Text by Aaron Kohn, Executive Director of the Museum of African Design
Unfinished City, our latest exhibition at the Museum of African Design, is a look at Johannesburg's history and uncharted future. It is no coincidence that we decided to make this a long-running exhibit (about 6 months). The founding of MOAD, three years ago, was part of an idea conceived by the developers of the Maboneng Precinct, Propetuity PTY. As we saw it, there is a natural fit between what it means to redevelop part of Johannesburg's struggling downtown, and design. Urban design, architecture, industrial design, and good graphic design have all played a role in the 'Precinct.' Fashion designers and entrepreneurs have moved their operations into MOAD and the surrounding buildings. Those trying to make parts of downtown Johannesburg clean, safe, and attractive to residents and tourists alike are all facing huge design challenges. They are not the same challenges the founders of Johannesburg faced.
In 2007, Propertuity embarked on its first development in Jeppestown. A group of five warehouses were turned into a commercial and retail complex called Arts on Main, which forms the backbone of the Maboneng Precinct. Every Sunday for over five years, the Market at Arts on Main draws a few thousand people into town.
The Sunday market has played an important role. In the beginning, college students, craft food makers, and artists dominated the crowds. But by 2012, the market and retail shops around it like the Bioscope Independent Cinema began attracting families and tourists. Food stalls outgrew the market and moved into brick and mortar restaurants along Fox Street (ie. Little Addis, Mama Mexicana, The Blackanese, Sharp, Ché Argentinian, and Soul Souvlaki).
To this day, the same conversations can be overheard at Arts on Main as when it first opened: "I haven't been downtown since I was a kid." "My mom and dad used to work down the street." "I had no idea all of this was here." There are, alas, 8 million people in the greater Johannesburg Metropolitan area. Visitors, residents, and companies now inhabit the 70+ buildings owned by Propertuity in the Maboneng Precinct.
The most important takeaway for anyone coming into Jeppestown is the design. This Unfinished City has not been demolished, fragmented, or sterilised. Architects from around the world have redesigned existing structures, upcylcing the built environment. Each building is one-of-a-kind because of its heritage and new purpose. This once 'no-go' area is now open to everyone, and carries little baggage from the segregated and gated suburbs.
As the Museum of African Design, we are thrilled to be part of this 130-year old design experiment called "Johannesburg."