Durban - “R1 ball pens, laahnees, only R1 a ball pen laahnee,” shouted the vendor after us.
Traipsing down Dr Yusuf Dadoo (Grey) Street, between cars and tables full of bananas and oranges, we were assailed by hawkers selling their wares.
We were hard not to spot – a mismatched group of intrepid walkers made up of interested local residents and architects in Durban for the 25th International Union of Architects World Congress, which ended last weekend.
While other architects were busy deliberating on issues of the future design of cities at the ICC, we were on an “Alleys and Arcades” tour of central Durban with passionate local historian Stuart Talbot.
I’ve never considered myself a tourist in my own city, so this was sure to be interesting, and I was with architects from countries such as China, New Delhi, Pakistan, Canada and Ghana.
With sunhats, cameras and smartphones ready for pictures, and that unmistakable wide-eyed curiosity that hangs like a blinking LED arrow over tourists, we were ready to explore.
“I had this desire to get people back to the city, and let’s face it when I say ‘people’ I am referring to mostly white people, who feel afraid to come into town for whatever reason. But I love the city, and I want to show how beautiful it really is,” said Talbot.
From the ICC we threaded our way around town to the top of Dr Yusuf Dadoo (formerly Grey) Street. Arcades and alleys have a lifeblood of their own, said Talbot, and offer a unique mix of shops and services you don’t usually find in shopping malls. “The lifeblood of an arcade is the people that pass through.”
He gestured enthusiastically at everything around him, and faces appeared from behind shop doors to greet him – he’s clearly well-known here.
Talbot explained that many of the arcades offered speciality services. “Abdul Aziz Arcade on Bertha Mkhize (Victoria) Street is the place you would go to if you wanted anything related to cellphones,” he said.
Talbot explained how arcades would usually lead to high-rise buildings where people used to live on the first and second floors, leaving the ground level, which included a large courtyard, for business use. An example was the Good Hope Centre in Denis Hurley (Queen) Street.
“If architects still designed buildings like this today, we would have more people wanting to stay in the city centre,” Talbot said.
He pointed out the design of the first skyscraper in Durban, the Colonial Mutual building in Dr Pixley ka lsaka Seme (West) Street, which had springbok heads added to the façade for a distinctly South African flavour.
I must have passed that a thousand times, but had never taken the time to look up and acknowledge the design.
We followed a heady aroma on Denis Hurley Street to find local eateries famous for their delicious Indian food and snacks, and of course, something the delegates had all read about in brochures – the bunny chow.
Kulsum Fatima, an assistant professor of architecture from New Delhi, India, couldn’t help smiling inside the Lockhart Arcade on Ingcuce (Albert) Avenue. She had just delivered a paper to thousands of international delegates about the overpopulation in her city, and the impact it had on the water table.
“It’s just like home,” she exclaimed, referring to the arcade stores selling eastern clothing, jewellery and music. Other famous arcades in central Durban include Kismet Arcade, Kleens Music Arcade, and International Plaza Arcade.
It was interesting to note the entrepreneurial spirit alive in each of them, from tailors to shoe repairers, personalised T-shirt printers and hairstylists.
Then, too, amid the old grey buildings were revamped buildings, such as Mutual Mall, offering a glimpse of what is to come in the city centre as more investment pours in.
Albert Lam, an architect from Vancouver, Canada, usually explores cities alone on foot when he travels.
“Walking by yourself is the best way to experience a city and see it the way locals see and live in it,” he said.
“I don’t particularly like tourism type tours which give you just one impression. This tour is different though, we are part of the local masses experiencing the city.”
Lam said Durban had “an honesty” about it, with its mix of cultures making it unique.
We ventured into the Family Express Store on Ingcuce Street and gasped at the interior.
Looking above the cans of baked beans and teabags stacked high, we took in beautiful wooden arches, high ceilings, and even more special – stained glass windows reminiscent of the building’s heyday as the old Congregational Church. It later became the Little Abbey Theatre.
“Now you know my favourite gems in the city,” said Talbot.
No Durban tour would be complete without passing by the City Hall. Outside were the homeless men I had interviewed just a few weeks back, when eThekwini Metro were accused of rounding them up and dumping them south of the city. Hopefully architects can help find a way to cater for the homeless.
From the top of town, we hopped on a People Mover bus back to our starting point.
As one local “laahnee” quipped: “No more shopping at the mall in La Lucia from now on. It’s safe here in town and things are so much cheaper”.
Street pedestrianisation gets mixed reviews
If eThekwini municipality has its way, busy Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme (West) Street will become a pedestrian only street in the future.
As a foretaste of what could come, the municipality sectioned off a portion of the street, from Stalwart Simelane (Stanger) Street down to Mahatma Gandhi (Point) Road, covering about three blocks, for the creation of a “Linear Park” for the duration of the 25th International Union of Architects World Congress.
A patch of green synthetic grass appeared with some re-purposed pallets turned into makeshift benches.
We caught up with three architecture students who were lounging around the area.
“We really like this set up, but I think it would work more if this was a road with more restaurants and coffee places, this motor-shop environment doesn’t really work,” said Vamumusa Cele, a third-year architecture student at DUT.
His friend Ndumiso Duma said they liked that the place wasn’t “prettied” up with trees and plants, as they had the chance to “connect with what’s going on around us”. “If people wanted to come to town and sit among trees at the tables, then they might as well have gone to a park instead,” said Duma.
Sarikha Binda, who recently completed her studies in architecture, said it was fun to “chill” at the roadside before they all tucked into some lunch at the side of the road.
Meanwhile, businessman Dean Hansraj was less than impressed with the makeshift “linear park” that popped up in front of his shop.
“Look, we have had visitors from the conference come here, see this little park set up and buy from us, which is good.
“But the traffic chaos that this has created is bad, even the car guards are losing out on business as no cars can park here,” said Hansraj.
He said he had noticed several accidents in the area as cars only had two lanes to turn, and a sharp bend to navigate for turning.
“I honestly don’t know how this will work in future. there needs to be a proper plan presented by the council before they put up linear parks or pedestrianisation of the roads,” said Hansraj.
Arthi Sanpath, Independent on Saturday