“An ordinary shack for extraordinary uses” is how Clint Abrahams describes Bong’s Inn, a cultural landmark in Macassar and the pinnacle of a pioneering, seven-year community-led project that has won the University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD candidate, architect, and lecturer the prestigious 2022 Social Responsiveness Award.
The award honours work that contributes to the country’s cultural, economic, political, scientific and social landscape, and cements community service into the university’s research, teaching and learning. This is core to UCT’s Vision 2030 as a socially engaged institution.
Abrahams is the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment’s (EBE) first recipient of this award.
“The award shines a light on the Macassar’s community-builders and is a fitting tribute to the late Thomas Adonis, Owen Amsterdam, Ali Edwards and Paul Swartz, whose self-made constructions have been the inspiration behind the build,” he said.
The two-phase design-build project to refurbish the shack, Bong’s Inn, as a community hall and storytelling place was a collaboration between members of the Macassar community and Abrahams and his students in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. It built on a larger initiative, the Macassar Storytelling Project.
Photography and storytelling projects
This project stemmed from Abrahams’ UCT 2019/2020 UCT Creative Works Award-winning street photography project, completed with Macassar’s youth and UCT’s John Coetzee, “Who We Are, Macassar”, in 2018. The photography project became the catalyst for the community-led storytelling project when several adults came to share their stories in response to the photography exhibition, said Abrahams.
At the time, the old shack was one of the few places willing to accommodate the street photography project activities. It pointed to a community need for an established place to conduct ongoing storytelling.
It was also the natural choice as a storytelling venue. Built by Rastafarian Joey Sampson (known as Bong by locals) in the 1990s, Bong’s Inn served multiple purposes: as a tavern, an arcade for youth, a taxi depot, a greengrocer, a venue for community events, and a space to host and plan storytelling workshops and photography exhibitions.
It provided the space to bring people together to talk about their identity, untold histories and stories – and how they created a sense of place and belonging in the apartheid town. It also brought local and international students together to co-create with the town’s people and tapped local knowledge about “building with scarcity”.
The context of Macassar was key to the project.
Celebrating its 50th year in 2023, the small town lies on the edge of False Bay between Strand and Somerset West, and takes its name from the historic arrival in the Cape Colony of Sheik Yusuf of Makassar, who was exiled from Java. Arriving in the Cape Colony in 1694, he was settled on the Dutch East India Company’s farm Zandvliet. Macassar is now recognised as an important place from which Islam first spread in Southern Africa.
Later a community of fishermen and boat-makers, stories by their descendants describe the town as a “forgotten” place.
““It was a call to action. I was in my community at the time when we needed to rebuild hope and trust.”
Abrahams was raised in Macassar, and the community is close to his heart. But his work there didn’t start as an academic research project, he said.
“It was a call to action. I was in my community at the time when we needed to find a way to rebuild hope and trust.”
As such, the project redefined Abrahams’ role as an architect and researcher in the built environment. In Macassar, the local communities were at the centre as the project’s authors, instigators and Abrahams used his skills as an architect with writer Diana Ferrus to help reveal the community-building potential of local spaces and to bring the storytelling place to life.
“To make sustainable change, we must look inward. It takes insiders to tell meaningful narratives about a place and its people. And that’s the power of this project,” said Abrahams.
It serves as a celebration of a long process with the community, build on trust, and which over time has manifested itself into this space, he said.
“The refurbishment of Bong’s Inn is a marker in time that pays homage to community engagement and points to the possibilities when we commit to place and people.”
The project has allowed him to plan and deliver other projects in Macassar and beyond.
“Thus, the project is as an important moment and part of a re-iterative process and an ongoing community engagement.”
In 2019 Abrahams worked in collaboration with academics from RWTH Aachen University, Peter Behrens School of Architecture in Dusseldorf, Germany, and Cape Peninsula University of Technology to bring together 40 students from South Africa and Germany to work with local residents to reshape Bong’s Inn.
It was an opportunity to research and test the viability of local ideas and building techniques in pursuit of a dignified place to accommodate the ongoing storytelling project, said Abrahams. His students worked with residents, learning from local ideas and building techniques.
As he explained, “Design-build projects involve collaborative design and making of actual buildings as architectural research, teaching, and learning in communities for mutual beneficial outcomes. It builds on what people already know about the places and this kind of building.”
In 2021, the Peter Behrens School of Architecture approached the school to help rebuild the fire-damaged Langa community theatre. Langa is another community with a long history, and which celebrates its centenary this year.
The lessons from Macassar allowed students and local makers from Macassar to design and rebuild an acoustic ceiling and sound studio for the theatre. Working across the two communities has facilitated the transfer of local knowledge across disadvantaged communities where makers from these communities have helped each other complete projects in the other.
“The completion of the Langa project is a testament to how the collaborative relationships forged by the Bong’s Inn project continue to have long-lasting impacts beyond Macassar,” said Abrahams.
It was also a valuable opportunity to explore different ways of teaching and learning, and curriculum transformation, said Abrahams, with students paired with community members.
“Here the aim is to meaningfully impact South African contexts through architectural making where students connect abstract thinking to the construction of buildings in a way that directly benefits communities.
“[The approach] also humanises the technical processes of architecture, as well as research and teaching methods, by building on what people already know about their world. [It also] nurtures community self-reliance.”
““Macassar generated a database that makes visible indigenous and localised knowledge that has previously been marginalised.”
In her support of the award, the former director of the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, Dr Philippa Tumubweinee, picks up on the themes of social justice and transformation in Abrahams’ work.
“The project responds to questions of social-spatial justice through a co-production process that promotes place-based evidence to explore curriculum reform and transformation. Beyond the impact that this project has had on the curriculum it has by foregrounding modes, methods, and approaches to building construction, Macassar generated a database that makes visible indigenous and localised knowledge that has previously been marginalised.”
As Abrahams said, “As architects, we make buildings. But it’s also about how seriously we take all the other contingencies that come out of our research.”
Several peer-reviewed articles and a book chapter have been published on the project as well as non-peer-reviewed outputs.
In turn, these research outputs along with the ongoing post-occupancy documentation of Bong’s Inn have become important research data for Abrahams’ doctoral thesis.
“This explores interdisciplinary creative works as a relevant academic praxis to help show that situatedness can help redefine the definitions and roles of agents in local communities.”
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