The Dish X Thomas Chapman
The Dish is a quick-firing Q&A session with creative and business heavyweights from Joburg and beyond. This month, we sit down for brunch with Thomas Chapman, founder of acclaimed architectural firm Local Studio, to hash out the creative and business challenges of urban design in Johannesburg and discuss his self-published book Hustles: Five Years of Local Studio.
The Dish: Local Studio primarily focuses on architecture and urban design within the Johannesburg context. Engaging with a city that is widely perceived as chaotic and socio-politically contested, how do you define your role as a contemporary architect in Johannesburg?
Thomas Chapman: My role over the past few years has grown into something completely ‘other’ to the traditional image of the architect. I would love it if design was the only medium we had to engage socio-political issues but the truth is that at least 70% of my time is spent in a delicate process of deal-making to get our projects to a point of getting built. Apart from client-meetings, on an average day I find myself working on financial feasibilities, negotiating local labour employment and striking deals with city officials. None of which can be traditionally seen as design but all which require creative problem solving and an eagerness to engage with this very complicated place.
TD: David Southwood described your buildings as that which “grow out of the street.” What is the conceptual starting point for you work?
TC: In the past all of our projects were situated in urban areas and yes, the starting point was to view a building as an urban instrument in its context, implying a very deliberate relationship with the street. Lately we find ourselves engaged in several housing and social infrastructure projects in rural areas where our starting point is to establish a new kind of public space, one which somehow translates between nature and community.
TD: Architecture can have a profound effect on the way in which people interact with their environment. What legacy do you hope your buildings will leave for the people of Johannesburg?
TC: The first few buildings I designed in Johannesburg were built with techniques that would allow for them to be easily disassembled, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk to about legacy. My main typological focus in recent years has been on multi-family housing and public spaces and my hope is that I am able to bring some innovation to these sectors.
TD: Between running Local Studio, teaching at the University of Johannesburg and being a father, where do you find the time for projects such as writing Hustles?
TC: Fortunately Hustles is mostly a picture book so I leaned heavily on my collaborators to generate most of the content. The writings in the book are mostly adapted from lectures that I had given in different forums since forming my practice so there was very little to start from scratch.
TD: Hustles documents your practice’s journey to becoming one of Africa’s most exciting architecture firms. What are some of the biggest business challenges you have faced so far and what lessons can be derived from those experiences?
TC: Local Studio is now 6 years old, so still a baby compared to some of our competition. Hopefully the fact that we have managed to grow in a very slow economy implies a certain level of resilience. The biggest challenges have certainly revolved around managing this growth, building a team and maintaining cashflow. We live in a society where professional services are not as valued as they might have been in the past so it’s always a challenge convincing a client of ones worth, especially when the architecture being proposed is unconventional.
TD: What single piece of advice has had the biggest impact on how you practice architecture and/or how you run your business?
TD: I was fortunate to collaborate with the Norweigan practice Snøhetta, on a project in Cape Town in 2017. The founder, Craig Dykers was extremely encouraging about my work which lead me to lose a sense of insecurity I had about South Africa being some kind of architectural-backwater as opposed to a place where great things could happen because of (not in spite of) our immense challenges.
TD: In contrast to the more complex urban fabric of Johannesburg’s older areas, Sandton is often criticised for its lack of human scale and cultural diversity. What one architectural intervention do you think Sandton could benefit from?
TC: Sandton has come a long way since I first started criticizing it, and architects like Paragon and Boogertman have commendably used successive projects to iterate better responses to pedestrian public space. My sense lately is that the biggest benefit to Sandton would be a less-toothless public sector. If the City of Johannesburg could implement social infrastructure and affordable housing projects on publicly-owned land with the same efficiency and vigour that we see from developers like Zenprop, we’d have a really healthy city. Unfortunately in a country like ours where party-politics infects all aspects of life, this is wishful thinking.
Hustles, Five Years of Local Studio is self-published.
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