects, who in the last decades of apartheid, began to pose alternatives to the spatiality produced through apartheid. These architects, working through academic writings and architectural designs, sought to provide redress to the ways in which colonial and apartheid-era spatial practices had created the city as a fragmented, divided landscape.

The architectural practices studied in this dissertation are focused upon two realms: modernism and the aspirations associated with apartheid’s ending. Apartheid had worked very much through space, using modernist approaches to architecture and planning to fabricate spaces and cities of inequality and separation. The architects studied here were critical of the modernism of the apartheid landscape: they connected the ways in which its homogeneity and sprawl worked hand-in-hand with racialized policies of separation and control. However, the methods they employed and formal languages that they produced were also modernist, but differed in the precedents they drew upon and the social goals they sought to engender. The modernism produced was ‘aspirational’, that expressed post-apartheid concerns and ambitions, and distinguished itself from the modernism of apartheid by acknowledging user’s needs, agency and identity. Additionally, these concerns were not carried out in uniform ways. Rather, the architects studied employed unique approaches to transforming the urban environment as a result of apartheid’s ending, reflecting differing sets of values and beliefs regarding what the content of apartheid’s ending can and should bring.

The dissertation is structured through histories of three ‘sites’ in Cape Town. Each reflects different technologies used in the making of apartheid’s spatial qualities, and each is the subject of an architectural intervention in the latter years of apartheid and/or early years of South Africa’s democracy. The sites vary in scale and architectural typology: one is set of migrant labour hostels that was ‘upgraded’ to family housing, one a neighborhood that was destroyed during apartheid and has since been the subject of controversies around how and for whom to rebuild, and the third is a public space produced in the first decade of democracy as part of a city-wide initiative that uses public space as a method of upgrading. I approach each site in a grounded manner, studying the history of the making of works of architecture as it relates to broader political, economic and cultural practices. The dissertation is a product of methods that combine interviews with archival research. The archival data includes published texts and reports, newspaper and journal articles, personal archives, project reports, and architectural process documents – which include contracts, meeting minutes and drawings. The interviews participants include architects, architectural academics, urban designers, planners, grassroots organizers and politicians. Brought together, the different sources and types of data tell a story that is both local, documenting how the ending of apartheid was performed in Cape Town through architectural interventions, and global: illustrating how architecture works as an articulation of broader social processes, and how modernism gets used to express the contradictory, aspirational qualities of democratic movements at the end of the twentieth century.

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