Engineering the Foreshore Freeway in the 1950s: Materiality of the comprehensive, located, measurable, three-dimensional “giant” view
Honorary Research Associate, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Cape Town
PhD Candidate, Open University
In the map archives of the African Studies Library at the University of Cape Town is a charming
picture of 1922 Cape Town, taken from the air. The view of the inner city is as if taken from an
airplane above the sea habour. Over many of the buildings in the photograph some person has
painstakingly scripted building names on labels which appear as if advertising hoardings, perched on
each roof. To be able to see Cape Town from the air was, until this point, the privilege of very few,
and aerial photography as we know it today was rare. As the ground of South Africa was flown
over, photographed, analysed, mapped and printed so it became to be known differently. No longer
were road engineers grounded by necessity during their designs. Now they could be removed from
the place of construction and could design from afar, “as with the eyes of a giant”1
. This paper
argues, after writers in Science and Technology Studies, that this comprehensive, three-dimensional
way of seeing was not an inevitable event, rather it was socially and materially constructed, thanks
to the urging of war, new technologies of flight and cameras, printing, lenses and mathematical
theory. The impact of this new way of seeing on road engineering practices are considered.
Hart, C. A. (1946) Air Survey: The Modern Aspect. The Geographical Journal 108 (4/6), pp184.
ACC-CUBES Conference September 2011 Page 2
As a transport planner and civil engineer I have sat in many transport forums but until two years
ago I had never sat in a planning conference. This will come as no surprise to many planners,
especially those in practice, who are only too familiar with the divide between the planning
profession and engineering in the urban context. A stark example of this is in the institution where
this conference is held, at UCT. Here is a “Faculty of the Engineering and the Built Environment”, but
the departments responsible for the Built Environment are still, for the most part stubbornly silo-ed.
This is not, I hasten to add, for lack of effort on the part of many individuals, but there remains an
unyielding something (or perhaps many things) which refuse to allow more dialogue on the planning
and engineering of our urban areas.
The outcome of these silos are graduates who, at best, struggle to understand their
contemporaries and who, at worst, are outwardly resentful or dismissive of the “Others”. In the
context of our rapidly urbanizing and constrained planet this is nothing short of a tragedy, as well as
(arguably) a moral matter for any urban practitioner. That moral imperative is perhaps no more
urgent than in the Academy. In this paper, and in my research work more generally, I want to
contribute in a small way to some shared understanding, by cracking open engineering practice. My
aim is to engender some deeper understanding of the practices of urban engineering know-how. I
aim to do this by telling some stories of road engineering – one silent elephant in the room of
previous ACC-CUBES gatherings.
To do this opening up I ask the question “how does road engineering work?” of a very particular
historical case study: Cape Town’s Foreshore Freeway. The paper tells of one small part of the
engineering of that scheme, the birth and development of a new way-of-seeing for road engineering
during the 1950s, which was shaped and changed by material technologies (such as airplanes,
cameras, lenses). The paper also draws attention to how engineering (and other practices), in turn,
re-shaped the technologies with which they were linked.
ACC-CUBES Conference September 2011 Page 3
The theoretical sensibility is that of Science and Technology Studies, which has an extensive
literature of socio-technical historical case studies, and which offers theoretical insights to help
guide such work2
Seeing Cape Town rooftops
In the map archives of the African Studies Library at the University of Cape Town is a charming
picture of 1922 central Cape Town, taken from the air. The view is somewhat oblique, as if taken
from an airplane over the sea harbour. On many of the buildings in the photograph some person has
painstakingly scripted building names on labels. These labels appear to be advertising hoardings,
perched on each roof. This photograph was clearly special enough to spend many hours annotating.
The 1922 map is titled “Donaldson’s Aerial map of Cape Town” and with it there is a note: “Every
hotel club, chamber, public library, leading store and office throughout the Union of South Africa
and Rhodesia is entitled to a copy of this map free, in terms of the contract between the publisher
and the advertisers.” Clearly, here was a photograph of significance, an important piece, worthy of
wide circulation. Here was a photograph of which Donaldson was very proud, and which Donaldson
expected there to be broad interest in. This photograph was novel, interesting, and noteworthy.
How so? Cape Town 1922 was not particularly new or changed. The additions to the picture –
the hoardings added to the tops of buildings – point to its novelty. This picture above the rooftops
was a new way of seeing the city. Donaldson’s map of Cape Town could easily have been, for many,
the very first time they had seen their city from higher than the top floor of one of those city
A starting point to this literature can be found in Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor J. Pinch,
The social construction of technological systems: new directions in the sociology and history of technology, eds.
Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor J. Pinch (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1987), Wiebe E. Bijker
and John Law, Shaping technology/ building society: studies in sociotechnical change, (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1992) and more recently in Hackett, Edward J., Amsterdamska, Olga, Lynch,
Michael, and Wajcman, Judy (eds.) (2008) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Third Edition. The
MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass. Critical and historical reviews of the field are given in John H. Zammito, “A nice
derangement of epistemes: Radical reflexivity and the science wars,” in A nice derangement of epistemes:
Post-positivism in the study of science from Quine to Latour, ed. John H. Zammito. (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2004), 232-270. and Sergio Sismondo, An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies,
(Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).
ACC-CUBES Conference September 2011 Page 4
It is difficult for our well-air-travelled eyes to imagine, but this Cape Town captured by
Donaldson was a very different city to the one familiar to most 1922 eyes. In this photograph,
Donaldson positioned the viewer as if they were seeing the city from the air, rather than from the
The privilege of flight
To be able to see Cape Town from the air was, prior to this picture, the privilege of very few. The
first powered flight in South Africa took place at East London in December 1909, only 13 years
before our Donaldson photograph4
and only after WWI ended in 1918 was commercial flight more
widely available. Even then, commercial aviation was a precarious business, for few.5
The 1920s were a time of discussion and experimentation with routes across Africa by air, with
the flight experiments and photographs reported in news and magazines but only in 1931 (eight
years after Donaldson’s photograph) was a scheduled service introduced between London and Cape
Town and even this was, at least initially, an eventful twelve day journey. It was not the rather
routine, sanitized and commonplace experience of today.6
Certainly it is the earliest aerial photograph of the city according to the map archivist of the University of
And six years after Orville Wright did the same in the US.
In 1920, just two years before Donaldson’s photograph, the first commercial twin-engine aircraft from
Handley Page left Cape Town for Johannesburg, via Beaufort West. Facing bad weather and having run out of
fuel, they were forced to land in the Karroo Desert and only made it to Beaufort West four days after leaving
Cape Town. Re-fuelled, they left Beaufort West for Johannesburg, but crashed. The pilots – Major Meintjies
and Captain Venter – lived to tell the tale but the company did not. It folded and so, for the time being, did the
potential for domestic aviation. In February 1920, two years before Donaldson’s photograph, four civilian craft
and one RAF plane attempted to fly from Cairo to Cape, funded by the South African Prime Minister, General J.
Smuts. One team survived a forced landing in Egypt, but the plane was beyond repair; another team lost a
technician in a propeller accident. In the end all five teams crashed and had to abandon their attempts. The
same year two brave souls – Pierre van Ryneveld and Quinton Brand attempted to fly from London to Cape
Town and did finally arrive, after 45 days, many adventures and two lost planes later. It took them 105 hours
and they were rewarded with 2500 pounds each and awards of Knights of the British Empire. For more, see
“History of civil aviation in South Africa,” The Civil Engineers in South Africa April (1962): 66-70. and Gordon
Pirie, Air empire : British imperial civil aviation, 1919-39, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009),
History of civil aviation in South Africa, 66-70.
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So, when Donaldson printed his aerial map of 1922 he was presenting something very new. He
was placing map viewers in the seats, and giving them the eyes, of the daring adventurers and
heroes of the 1920s. He was also giving material expression to a sense of “air-mindedness” which
was increasingly entering the public awareness, particularly in the wake of the role aircraft had
played in giving “eyes” from the air during the 1914-1918 war.7
Although an aerial experience of Cape Town was novel, aerial photography itself already had a
long history by the time Donaldson’s photograph was produced. Before powered flight, cameras had
been lifted aloft in hot air balloons and these had been particularly useful even before WWI8
during WWI aerial photography came into its own9
. After the war new technology was on offer. One
lesson of WWI – of the benefits of aerial photography – was not lost in the build up to WWII. As
Europe prepared for war again, aerial photography was considered so important that in 1938 the
Chief of the German General staff argued that “the nation with the best photo reconnaissance will
win the next war.” 10
ibid.. Pirie, Air empire : British imperial civil aviation, 1919-39,, pp12.
Emperor Napoleon III ordered reconnaissance photography in preparation for a battle in Italy in 1859
(Chester C. Slama, Charles Theurer, and Soren W. Henriksen eds., Manual of Photogrammetry, , Fourth ed.
American Society of Photogrammetry, 1980), pp5. This is also mentioned by Bertil Hallert, Photogrammetry:
Basic principles and general survey, (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1960)).The earliest known
confirmed use of aerial reconnaissance was in the American Civil War (1862). These war photos were limited
by the camera technology and the range of the tethered balloon. (Morris M. Thompson, Manual of
Photogrammetry. Volume 1, Thirded. (Falls Church, Vancouver: American Society of Photogrammetry, 1966)
has photographs. The use of aerial photos taken from balloons for war is also noted in American Society of
Photogrammetry, Manual of Photographic Interpretation, (Wisconsin: George Banta Company, 1960)).
Reconnaissance for identifying real and faux enemy positions was established and soldiers were sent
aloft from both sides of the trenches under tethered balloons, very similar to the scenario in the Civil War fifty
years earlier. Air photos were particularly valuable during trench warfare of the time, highlighting “dummy”
trenches and tracks, making enemy camouflage very difficult. In 1915 an automatic camera was used by the
German army for the first time and 240 of these apparently surveyed 7 million square kilometers by the end of
the war. See C. A. Hart, Air photography applied to surveying, Longmans, 1943), pp7; Slama, Theurer, and
Henriksen, Manual of Photogrammetry,
10 American Society of Photogrammetry, Manual of Photographic Interpretation,, pp8. The importance of
war in the development of technology for photogrammetry is also noted by Slama, Theurer, and Henriksen,
Manual of Photogrammetry,, pp11.
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What was aerial photography bringing which was so important to war? Mapping, after all, had
been around for centuries already, and by World War II most of Europe had been covered by some
form of survey and so was already represented spatially on paper. The aerial reconnaissance gave
seemingly unmediated up-to-date comprehensiveness and accuracy which not all maps had. In a
shifting theatre of war these contemporaneous and comprehensive attributes were key. It was
needed for bombing raids and for ground-support missions. Even existing maps were supplemented
The apparent benign aerial gaze of Donaldson on Cape Town had become, in only twenty years,
the malevolent gaze of the enemy who, given this new information, could strike with more accuracy
than ever before.
Stereoscopy meets aerial photography
“… two overlapping photographs taken from different camera stations….are viewed in a
stereoscope. The effect is a view which would be seen by a giant having one eye at each
end of the air base between the two photographs.”12
While Donaldson’s aerial photograph of Cape Town would have entertained in 1922, other forms
of photography had been providing entertainment for decades already. Painted panoramas with
grand sweeping views were a popular diversion for visitors to major European and American cities.
Unremarkable to contemporary eyes, such panoramic views were a novelty to those in the 1850s
and viewers were prepared to pay to see them. There was a great demand at the time for
“physically, geographically and historically extended vision.” 13
11 Jeremy Black, Maps and Politics, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997)
12 Salt 1933 “Air Survey” Jnl Royal Aeronautical Society. Vol 37, Part I, p209-, quoted in Hart, Air
photography applied to surveying, p26-35.
13 John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic reason, mapping and the geo-coded world, (Abingdon,
Oxon: Routledge, 2004), p135. Quote from Miller, A. 1996 “The panorama, the cinema, and the emergence of
the spectacular”, Wide Angle, 18(2) April:p36.
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The stereoscope, which rendered two photographs side by side as an apparent three
dimensional image, had been popular alongside panoramas in Europe and the US in the 1850s and
1860s. Between the American Civil War and World War I a series of material developments allowed
aerial photography suitable for stereoscopy, for seeing as with the eyes of a giant, to become more
realizable. Glass works capable of manufacturing the necessary quality lenses were built, for
example by Zeiss in Germany; lens design developed; new instruments emerged; new techniques
were experimented with and refined and these were written up and translated, and photographs
archived.14 In retrospect, and with the distorting view of hindsight, these developments appear to us
somewhat inevitable precursors to the development of stereoscopic viewing of aerial photographs,
but Science and Technology Studies literature warns us against such Whig histories, and closer
reading of textbooks reveal dead ends and duplications in the human lives, materials and thinking
which inform the written account15. Rather than being a neat unfolding towards an inevitable
successful end, the story is stuttering and often unclear.
For example, experimentation with accurate air photo surveys took place in England in 1925-6
and 1928-9 but according to the developers there were a litany of problems. “Delays and wasted
flights were caused by defects in the sights, films and other equipment…” “The first films were
almost ruined by static markings.”16 By World War II there were more test flights for stereoscopic
aerial photography, with Spitfires, but the risk of flight “interception” by the enemy meant that
flights had to be at high altitude, and resulted in photographs at too small a scale to be useful for
topographic measurement. 17 Clearly though, there was immense military benefit in pursuing aerial
14 Slama, Theurer, and Henriksen, Manual of Photogrammetry,, p5. One of the techniques was developed
by a South African, Fourcade. In 1904, he made a topographic map of Devil’s Peak using a set of stereo
photographs taken with a phototheodolite of his own design. His instrumentation is on view at the University
of Cape Town. See Clare D. Storrar, The Four Faces of Fourcade: A biography of a remarkable Forester, land
Surveyor, Botanist and Photogrammetrist, (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1990).
15 C. A. Hart, “Air Survey: The Modern Aspect,” The Geographical Journal 108, no. 4/6, October-December
(1946): 179-198., Thompson, Manual of Photogrammetry. Volume 1,, Slama, Theurer, and Henriksen, Manual
of Photogrammetry,, Hallert, Photogrammetry: Basic principles and general survey,.
16 Hart, Air photography applied to surveying,, pp13.
17 Hallert, Photogrammetry: Basic principles and general survey,, p244.
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photography with stereoscopy, which helped create a sense of urgency to overcome such apparent
In 1934 the combination of aerial photography, the stereoscopic view, and mathematical
theories for adjusting distortions and being able to take measurements from photographs was given
the name “photogrammetry” – the “science or art of obtaining reliable measurements by means of
photographs”. “Photogrammetry” gave the viewer on the ground the three dimensional view of a
giant, towering above the landscape and the ability to use such a view to measure accurately. All
that was needed to have this experience was a pair of suitable aerial photographs, and a
stereoscopic viewer.18 With the practice of photogrammetry the science or art of seeing as a giant,
and measuring from that vantage point, became established.
Radar – the importance of position and co-ordinating
By the end of WWII, Hart was excited that radar would enable the problems associated with
aerial photography suitable for accurate map making to be overcome. Hart considered radar to be
possibly “as important as the first introduction of air survey” to photogrammetry19. Radar meant
that the position of the camera in space at the moment of photography could be “fixed” (that is,
accurate co-ordinates calculated), and this had significant knock-on implications for the accuracy of
the mapping possible from aerial photographs. Until the early 1940s accurately locating any aerial
photographs had not been possible. The only way of mapping anything accurately was from the
ground, using traditional ground survey techniques, or by relating the air photographs to existing
ground surveys.20 Thus, despite all the developments in lenses, flight, mathematical theory, camera
stability, photographic paper and shutter mechanisms without radar, and the co-ordinates it
18 Slama, Theurer, and Henriksen, Manual of Photogrammetry,
19 John Pucher, “Transportation trends, problems and policies: an international perspective,”
Transportation Research A 33 (1999). Quote from page 180.
20 Hart, Air Survey: The Modern Aspect, 179-198., p180.
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enabled, the aerial photographs were of limited use as surveys, as the photographs were not “tied”
to the ground by any positioning information. 21
Use of radar also meant that it was now easier to do photogrammetry, and many variations of
stereoscopic readers were developed to help with this practice22. Now that aerial photographs could
be viewed in three dimensions, and location of the airplane known, then it was possible to “read”
height variations on the photographs and to plot the topography measurements (spot heights,
contours, features), accurately onto a map base.23 The practice of seeing as a giant was now, with
stereoscopy, as three-dimensionally complete as any surveyor on the ground, but more
Man with stereoscope. Source:(Simone 2006519)
1947 Foreshore Plan: The mainly two-dimensional view from above
Although there is evidence24 that some aerial photography was undertaken in the late 1920s and
early 1930s for town planning purposes in South Africa, photographs which could be used for
21 Hallert, Photogrammetry: Basic principles and general survey,, p244; Hart, Air Survey: The Modern
Aspect, 179-198., p188.
22 Such as The “Stereoscopic Plotter”, the “Wild Autograph”, the “Stereoplanigraph”.
23 ibid., p186.
24 Snape, the first head of civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, noted in 1928 the Surveyor-
General was at that time “constructing two sets of plans for Cape Town in order to assist the City Council to
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comprehensive mapping in South Africa only became widely available in 1945, towards the end of
the first phase of planning for the Foreshore (which had taken place between 1940 and 1947,
resulting in the Cape Town Foreshore Plan of 1947)25. The Trigonometrical Survey of South Africa
bought stereoplotters for the Western Cape in 1948 (after the publication of the Cape Town
Foreshore Plan of 1947) and then the production of map manuscripts at 1/18,000 (suitable for initial
road reconnaissance work) started in January 1949.26
And so, if we could reconstruct the view of the planners working during the 1940s on the Cape
Town Foreshore Plan it would be largely two-dimensionally biased, with some sense of three-
dimensionality from contouring information. Their view was not the same as our contemporary
view, or even of the view a decade later. Their view was from above, but thanks to incomplete
ground surveys, not fully comprehensive aerial “knowing”. The planners of the 1940s had some
sense of topography, but they did not have the comprehensive, measurable, three-dimensional giant
view through the stereoscope which some of their overseas planning contemporaries had at that
time, and which the engineering surveyors were soon to get.
devise a town planning scheme for its area” (A. E. Snape, “Town Planning,” Minutes of the Proceedings of the
South African Society of Civil Engineers 26 (1928): 135-149, 176-180.). In 1932 in Cape Town Branch of the
South African Institution of Civil Engineers ed., The Snape Papers, (Observatory.: Gothic Printing Company
Limited, 1968),p45, Snape noted that “an aerial survey of Durban is now being completed for town planning”
and in 1933, a stereoscopic image of central Johannesburg was made (H. J. Collins, “Photographic surveying –
ground and aerial,” in Principles of road engineering, ed. H. J. Collins. (London: Edward Arnold and Co., 1936),
232-258.). Aerial photographs for survey purposes, which on visual inspection appear almost vertical, were
certainly taken in the central Cape Town area from 1935 onwards, but they were not comprehensive in
25 This is a fairly comprehensive set of central Cape Town photographs, but it lacks harbour edge detail,
perhaps kept secret for war purposes.
26 Marsh, F.W. and Watson, W.C. 1954 “Photogrammetric Mapping in South Africa”. Survey Review 12(91),
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The 1950s aerial surveys of Cape Town
The Joint Town Planning Council started to look seriously at air surveys in 195127. Survey and
mapping work was a major work stream in the City Engineer’s Department throughout the 1950s.
They worked incrementally, mapping the city, area by area, completing the survey in 1962.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the 1950s were the period when aerial photography as a means of
producing plans quickly gained acceptance in road engineering. Cutten wrote that in the late 1940s,
a surveyor on the ground could produce a quicker, better and more accurate plan than by
photogrammetry. By the late 1950s, “with the improvements that have been brought about in the
machine that are now used to produce these plans, they certainly now can beat, or at least equal the
man on the ground.”28
By the early 1950s, then, road engineers were waking up to a way of seeing the world which was
as novel for them as Donaldson’s map of 1922 had been to him. For the road engineers this meant a
materially different experience of engineering practice. Aerial photography and photogrammetry
had done several things to road engineering. Firstly (and this was the explicit motivating force
behind its adoption), it had dramatically reduced the time which was necessary to spend in the field
on surveys, which meant that the upfront reconnaissance survey costs for road building were
reduced. It also enabled the cost of moving earth, diverting water, bridging and tunneling for
alternative routes to be calculated in the office before a final, least cost, route was chosen. All road
engineering operations, of doing detailed land survey and route testing, costing the routes and
27 It is clear from the correspondence that the commercial company being asked to tender for the work
had photogrammetric instruments which were already very committed, but despite this, in April 1951 the
Committee resolved in principle to undertake air surveys for the areas under its jurisdiction. South African
National Archives, Box 3/PLS/2/1/29 File J1/1 Part II Joint Town Planning General Correspondence 1951.
28 Private correspondence in Notes from lecture of 11 July 1967 on planning and geometric design of
freeways, roads and streets through the application of highway capacity. Course notes prepared by De Leuw,
Cather and Ass, on behalf of the South African Road Federation, (Durban:, 1967), p76-77. From Ninham Shand
Private Library, Cape Town.
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making a route choice could now, in theory, be performed entirely in the office. No longer was it
essential for a highway design engineer to live in the field for long periods designing a road in situ.29
One engineer, recalling the shift in road engineering practice told how ”we had progressed from
walking over countryside, and burning tyres and doing compass surveys to get directions and lining
up by eye with reeds: “up a bit down a bit.””
30 Not only did topographical mapping mean that
“walking over the countryside” was no longer essential, but the photographs gave the ability to see
spaciously over large distances, rather than relying on “burning tyres” for plotting a route. Also
essentially, compass surveys were no longer an integral part of locating. Aerial photography of the
land, and the use of radar to accurately attribute those photographs to co-ordinates, meant that
spaces space could be located, seen comprehensively from above in three-dimensions and its
position, indisputably, known.
As highway engineering shifted from rural to urban areas, knowing topography and the location
of developments on the land was no longer a barrier to doing road layouts, as it would have been
only decades earlier. Quite suddenly the road engineers had received a step change in the amount of
knowledge at their fingertips. Knowing the city topography and position in space of erf boundaries,
water courses and other utilities meant that is was possible to plan and bring urban freeways into
Alongside this new way of seeing was a different experiential practice of engineering. Road
design engineers could now know space accurately enough to join planners in the design office. Until
the 1950s maps in South Africa were insufficiently detailed to allow road engineers to plan from
29 Typically in the 1940s, once a corridor was identified from existing maps, detailed ground level surveys
were made and a few “grade line” (route alignment) options explored using manual calculations to cost the
major item: earth removal/ relocation. Ideally the earth “cut” to make the road would balance with the earth
“fill” needed for embankments over short stretches so that equipment or labourers did not need to haul earth
over long distances, which was both time consuming and costly. These cut and fill calculations required cross-
sections of the existing and proposed road to be drawn, and then earth volumes estimated using the cross
sections. Calculating earth movements. This was one of the arduous and labour intensive calculation task of
the young engineers and technicians which was transformed once digital computers arrived in the late 1950s.
30 Graham Ross interview, 23 April 2010.
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afar. But now it was possible for them to became more office based, rather than field workers. The
way engineers saw space had been fundamentally shifted, with the advent of the aerial photograph
and stereoscopic technology, and as a consequence, so too had the affective human experience of
road engineering practice.
From “1947 Cape Town Plan” to “1951 Metropolis of Tomorrow”
Once they had comprehensive maps in hand, or the means to get them, the engineers of the
1950s were materially advantaged over the planners and landscape architects who had dominated
the planning of cities up until then. They knew the position of the land, and they accurately knew its
shape. This gave them a crucial tool which the planners did not have. From this comprehensive
topographical knowledge they had the means to quantify the costs of road developments, and to
minimize those costs. The City Engineer, Morris, in his 1951 report “Metropolis of Tomorrow”,
criticized the lack of thought given by the 1947 planners to topography and the implications which
this had for the alignment of the Eastern Boulevard. He argued that it would not be possible to route
the Eastern Boulevard as planned in 1947 due to “definitely excessive” 1:10.5 gradients31 and used
his knowledge of topography to discredit the proposals made in the 1947 plan, which had been the
subject of six years of decision-making.
It is unclear whether the 1947 planners were ignorant of, or naïve about, the topography over
which their planned Eastern Boulevard ran, but the engineers of the early 1950s certainly used their
topographical knowledge as a tool to argue against the 1947 plan. As their comprehensive way of
knowing and quantifying the city developed in the 1950s they forcibly argued against the aesthetic
visions of the planners form the 1940s.
31 S. S. Morris, Metropolis of tomorrow: A development plan for the Central City and Foreshore areas,
(Cape Town: City of Cape Town, 1951), p25.
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Engineering adopts the giant view
Aerial photography and photogrammetry combined were “standard practice”32 by the late 1950s
in the US and in South Africa, and were seen as powerful tools for enhancing the cost efficiency of
road engineering. By 1963 in South Africa Reynolds33 could remark “…aerial photography has
emerged as an extremely useful engineering tool perhaps nowhere more so than in the field of
highway engineering.” He argued that the information from the photographs could be used to speed
up preliminary studies of alternative locations and in “preventing major errors of judgment”34. But
speeding up practice, and reducing the risk of choosing between alternative routes, was not the only
motivation for aerial photographs. By the late 1950s in the US, they were also used to convince and
market the working of the highway and traffic engineers:
“Highway and traffic engineers must sell their recommendations to administrators, planning
commission and the public… Everyone is impressed by and can understand a large-scale
aerial photograph of a familiar city or suburb.”35
By 1965 there was “little of any kind of original mapping being done anywhere in the world that
does not utilize photogrammetry in one way or another.”36 In less than 20 years aerial photography,
stereoscopy, radar and photogrammetry, for map making had moved from being wartime tools to
an essential part of seeing, planning and developing space.
As the ground of South Africa was flown over, photographed, analysed, mapped and printed so
it came to be known differently, and so photographs and maps became resources by which the land
could be appropriated and used. Historically, mapping practices had been inextricably linked to the
appropriation of colonial land, the administration and control of them. This air survey work in Cape
32 Quote according to Paul Roberts, “Using new Methods in Highway Location,” Photogrammetric
Engineering 23, no. 3 (1957): 563-569., p564. Reynolds noted in 1963 that photogrammetric surveying was
being used extensively in South Africa.
33 L. C. Reynolds, Recent developments in highway and traffic engineering, ed. SAICE,Anonymous SAICE,
1963), 285., p286.
34 ibid., p286.
35 American Society of Photogrammetry, Manual of Photographic Interpretation,, p428.
Thompson, Manual of Photogrammetry. Volume 1,, p11.
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Town, South Africa was not that of a colonial empire, but it was also building far more detailed and
accurate pictures of the city than planning had access to from maps alone. Such information could
also be used for control.
As aerial mapping became the norm, no longer was road engineering a grounded practice,
Engineers and their instruments could now be removed from the place of their design and
construction. For rural roads this meant less time out in the bushveld burning tyres and waving
reeds. For the urban road engineer it meant that on-the-ground political and social realities at the
place of urban road construction did not need to be faced, at least until the road was constructed.
Indeed it was absolutely possible in 1950 to design a road as if from space, without ever having to
touch the place of its construction at all, in stark contrast to the engineer of earlier, who would have
required an intimate grounded knowledge of his working terrain.
De Certeau suggests that “space”, rather than being a fixed and neutral entity has been socially
constructed, and that this construction has implications for how we think about and use space. He
argues that a distinction can be drawn between the space of the knowing eye and of the place.
Between 1940 and 1960 the combined efforts of plane, pilot, radar, camera, stereoscope,
mathematical theories of orientation and the skilled pen and eye of the surveyor had, as De Certeau
argues, constructed a new gaze for the road engineer, a way of seeing which was as through the
eyes of a giant from space, and not a human with feet fixed on the ground. This alone did not give
engineering any particular advantage over planning. The engineer, though, had very powerfully
accurate three dimensional glasses to add to his view from above. This comprehensive three
dimensional view allowed the engineer to also know the positionality and topography of the land
with sufficient quantitative accuracy to measure and cost, something the planning had not been able
to achieve. The Cape Town plans of 1947, uninformed by quantities and costs looked naïve in
comparison to the accurately located and costed engineered plans of the later periods. For now, the
engineered planning had the upper hand.
ACC-CUBES Conference September 2011 Page 16
By 1950 a powerful ideology of seeing from above, advocated by Le Corbusier and promulgated
by Leslie Thornton-White (who was to have a profound influence on the development of the Cape
Town Plan of 1947) was already in place.37 Le Corbusier had a fascination with airplanes, and later
with the view they afforded, and founded his new, clinical models for an insistent urban
architecture, from the aerial view. The aerial photograph became a “weapon” for him, revealing
supposed orders, thematics and systems that could not be seen from the ground38. Without
measurement, though, Le Corbusier’s ideology was unrealizable. With the comprehensive three
dimensional giant view, engineering practice was also able to know orders, themes and systems
from above and, crucially, to cost and locate them too.
Few would leap to generalize from such a specific story of one case. But perhaps what is more
important than generalization is that such specific stories open up different ways of thinking through
seemingly intractable tensions. For the most part the conclusions from this case reinforce general
STS tents: (1) that practices cannot be understood in isolation from their materials (2) that the ability
to see three dimensionally from above was not an inevitability (there were many other possible
outcomes) and (3) that technologies and materials are socially and politically constituted in an
ongoing, dynamic fashion. The story suggests differences between the engineering view and the
planning view, but perhaps more importantly at how that located, measurable, three-dimensional
view enabled faster and more cost effective quantification of costs. While this quantification was
always part of road engineering, the new view enabled more to be done, more quickly. It also
enabled a loosening of the ties of road engineering practice to the ground, and the possibility
engineering from a distance.
37 Mabin and Smit 1997 Reconstructing South African cities? The making of South African Cities 1900-
2000. Planning Perspectives 12(2), pp193-223.
Oddrun Saeter, “The Body and the Eye: Perspectives, Technologies, and Practices of Urbanism,” Space
and Culture 14, no. 2 (2011): 183-196., Tim Hecker, “The Slum Pastoral: helicopter visuality and Koolhaas’s
Lagos,” Space and Culture 13, no. 3 (2010): 256-269.
ACC-CUBES Conference September 2011 Page 17
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