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Decolonising houses

- Delia du Toit

PROFILE: A Wits study is the first to look at transforming Victorian/Edwardian bungalows into urban compounds in Yeoville and Rosettenville.

PhD-candidate Kirsten Doermann. ©Brett Eloff |

Drive through Melville, Parktown and Yeoville – some of Johannesburg’s oldest suburbs – and you might notice a pattern: thousands of buildings in the same Victorian style dotted across the landscape. 

These near-identical residential buildings, in a bungalow architectural style, were constructed after the discovery of gold in the last years of the 19th Century and marked the first speculative mass housing model rolled out in the City for the working- and middle-class. 

The one-story houses were a cut-and-paste job; a similar size and lay-out, with pressed ceilings and columns on the front porch – an aspirational nod to the building style favoured by higher income groups in Britain. 

There are an estimated 30 000 of these houses on the northern side of the Johannesburg mining belt alone. And in some suburbs, these buildings, made in another time and for different people, have been re-appropriated by their inhabitants and given a distinctly African flavour. 

Kirsten Doermann, architect and Lecturer in the Wits School of Architecture and Planning, is studying this phenomenon in the suburbs of Yeoville and Rosettenville for her PhD. “We’re looking at the transformation of the Victorian/Edwardian bungalow into urban compounds in these suburbs,” says Doermann. “While several studies have been conducted on the transformation of modernist high-rise buildings, these bungalow compounds have also become a form of affordable co-housing in the African metropolis but have not been acknowledged or researched as such. Yet they’re potential role models for DIY-urbanism – especially in the inner city, where affordable housing is lacking.”

Yeoville’s facelift: Bungalows are the predominant residential buildings in Yeoville, accounting for 62% of its overall fabric, complemented by blocks of flats. From the outside, the Victorian structures have remained largely intact over the last century and are still recognisable. Inside, however, things have changed. The suburb was a predominantly white middle-class area in the early 19th Century. Today, it has been almost entirely repopulated, and the population has more than doubled in the last 20 years. In 1951, for example, just over 17 000 people lived in the area – 76% of them white. Today, almost 37 000 people call Yeoville home – 95% of them black. Rosettenville, although slightly bigger, shows the same radical demographic shift.

A new way of life 

The people now inhabiting these houses in Yeoville and Rosettenville, whether locals or migrants, have imported these artefacts into their culture and creatively turned them into a working model for modern affordable housing. Some of the 500 square metre compounds house up to 40 people in 20 rooms, with two shared bathrooms and one kitchen. Others have 20 inhabitants in 10 rooms that have been converted into shared flatlets, with a total of five bathrooms and kitchenettes in the compound. 

Some have crèches operating from a detached room; others have spaza shops facing the street, with advertisements for fish and chips or fruits and veg painted on the perimeter walls. In some cases, these outhouses were built to house domestic workers under the apartheid administration, without even a bathroom, and have now been reclaimed as entrepreneurial schemes that empower inhabitants. 

“The social networks that run through these spaces have continuously amazed me,” says Doermann. “Some of the leading characters in these unique narratives of everyday domesticity include a man who runs the compound owned by his father, renting out rooms while strategically living opposite the veranda to keep an eye on the goings-on in the compound.” 

Another resident, Mama Christie, has lived in the same bungalow for 14 years and has become famous for the dried fish she makes and sells from the communal kitchen. 

Besides the clever remodelling of these houses into dwellings for multiple families, they’ve become a means of job creation and are even quite lucrative for owners – one has just been put on the market for R1.2 million. Others have the potential of earning around R55 000 a month in rental income. 

However, the houses are difficult to purchase for those who can’t afford to pay in cash. Because structures have been added or remodelled without council approval throughout the years, often long before the current inhabitants or owners arrived, many don’t have the formal, approved building plans required when applying for a loan – even when the structures fall largely within the parameters of planning regulation. 

Toolbox for the future 

Doermann’s research is crucial at present: with little available building space close to the inner city, where there is a desperate need for more housing, there have been talks of destroying the bungalows to make space for apartment buildings. 

But she believes this would be unnecessary and, in fact, a potential waste of resources. “The rule of law treats the mainly informal, organic appropriation of the building and its yard as a spatial illegality requiring replacement, rather than a cultural transformation with socioeconomic opportunities.” 

She hopes to propose the bungalow compounds as a 'toolbox' for modern urban living. She believes in the area so much that she’s recently bought a property in Yeoville with her partner. “As an architect educated in Germany, I’ve always been fascinated by postcolonial narratives of merging cultures in Africa and did my postgraduate studies on the topic in Amsterdam. I first came here in 2000 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and then moved to Johannesburg for good in 2005.” 

She started working at Wits in 2008, when she noticed the bungalows and began her research on urban compounds, while teaching design. 

As productive forms of co-housing, the bungalows offer explicit opportunities considering the housing crisis in the inner city, she says. “They’re a smart model for low-cost housing in Johannesburg and could solve many urban planning problems, if only they could be recognised as such.” 

In official documentation from the City of Johannesburg, these bungalows are listed as one household without considering the multiple subdivisions. This places them in a low-density dwelling category with one to three members per household, when they’re actually medium- to high-density in low rise structures. 

“If the legalisation process is simplified and the infrastructure updated for the correct number of inhabitants, it could be a thriving neighbourhood,” says Doermann. 

  • Delia du Toit is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the seventh issue, themed: #Ekhaya (isiZulu for ‘home’) about our homegrown research that crosses borders and explore the physical spaces we inhabit, where we feel we belong, where we’re from and what we identify with, including the physical/psychological space we may return to – or reject.