Hannah le Roux, 'Fragments of Asbestos-Cement, 1940 to 2040' | ESALA Frictions Lecture
From Richard Anderson
Fragments of asbestos-cement, 1940 to 2040
Asbestos-cement products of the Swiss-Belgian Eternit group and British firm Turner and Newall were used to roof half of the low cost-housing built for black South Africans from the 1940s to the early 20th century. multinationals. Accelerated by the ever-greater impact of storms and fires, these now degrading products will continue to release fibres into air, soil and watercourses. Fragmented to microscopic fibrils, they have become just one of the invisible exposures we face in a chemically altered world. In tracking the tragic narrative of asbestos-cement’s deliberate inclusion in housing for the poor, it became apparent that this is a story that itself can only be retold in fragments where industry records are sealed or destroyed. In their place, evidence of sponsored collaborations in the form of publicity material aimed at architects, and their experimental buildings, can be used to piece together this period. The messy consequences of architects specifying asbestos are a reminder that we need to understand what is embedded in our practices, and show the extent of care that is needed to repair them.
Hannah le Roux is an architect, educator and theorist. Her work in all these areas revisits the modernist project in architecture in Africa, and considers how its transformation through the agency of Africa presents a conceptual model for contemporary design. From a Southern African perspective she considers how apartheid and colonial constructions erase and are overlain by other human actions. She has written on these dynamics for Blank_architecture, apartheid and after; Trade Routes: Johannesburg Biennale; Afropolis; Social Identities; Architecture and Culture, and The Journal of Southern African Studies. She has also curated exhibitions in Johannesburg, Venice, Brussels and Rotterdam, engaged with the spatialities of diaspora coffee ceremonies and the soccer culture of earth fields through design research, and designed alterations to modernist buildings and public spaces in Johannesburg. In 2017 she was selected as a Canadian Centre for Architecture / Mellon research fellow on Architecture and the Environment, and as a Fulbright Principal Candidate for an African Research Scholarship. From 2019 to 2020 she is also engaged as the Area Editor for Africa for the Bloomsbury Global Encyclopaedia of Women in Architecture, 1960-2015.