Designing a New Cape Town
South Africa's Vision through Design
By Beth Abrahamson
Published Mar 2014
Now is a poignant time for South Africa, as April marks the 20th anniversary of democracy in the country, a country that has had to completely reinvent itself, both socially and physically. Cape Town, in particular, is off to a running start, voted the No. 1 place to visit in 2014 by The New York Times and named the world design capital of the year, beating out stiff competition. The breathtakingly beautiful city is a place rich with history tracing back to the origins of time—a place where two oceans meet, a place of immigrants and locals alike. And in the shadow of the city’s postcard-perfect landscape lie up-and-coming districts, like Woodstock, which have become breeding grounds for new businesses and design centers. The formerly industrial Woodstock neighborhood has seen a recent wave of renewal, consisting of trendy markets at the old Biscuit Mill, prominent art galleries like Michael Stevenson, and designer studios at the Woodstock Exchange. As Cape Town takes its place on the world stage of design, a spotlight shines on the African continent as a whole. This chart-topping destination is a long way from the victimized South Africa that has become so familiar in Western media. So does this mean that South Africa is finally escaping the victimhood that has haunted it for so many years? “Live design. Transform life” is the city’s motto, setting the tone for design’s role as an igniter of change. With four main themes in tow—African innovation, bridging the divide, today for tomorrow, and beautiful space/beautiful things—the world design capital sets out as a “global movement toward an understanding that design does impact the quality of human life,” says Mark Breitenberg, president of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. The aim is that this movement “for all citizens to experience” will ignite the development of South African talent and introduce design as a problem-solving tool. This design aims to solve real problems, not just to produce pretty products. And it is indeed thriving, as design usually does where there is a lack of resources, tourism rates are booming, the knowledge economy has been boosted, and more jobs have been created. However, it is in this prescriptive method of design that the fundamental problem lies. By approaching the country as a problem to be solved, we underplay the true complexity of city life and forms. The aim is to move away from binaries, which can oftentimes be oversimplified, and rather develop a more proactive anthology for change. Yes, new and improved design-centric neighborhoods like Woodstock are a positive breeding ground for creativity. But are added economic value and surface aesthetics really the be-all and end-all solutions for change? Of course not, although they are definitely a start. As much as Cape Town’s recently reenvisioned character shines, it is difficult to place a single identity on a city that has not one, but many pivotal things that quantify it. A city in flux, Cape Town is made up of complex and sometimes competing geographies; however, it is a city ultimately invested in this idea of unstable identity and thus a very real representation of what it means to be human. A new urban order is emerging in Cape Town, and that, in a sense, represents a glimmer of hope for the future of humanity. THINGS TO DO IN CAPE TOWN Cape Town’s natural beauty and culture plays a big role in the South African city’s popularity in today’s media outlets. With a bounty of destinations offering an array of activities and views, one can never get bored with it. TABLE MOUNTAIN This picturesque mountain is a landmark not to be missed featuring a plateau (hence the table name) of approximately two miles from side to side with impressive cliffs and views of Cape Town. WOODSTOCK EXCHANGE In the heart of Cape Town is a collection of creatives, artists and businesses ushering in a new world of design in South Africa. BISCUIT MILL The mill is a vibrant, warm-hearted village in the heart of Woodstock where you’ll find night markets, dynamic offices, and workshops, a place where festivities never end and creativity flourishes. STABLE Stable is a collection of innovative South African designers, artists, and artisans from every corner of South Africa. ORANJEZICHT CITY FARM An urban farm in the middle of the sprawling city of Cape Town. Need we say more? CLARK’S BOOKSHOP Practically every single printed literature from continental Africa can be found here—even those hard-to-find books. A must-explore spot!