studioATdenver: Overview


studioATdenver was a multi-year teaching and learning programe in collaboration with residents, community leadership and multiple stakeholders involved with Denver Informal Settlement in Johannesburg.

This program was established to take course over a period of 3-5 years and supported a much larger development process that Denver is already a part of in regard to the Department of Human Settlement’s work in Gauteng and South Africa.

“AT focuses on integrating resources and skills towards promoting awareness and generating appropriate responses to the context of rapidly changing and often unstable contemporary urban phenomena.

This approach is underpinned by people-driven methodologies for engagement, research, design responses and planning strategies.”

Aformal Terrain (AT)

AT operated through this processes of engagement by partnering with local leadership, civil groups and residents living in Denver. Outcomes for colloboariton were carefully developed through immersive, collaborative and co-produced process of pre/post and active engagement and established an iterative trans-disciplinary platform for exchange and cross-capacitation.

The studioATdenver: 2014 -2016

The course aimed to engage students and staff of the Univerity of Johannesburg’s Department of Architecture in an active and careful social engagement, research and design process where the outcomes and project parameter would be identified and developed in collaboration with the various local actors (residents, local government, private sector e.t.c) with the underlying intention to ultimately assist residents in their current efforts to spatially develop their neighborhood.

The structure of the social engagement was built on methods, techniques and principles developed through earlier formative collaborative platforms; informalStudio: Ruimsig (2011) and informalStudio: Marlboro South (2012). The core underpinnings, purpose and relevance of AT stemmed from and was built on the development of, and involvement in, these preceding studios. 

The studios took place over a multi-week integrated studio format, that guided a focused engagement between students, the residents and leadership of Denver, Johannesburg.

The studio pursued both practical and theoretical methodologies (conceptual & pragmatic) and allowed for open ended, process driven, outcomes. The curriculum was under-pinned by community based planning methodologies and ethos that aimed at co-producing highly responsive ‘community-action plans’ based on the engagement outcomes and research. These action plans were structured to investigate and co-develop short, medium and long term planning scenarios.

The studioATdenver actively recognised the settlement residents and community groups/organisations as both clients and partners and it was the studio was structued to galvanise developing relationships with local active NGOs (CORC & uTshani) who were already underway with community focussed processes on site, as well as the interest of the the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) and the informal Settlement Network) (ISN) with Denver as an identified category -B settlement for the Department of Human Settlements (DoHS) development list.

The program allowed for students, teachers and teaching practitioners to engage with a people-driven process of development. A core principle of this studio was that teaching & learning took place through the action-research and the physical doing of collaborative work between the field (the context) and the class room (the university) in support of developing linkages between theory, practice and research.

The studio thus aims to expose students to process oriented methods of participative planning, shifting the focus from product (delivery) to alternative approaches (responses). Despite the on-going backlog of South Africa’s formal housing delivery, the upgrading of informal settlements (as defined by the DoHS) and the residents living within these areas is seen as one of South Africa’s key National Delivery Targets.

Yet NUSP, tasked to assist National Government’s efforts “to improve basic infrastructure, services and land tenure for 400 000 households in well-located informal settlements by 2014” (National Development Plan: Outcome 8), is still facing a shortage of suitably qualified professionals and officials regarding:

  • Meaningful community engagement around collaboratively identifying needs, challenges and existing expertise and processes through collective efforts of immersive observation and exchange.
  • Analysis of Community Action Plans (CAPs) in direct response to their immediate condition, needs and means, then combining these CAPs with strategies employed by more formal processes of infrastructural and housing delivery.
  • Development of rigorous frameworks for adaptive settlements, self-made improvements and future change.
  • Co-designed strategies for small scale, allowing people to adapt ‘delivered’ responses more suited to specific needs, challenging current professional or state definitions of housing.
  • Production of architectural and urban strategies founded in rich collaborative efforts investigating; density, economy/ies, spatial scenarios, systems, adaptability and programmatic complexity.

In addition the program aimed to bring awareness to the broader housing crisis facing South Africa and the potential role that architects and spatial practitioners can play as responsive professionals toward this challenge:

“For the provision of basic shelter to lead to healthy, integrated neighbourhoods, the planning of new settlements and the re-blocking of existing ones need to be guided by robust urban frameworks which help structure the richly complex growth typical of the informal settlement.

studioATdenver Brief – 2014

“Architects working in collaborative constellations can offer real value through their ability to integrate both the intimate (domestic) scale as well as the overall (settlement) scale.

Yet in the absence of appropriate training and methodological approaches this potential remains largely unfulfilled and likely to remain so unless academia engages more directly and proactively with real world needs and demands. This course attempts to do just this.”

(excerpt from general course outline informalStudio: Marlboro South, June2012)


Denver is situated in a light industrial zone located along the eastern edge of a broader industrial belt spanning the southern extent of Johannesburg’s CBD. It sits adjacent to the historic east/west gold mining axis (known as the ‘main reef’). This industrial belt (buffer) is embedded into the surrounding urban fabric, simultaneously woven and disconnected by multiple forces: mine dumps, railways, arterials, freeways and storm water channels. Over the past 15 years residual industrial lots and open spaces have become appropriated as living environments affording well located shelter within the inner city.

Denver Hostels and other surrounding settlements emerged, accompanying the city’s development, to accommodate migrant workers arriving in the city, controlled by previous apartheid planning approaches. The numerous hostels in the broader township vary dynamically in terms of spatial and social conditions. Such differences are largely informed by management and leadership. Denver (township/informal settlement) contains minimal established residential areas within its confines – The closest larger established (‘formal’) residential suburb is Malvern East, to the North. Other nearby townships include; Benrose and Jeppestown to the east, City Deep and Heritodale to the south and Gables to the east.

The larger Denver neighborhood sits well connected to various mobility lines; the M2 motorway, Main Reef road, The railway line (closest station..?) and taxi routes. From this is can be considered an area with high levels of accessibility, mobility and visibility. Through these well developed transport networks and as an industrial node offering employment, many people transit the CBD and surrounds en route to jobs in Denver and surrounding industrial areas. Denver can be considered as both a regional destination and transit point taking the provision of employment and other services (manufacturing, motor repairs etc.) into account.

The fabric of Denver comprises of mainly older industrial stock, many of these large factories and warehouses are disused. The area developed rapidly from 1920-1940 and much of the disuse is due to the fact that most buildings are now either unsuitable or less competitive for contemporary industrial uses.

Further to these conditions, the proximity and relationship to the nearby hostels and surrounding social housing developments suggest noteworthy, both historical and emergent, living conditions as informants to perceptions and aspirations towards the provision of services and housing.

Pre-Engagement & MOU

An elongated period of pre-engagement with the various leadership structures was conducted before the studio began, to clearly determine the nature of the studio and the expected outcomes and processes. These meeting included the local ward councillors, regional leadership, housing officials and NGO’s such as uTshani, ISN and CORC.

Before the studio began a multi year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was co-developed that carefully outlined the aims, structure and outcomes of the studio between the Denver Izinduna (local leadership) and AT.

Value Based Approach

The following values governed the nature of all engagements conducted in throughout the multi-year program.

  • Do no harm
  • Work ethically and sensitively in precarious spatial environments and human settlements.
  • Respect and acknowledge the value of settlement residents in processes of research and design.
  • Encourage awareness
  • With a focus on generating useful knowledge to inform and capacitate self-made (grassroots) change, Involving students, lecturers,
  • residents, professionals and local governance.
  • Interrogate assumed roles and definitions of spatial practitioners in a South African context.
  • Generate responsive ways of working within spatially chaotic and unequal scenarios.
  • Work collaboratively
  • Work in partnership with organised community groups, thus building on local community knowledge and objectives.
  • Collectively identify necessary ‘outcomes’ (with residents, NGOs, Local Gov).
  • Initiate and support long-term relationships.
  • Tie into existing processes
  • Identify and assist on-the-ground initiatives already in motion (current upgrades, clean-ups etc).
  • Track, effect and inform governmental policies and/or initiatives in place. (NUSP, DoHS).
  • Assist local organisations with community focussed processes (SA SDI)
  • Investigate and develop emerging methodologies
  • Strategically employ and develop current and emerging methods of working in informal settlements:
    • Re-blocking
    • In-situ incremental upgrading (catalytic acupuncture)
    • Adaptive occupation/ appropriation/conversion (eg. converted warehouses)
    • Community action planning
Student Ethics Exercise

Studio Themes

The following themes were identified as key concepts for the studios. Each theme held a potential scale and time-frame for action planning considerations i.e. short-medium-long term strategies at dwelling scale, interface scale, system scale, settlement scale, regional scale etc.


  • Developing a grounded and critical understanding of ‘on the ground’ realities with, and for, the residents. This understanding is aimed at promoting spatial justice through social, economic, political and physical factors as influences in aformal scenarios.


  • Settlements that promote sustainable and equitable dwelling (living) through social, economic and communal opportunity through the planning for; improvement of systems, spaces and places that allow equitable co-existence. A focus on housing, services and healthcare


  • The co-production of visions, action plans and joint objectives towards short, medium and long-term potentials. Community action plans as mobilising elements for spatial justice and humane environments.
  • Within each of these key themes the following (more quantative and qualitative) considerations have been identified as sub-focuses: (Note: a diagram of this matrix will be included in the studio info pack)


  • Scenario typologies (open lot, walled stand, residual space, unused, abandoned, vacant)
  • Narratives (culture, heritage, history)
  • Community/ies (leadership and people groups)


  • Wellbeing/healthscapes (A rhizomatic healthscape is defined as non-fixed health provision which minimises obduracy (inflexibility) and follows open building theory (Habraken), and extending it to design scales around and above architecture.)
  • Lifestyle
  • Shared space (public, common, open e.t.c)


  • Mobility                                             
  • Opportunity
  • Ecological/ies
  • Services
  • Heirachies (tribal,cultural, personal e.t.c)


  • access, permeability, codes
  • opportunity


  • community knowledge
  • surrounding conditions


  • governmental objectives (city, national)
  • long-term engagement
  • community objectives