Thesis Thursday: Alex Coetzee

The Missing Middle

South Africa is representative of a condition that is common to many developing countries; known in economic terms as ‘The Missing Middle’, it is characterized by a high number of micro-enterprises and macro-enterprises but very few small to medium enterprises. This economic condition is also reflective in the kinds of retail buildings we see in South Africa, big-box shopping malls and small-scale informal trade represent two disparate worlds of the retail sector which we have become very accustomed to seeing. What is missing in the South African context is a retail typology that lies between these two ends of the economic spectrum.befrontmag_thesisthursday_alexcoetzee

This thesis explores an alternative retail typology to that of the shopping mall, one that aims to fill the gap between small-scale informal trade and large-scale retail centres in the context of South Africa’s low-income suburbs. The retail centre is located in the rapidly expanding low-income suburb of Du Noon on the site of an existing taxi-rank owned by the city of Cape Town. Aiming to exploit this site’s commercial potential, its periphery is divided up into a series of smaller commercial properties to be developed by private entrepreneurs .

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The taxi-rank remains managed and owned by the City of Cape Town but benefits from the rentals and sales of the surrounding commercial properties. As a public/private venture it is an alternative to the mall, not only as a business model but as a building type. As opposed to the introverted singular mass of the shopping mall, the building is broken up into a permeable edge on its periphery and an open court in its centre.

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Half of this open court functions as a taxi-rank whilst the other half forms a grand market space fronting onto the street.

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Given the small-scale of the surrounding context, the building is particularly concerned with breaking its apparent mass into smaller segments that give it a finer grain at street level. Breaks at key points along the building’s periphery break up its scale as well as provide links to existing pedestrian routes and surrounding cul-de-sacs.


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The building employs two unique construction systems. One system allows small-scale contractors to build vertically by making use of prefabricated concrete slabs, the other is a system developed for the large hanging roof over the market space. This would be a system of steel tension cables hung into place by a platform lift and clad in rubber.

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This thesis takes an imaginative and original look at the possibilities of retail centres in South Africa. Whilst being concerned with developing a new retail typology as a product, it is equally concerned with its process. As well as developing the design project, a narrative was imagined that explores the process of this building’s development.

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* All images by Alex Coetzee unless stated otherwise