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Keyes Avenue: The fine art of turning suburbia inside out


Keyes Avenue: The fine art of turning suburbia inside out

New development in Rosebank is part of a precinct that combines secure urban living with communal spaces

Graham Wood

Finally, the next phase of the Keyes Art Mile is underway. At a series of launches, the next buildings along the art strip were officially announced and renderings of the new buildings revealed.
The next phase, to pop up diagonally across the road from Circa and The Trumpet (and directly across the road from the Everard Read Gallery), includes two buildings: one right on the corner, a new art museum/foundation, with some mixed use stuff on the upper levels, including two penthouses and a rooftop garden; and then, behind it (and first) a block of flats called Thirty Keyes.
This little patch of Rosebank is a unique piece of urban development. It’s one of a few attempts in the city to develop with a real urban framework in mind. In fact a proper council-approved precinct plan is in place, with the long-term aim to transform Keyes Avenue into a pedestrianised high street, with people living, working and walking in the precinct and enjoying open public space.
The idea is to have something along the lines of Parkhurst’s 4th Avenue, where shops and cafes spill out onto the pavement, and you can walk up and down the strip. It’s already happening outside the Trumpet, and the idea seems to be that, by adding people who actually live and work in the precinct, there will be a critical mass to really make the streets come alive.
On the Trumpet side, they have already widened pavements, put in traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, and other traffic calming measures, planted trees, beefed up security and so on. That will continue outside the new buildings, transforming the whole area into a very rare example of a  safe public space. It’s an ideal of certain European cities, but there’s certainly no reason it couldn’t work or shouldn’t be appropriate in Joburg.
Still, it’s quite a mind-shift for South Africans, who are used to aspiring to houses in the suburbs or in gated communities.
But if you look at how cities develop, it is clear that in Joburg the era of the freestanding home in the suburbs, driving around in cars and shopping in malls is over. There is a new kind of city springing up beneath our feet.
The precinct that first Circa and then the Trumpet catalysed is a promising start, and as good a picture as any of what the future city might look like. The catch is when you design the residential part of the precinct. How do you design a block of flats to match this ideal of a mixed-use urban precinct? What changes in the design of people’s private spaces?
Although Thirty Keyes includes a fair mix of big and small flats with the ideal to create a bit of diversity, it’s pretty high-end stuff. But it can still give us an idea of the living trends the precinct is shaping as it walks the fine line of attracting people and giving a form to a lifestyle that will make the city around it come alive.
So how do you strike the balance between public and private? At the launch architect Pierre Swanepoel, who also designed Circa and the Trumpet, pointed out that a lot of the ideas that went into the building aren’t new – but they certainly don’t exist yet in Joburg.
Let’s take a look at three things that characterise the flat of the future:
1. The building is outward-looking. It plugs into the urban framework rather than trying to cut itself off and create its own private realm inside.
By building an art foundation next door, which the publicity material describes as “a cross between a private museum and public exhibition area”, and linking up the apartment building’s ground floor to it via walkways and a kind of piazza, there’s the sense that the buildings link up, and the spaces between them belong to the buildings too.
There will be rooftop gardens on the art foundation building that residents can use, so it’s all tied together. Add to this that the foundation will have shops and studios and restaurants and cafes opening onto the street, building on the high-street idea started at the Trumpet across the road. So it’s not just about buildings, but the streets around them.
2. The flats are based on courtyard living. Running through the middle of the building, but a few storeys above the parking, is a kind of communal garden that connects with everyone’s flat, and is free for all the residents to use. So it’s a kind of sky garden, with its dimensions based on those of a street in Amsterdam as an ideal of human scale.
The idea is that is also carries the feel of the bustle and spirit of the street outside into the shared private space of the residential building. The whole design of the flats follows a principle of degrees of public and private space. So your living room, for example, could look over the garden/courtyard, and if you keep you door open, your home extends into this shared space. But your bedrooms don’t have direct access, so they’re totally private. There will also be private courtyards for some of the flats. There’s plenty of natural light and greenery – it works for the South African indoor-outdoor lifestyle.
3. It’s a funny mixture of very modern and old ideas. So while there are things like all the tech and efficient, energy saving construction, the bottom flats include the idea of a flat above a shop. They’ll combine an upstairs apartment with a studio or showroom below. Similarly, while the building is advanced, all the planting will reintroduce Egoli Granite Grassland biomes.
And at the heart of it all is the old-fashioned idea of a community – people bumping into each other, chance encounters, the exchange of ideas and a proper public social life where people can see each other as equals in a safe street. Further along Keyes Avenue, there’s a school and a church. At the very heart of the future is the absolutely central idea that people make a place.

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