Do we have Thomassons in Joburg?


“Cities, like living things, evolve slowly over time. Buildings and structures get added and renovated and removed, and in this process, bits and pieces get left behind. Vestiges.” - Roman Mars.

In 1972 an artist in Japan; Akasegawa Genpei, noticed that all over the city there were little architectural bits and pieces that were left behind as the city evolved. This was following the rapid urbanization in Japan. These vestiges become part of the urban organisms and continue to live on. 

The story goes; 

Akesegawa was on a break, walking to lunch. He came across a staircase that went up and then back down but had no door at the top. Then Akasegawa noticed that a piece of the railing had been recently fixed. That’s when something clicked.

He started noticing similar urban leftovers, and treasured them as artistic byproducts of the city. He photographed all the things he could find that were both vestigial and maintained. He began publishing his findings in a magazine column, accompanied by musings about each object.

This is interesting because there are very few things in our lives that are allowed to be ‘useless or purposeless’. Very little of what we do, is for its own sake….or for no sake at all. As philosopher Baudelaire would say; ‘you don't always have to have a goal’ but we don’t seem to get this. 

This is Akasegawa, speaking on that first staircase he found on that lunch break in 1972: 

“Everything in our capitalist society has to have a purpose. So where does that leave this particular staircase? Could you even call it a staircase when all it did was let you peep into a window? Of course you can’t, you can only call it art…a work of art, shaped like a staircase!’

Akasegawa named these leftovers Thomassons. Named after a famous American baseball player; Gary Thomasson. Thomasson was snatched up by a Japanese baseball team because of his insane talent and skill. He got paid an exorbitant amount of money. Unfortunately when he got to Japan, his luck ran out. He remained in a rut where he was sitting on the bench…but collecting a lot of money. Hence he was completely useless but regularly (and well) maintained. 

The physical attributes of a Thomasson are that they are a) vestigial & completely useless and b) they have to be regularly maintained. They have to be regularly maintained. This is the true mark of a Thomasson. Let’s just take a second to acknowledge how mean this is towards Gary Thomasson, despite the fact that his name has been immortalised (if we, for a second, buy into the fact that having your name immortalized is something to aspire to). 

This got me thinking about how many architectural vestiges we might have in our city. My theory is that there are tons of abandoned leftovers all over Joburg, I’m unsure about the maintenance question. If I ever have the energy and will of Akasegawa to run around town finding these Thomassons, I will duly report back. 

On a smaller scale, I wonder how many people keep old remnants in their backyards. Things that are looked after and maintained but serve no discernible purpose at all……works of art, shaped like things.


*Research for this post is thanks to the 99% invisible podcast which did a segment on this story. Follow them here: 

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