Drivelines is a building that does not conceal its true self

LOT-EK architect Ada Tolla says they wanted to design a building as honest as Joburg itself.

Puma City by LOT-EK

From a transportable retail building for Puma, to homes, pavilions and even an extreme sports park in China; LOT-EK architecture and design are always redefining the way we use shipping containers in architecture. 

With Puma City (above), the New York based architects, led by principals Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, retrofitted 24 shipping containers into an award-winning building, complete with two retail stores, that could be assembled and disassembled.

 Qiyun Mountain Camp in China

While in China (above and below), the Naples-born architects, worked on the Qiyun Mountain Camp. At this adventure and extreme sports park, the shipping containers were cut on a bias to generate different units before being joined, tilted and recombined to make up the rest of the building.

  Qiyun Mountain Camp in China

Their recent project in Johannesburg is probably the biggest residential building in South Africa to be built using shipping containers.

Named Drivelines after the auto dealership that used to occupy the triangular-shaped plot on Albertina Sisulu Road on which the property sits, the seven storey building forms part of the Maboneng precinct.

Maboneng is a rapidly gentrifying area in the Joburg central business district by developers Propertuity. It's a popular place to experience the inner city without forgoing the luxuries in more upmarket parts of the city such as Rosebank.

Here you will find markets, coffee shops, restaurants, residential buildings and more within a stone-throw of low-income people living in hostels or buildings with no electricity or water.

Drivelines in Johannesburg's Maboneng

“The most interesting thing about Maboneng is that it has an impact beyond its pure, physical shape," said urban designer Alice Cabaret in a Design Indaba interview  earlier this year. "For example, it has contributed to shifting negative perceptions about Johannesburg, both at a local and an international level. At the same time, it has also helped to open a very needed debate, in academic and social circles, about urban transformation in complex contexts like Johannesburg.”

LOT-EK’s Tolla explained during a recent Skype call that she and Lignano had been coming to Joburg for years and it was exciting when property developer, Jonathan Liebmann (of Propertuity) approached them to work on Drivelines.

Tolla says that having grown up in Naples in Italy, a place which like Joburg is also marred by violence, and with low-income residents in the city having to make do with what they have, they had always been drawn to Joburg because of its honesty.

“The idea of a city becomes more powerful when a city is honest,” says Ada Tolla.

Tolla says Joburg is honest in the sense that the ugly parts of the city are not hidden from you, you can move from the green and lushness of the suburbs and come off the highway into the Joburg CBD where you’re met by less greenery and buildings in disrepair.

It was in thinking around this that they decided that Drivelines, which sits on the busy Albertina Sisulu Road, needed to be more like a billboard announcing that you were now entering Maboneng.

Drivelines in Johannesburg's Maboneng

The shipping containers have pretty much been left in their original colour on the outside with big triangular widows cut into the structures. All the units in the building are studio apartments with different sizes.

Tolla says in designing Drivelines they took into consideration that Maboneng was growing and wanted the building to be a super contemporary way of being in the city.

  Drivelines in Johannesburg's Maboneng

For Tolla and her team at LOT-EK, the shipping container itself is an incredible object as it is easy to find, built to move, light while also being strong.

At Drivelines the shipping containers have pretty much been left in their original colour on the outside with big triangular widows cut into the structures. All the units in the building are studio apartments with different sizes. The floors and outer walls are insulated for thermal changes and the windows are thick enough to enable one to barely hear the traffic noise from outside, when closed.

Tolla says in designing Drivelines they wanted the building be as sustainable as possible.

For example, the triangular shapes cut out of the windows were used to reinforce walls as well as to make little sculpture for the courtyard area. For Tolla, shipping containers allow for creativity as they can be elevated into amazing structures.

The issue becomes removing the stigma attached to their use especially in a place like South Africa where millions of people live in shacks and consider moving into a brick house as a step upwards.

 So while the complex conversation around gentrification rages on, Maboneng like other gentrified parts of South Africa continues to grow and Drivelines is an ambitious way of trying to use architecture to create more low-cost units in an area where people below a certain wage level often feel financially excluded from rental market.

More on cities and gentrification:

Urban designer Alice Cabaret on Maboneng and innovating around challenges

 On resisiting gentrification, social housing and the removal of statues in Central Park

 How artists and architexts in Madrid are helping residents to claim their right to the city