‘Transformative Pedagogies’ is a multi-institutional teaching and research programme that seeks to transform both the way we teach architecture and what we teach.
South African universities are experiencing an upsurge in student activism, fueled by two distinct concerns: insufficient funding for poor students and the cultural alienation of black students at historically white universities. Both are complex, contested issues but the legacy of apartheid spatial ideology and planning has left architecture as a discipline in a particularly precarious position. While the terms ‘decolonisation’, ‘transformation’ and ‘curriculum’ have become key buzz words, the definition of what it means to ‘decolonise’ or ‘transform’ a curriculum remains a grey area. There is no clarity about whose responsibility it is to undertake this process. At the GSA, we believe it is crucial to develop shared understandings through continuous dialogue and experimentation about the meaning of both curriculum and decolonisation. Educational experience implies more than the topics covered in any given course: it encompasses the attitudes, values, dispositions and world views that are learned, un-learned, re-learned, re-formed, deconstructed and reconstructed while undertaking a degree. The crude definition of ‘decolonisation’ involves replacing works from Europe or the global North with local theorists and African authors, a process that is meant to prevent universities from becoming mere extensions of former colonisers.
But decolonising the curriculum is far more nuanced than simply replacing theorists and authors. If the word ‘curriculum’ encompasses a broader educational experience, universities first need to define how they approach the development and dissemination of curricula. Only then can they move forward with the process of decolonisation. The question of how post-conflict societies like South Africa approach curriculum is particularly crucial. At the GSA, we have chosen to address curriculum as both content and praxis: in other words, focusing not on individuals or the group in isolation, but rather through exploring how both individuals and groups create understandings and practices. We understand it as vital for all participants - staff and students - to agree that colonialism and apartheid robbed the country of ideas, skills, creativity, originality, talent and knowledge. We argue that part of the difficult and challenging process of transformation acknowledges this loss. It also involves conscious, deliberate, non-hypocritical and diligent interest by both black and white academics in indigenous knowledge systems, cultures, peoples and languages. Theories must be generated that is informed by life as it is lived, experienced and understood by local inhabitants. Universities need to introduce well-theorised scholarship emerging from, and underpinned by, the African local experience. Universities need to keep encouraging critique and problematisation of what is considered to be known and the processes involved in generating it. And a decolonised curriculum needs to exist in dialogue and contestation with the Greek, Arab and European worlds. It cannot be seen to be everything about all things.
The decolonisation of buildings and public spaces is not a frivolous issue and is inseparable from the democratisation of access. As the scholar Achille Mbembe has said, ‘when we say access, we are also talking about the creation of those conditions that will allow black staff and students to speak of the university: “This is my home. I am not an outsider here. I do not have to beg or to apologise to be here. I belong here”. Such a right to belong, such a rightful sense of ownership has nothing to do with charity or hospitality. It has nothing to do with the liberal notion of ‘tolerance’. It has nothing to do with me having to assimilate into a culture that is not mine as a precondition of my participating in the public life of the institution. It has all to do with ownership of a space that is a public, common good. It has to do with an expansive sense of citizenship itself indispensable for the project of democracy, which itself means nothing without a deep commitment to some idea of public-ness.’
To achieve this, a new set of pedagogies must be conceived of, a set of creative practices that make it impossible for official structures to ignore or marginalise: we call these ‘transformative pedagogies’ and it is our intention to develop these as the basic building blocks of a new curriculum. Diversity - of medium, perspective, approach and context - is key. The question of what constitutes an authentic African architectural culture is still premature. At the GSA, we believe protecting the space in which such a culture may develop and mature is our fundamental and main priority.