ESR 8 – Jhono Bennett

Contested Spatial Imaginaries of a post-post-Apartheid City: A design-led, southern urbanist exploration of spatial practice in Johannesburg, South Africa

Research Objectives

The initial inquiry is guided by a means to explore the nature of South African ‘city-making forces’ and investigating their relation to Southern Urbanism concepts with a focus on contested ‘spatial imaginaries’. This exploration is seen as a means to investigate how the identified contested ‘spatial imaginaries’ play out in South African urban centers, as well as the relationship architectural, and related spatial practice, plays in regard to these ‘city-making forces’ – with a focus on contextual spatial practices. As part of the focussed methodological processes, the study will support a series of speculations on what a responsive approach to architectural and related spatial practice could produce in action, material and systemic form. Through the research material produced, the study aims to examine concepts of ‘value’ in regard to the creation of such tacit-knowledge production approaches in relation to existing positional critiques on the discipline of architecture in South Africa and adjacently in the United Kingdom.

Project Description

Within the existing discourse on what urban scholars write, discuss and publish on South African cities, there is a notable gap on how these researchers, alongside spatial design practitioners, can apply more socio-spatially attuned principles of city-making to their disciplinary practice.

The proposed study aims to use tacit means of design-research to explore the contemporary spatial imaginaries and the prevailing socio-cultural contestations that have been identified through the projects’ initial reflection-on-practice study. By employing a deliberately iterative, inductive and tacitly-driven design-research set of methods to explore Southern Urbanist readings of ‘city-making’, the project seeks to speculate on the systemic potential of such modes of spatial practice and their capacity to respond critically to the socio-spatial dynamics identified in the initial reflective study.

This generative inquiry is seen as a means of contributing to current discourses on Southern Urbanist city-making through developing and articulating the nature of a more spatially attuned and grounded ways of both understanding and working within the complexity of a context, such as ‘post-post-Apartheid‘ Johannesburg.

The research project forefronts critical principles of spatial justice within the framing of city-making, and draws from initial inquiries’ focus on the systemic legacy of spatial inequality that underpins South Africa’s endemic patterns of urban growth and use. The project is simultaneously interested in examining the concept of ‘value’ around the production of such tacit-knowledge production approaches and will employ contemporary auto-ethnographical, feminist and positionally critical methodologies of situatedness to inform the researcher’s involved own demographic identity in relation to the context as a means of laying-the-ground for a continued and responsible reflective action-in-learning approach to spatial research and architectural praxis.

Tasks and Methodology

The proposed study aims to use tacit ways of design-research to explore the contested perceptions of urban imaginaries and the resultant cultural contestations in practice. By employing a deliberate position on iterative and inductive methods as a means of exploring a how of Southern Urbanistdesign I aim to support the need for an “…opening up of a fertile research agenda for more grounded and spatially attuned phronetic research…”(Pieterse, 2011).

The methodological principles that underpin the proposed study are a crucial aspect of the methodological design and have been framed through 3 underpinning concepts:

Visual Means of Sharing Across Difference

A strong focus will be given to visual centred methods as a means to create a shareable (Rose, 2016) and cross-cultural, cross- disciplinary and cross-literacy system of collecting, processing and analysing the data uncovered. Sets of visually strong artefacts will be designed around each research category. These visual outputs will be curated across a larger collection of creative and written to make the data accessible across a wider local audience while developing a unique and critical ‘art-site relationship’ (Kwon, 2002) for its analysis and sharing.

Power Disjuncture Recognition in Research

Learning from the documented work of the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) (Petti et al., 2013), a grounded, ethically critical and engaged design-research practice will be employed throughout the process.

Responsible Positionality

The author intends to employ an auto-ethnographical (Chang, 2008) approach of reflecting on practice that uses Feminist principles of recognising the embodied situatedness (Rendell, 2004) of my own demographic identity in this sector. This will take the form of different personal and public journals and archives.


This study will be supported by a practical secondment with De Smet Vermeulen Architects based in Belgium. This secondment period is framed through questions of the architecture in response to a welfare state as well as examinations of practice based archiving and documentation. A second cultural secondment will be conducted with HNI, Rotterdam and is currently seen as a means of examining the narratives of ‘Southern’ architects in relation to tacit knowledge production and communication.

Dissemination and Communication

Ultimately, this inquiry will be translated through the resultant observations and findings into knowledge mediums that can speak to current as well as future spatial design practitioners (architectural) and urban researchers in South Africa. During the dissertation several themes will be examined and shared in smaller formats across different platforms (academic, social media and digital exhibition) in between South Africa, European and abroad.

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  • Chang, H. (2008). Autoethnography as method. In Autoethnography as Method (Issue v. 1). Left Coast Press.
  • Kwon, M. (2002). One place after another: site-specific art and locational identity. MIT Press.
  • Petti, A., Hilal, S., & Weizman, E. (2013). Architecture after revolution. Sternberg Press.
  • Pieterse, E. (2011). Introduction: Rogue urbanisms. Social Dynamics, 37(1), 1–4.
  • Rendell, J. (2004). Architectural research and disciplinarity. Architectural Research Quarterly, 8(2), 141–147.
  • Rose, G. (2016). Visual methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials (4th editio). SAGE Publications Ltd.