Here’s a review of Kanye West’s new housing project, written by a professor of urban design

A giant inflatable Kanye West. Image: Getty.

There is a long history of patrons for architecture, who have ensured their legacy – and often enhanced their status – through the construction of lavish buildings. Of course, some of these have been philanthropic figures, such as Andrew Carnegie, who supported the construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world, or Oprah Winfrey, whose many charitable causes include building schools for children in developing countries.

More recently, Brad Pitt has taken an interest in architecture. His support for the construction of new homes in New Orleans – via his Make It Right foundation – following Hurricane Katrina has continued to keep social and environmental concerns in the public eye. Clearly, this is a worthwhile endeavour, and hard to fault.

Now entering the arena is Kanye West, who recently announced on Twitter that his company Yeezy would be branching out into architecture. Early visualisations of West’s collaboration with architects Jalil Peraza and Petra Kustrin and 3D artist Nejc Škufca suggest the first project will be a prefabricated concrete “low income” housing scheme, arguably designed in a Brutalist style.

Questions arise, perhaps not least regarding whether the self-proclaimed polymath genius is the right person to create social housing for the masses. As a professor of urban design, it’s not immediately clear to me how the competing forces of real estate, fame and social concerns can be remixed to blend harmoniously in the modern urban landscape.

Form over content?

By putting his weight behind this project, West has drawn much-needed attention to a critical issue in a society that, for many years, allowed housing to divide communities and determine social status. In the US, public housing projects are much maligned – sometimes referred to as “the housing of last resort”. If West wants to enhance the reputation of public or affordable housing as something residents can take pride in, then his intentions are admirable.

But with Kanye West, the message can always overtake the medium. With typical bombast he has said:

I’m going to be one of the biggest real-estate developers of all time – what Howard Hughes was to air crafts and what Henry Ford was to cars … We gonna develop cities.

Having purchased 300 acres of land to develop five properties, it certainly seems he is committed to the idea at some level.

It may be unhelpful, at some level, to criticise West’s motives – but we can and should question the potential outcome. As West told a group of Harvard students: “I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected’.”

On the plus side, this kind of vision along with West’s high level connections, considerable resources and sheer force of personality could enable this development to actually happen – which, since the demolition of the dilapidated and crime ridden Pruitt-Igoe project of St Louis, Missouri in 1973 further plunged the public view of mass housing into disrepute, is no small achievement.

Yet West is seemingly impervious to constructive criticism or capable of being managed – as he has even said himself. We can reasonably assume community engagement and participatory processes will go out of the window. These are essential for public housing, especially in the US where their omission has contributed to terrible living conditions.

In their place, his love for the people is expected to be met by the appreciation and gratitude of the masses. His embrace of disruption does not acknowledge the consequences – in a lot of cases, innovation fails to favour with people living on low incomes. In the context of urban design, putting in place infrastructure such as train tracks and highways has typically served to provide sharp boundaries between different communities.

Hashtag ignorance

Recent outbursts – such as his statement regarding slavery being a choice – have done little to display his ability to understand the very people the Yeezy Home is being designed for. Further, his unwillingness to grapple with the complexity of politics and racism endemic in US urban development only highlight how removed from history and society he actually is.

Megalomaniacs have produced many visions for cities over the years, with mixed results: consider the contrasting schemes of Swiss Modernist architect Le Corbusier or Hitler’s personal architect Albert Speer, in their respective quests for a new urbanism. The neo-Brutalist aesthetic of the Yeezy homes is a sideshow in this arena, an Instagram-ready shorthand for contemporary cool. The real story is the grand vision into which the housing sits.

With West’s drive to build his utopia on behalf of others, while skirting around inconvenient issues such as social equity, spatial justice (determined by access and proximity to essential services, public funds and other features) and urban history, his success will be immense – just not in the way he imagines it.

By designing for – rather than with – people, ignoring important social and urban developments and assuming the role of great benefactor, West would enter the history books – but not as a pioneer for social good or innovative design. Instead, he would join an already crowded history of urban developers who designed black people out of the landscape.

For this particular entanglement of social housing and celebrity endorsement, the future of the Yeezy Home project looks likely to aid and abet gentrification processes, not resolve them. Another brand for him, in the guise of a concern for the many –– and that’s the brutal truth.

Nick Dunn, Professor of Urban Design, Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.