Johannesburg native Thomas Chapman was 10 years old in 1994 when apartheid was officially dismantled. As a white male raised by progressive parents, he grew up aware of his privilege; interest in both political activism and the built environment led to separate master’s degrees in architecture and in urban design from the University of the Witwatersrand, where he addressed the spatial injustices of apartheid-era city planning in his thesis projects.
Yet despite his advocacy for public space, Chapman, now 33, found himself working for a firm specializing in tropical island getaways and safari lodges after graduating; one of his projects included the transformation of an island into private villages (Prince William and Kate Middleton honeymooned on one). To satisfy a desire for humanitarian work, he took on small public art installations in Johannesburg on the side. “I reached the point where it was completely schizophrenic,” says Chapman. In 2012, he made the jump and founded his own practice, Local Studio.
Local Studio has built on Chapman’s academic work. The now 15-person firm quickly established a name for itself with its scrappy approach to low-budget yet handsome structures, including schools, housing, and clinics, that serve the city’s most impoverished communities. The goal, according to Chapman, is to use architecture to overcome the city’s physical barriers. “Infrastructure was planned to separate racial groups,” he explains. “The injustice manifests in the lack of social spaces in areas that have emerged as poor, black neighborhoods.”
The Outreach Foundation Community Centre, which offers performing-arts education in a crime-ridden area in downtown Johannesburg, nicely exemplifies Local Studio’s ethos. The first new civic space built in the neighborhood since the 1970s, the light steel-frame structure is clad in polycarbonate and galvanized steel sheeting. An innovative use of low-cost industrial materials is a hallmark of the studio’s approach, and plastic is a frequent go-to for wall systems. “We came to the idea that we can adapt the industrial typologies seen on the outskirts of Johannesburg to get more out of tight budgets,” Chapman says.
A steady stream of developer, government, and NGO clients has the firm juggling commissions, including several affordable-housing projects. And Chapman wants to reach beyond what’s local. “It’s only a matter of time until we go farther north,” he says. “The whole continent of Africa is in our sight line.”
DESIGN STAFF: 10
PRINCIPALS: Thomas Chapman
EDUCATION: University of the Witwatersrand, M.Urban Design, 2013; University of the Witwatersrand, M.Arch., 2009
WORK HISTORY: Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens Architects, 2006–12; C.UR B, 2007–11; Dirk Bahmann Architects, 2004–05
KEY COMPLETED PROJECTS: Refugee and Migrant Support Centre, Johannesburg, 2017; Trevor Huddleston Memorial Building, Sophiatown, 2016; African School for Excellence, Tsakane, 2015; Outreach Foundation Community Centre, Johannesburg, 2014 (all in South Africa)
KEY CURRENT PROJECTS: Hope for the Blind Ophthalmology Centre, Modimolle; African School for Excellence, Port Elizabeth (both in South Africa)