Lecture: Writing South African Cities

Writing Place Pushing Genre: Adventures across South Africa and Australia

Opening public lecture by Professor Noëleen Murray, Wits City Institute.

Discussant: Professor Peter Newman, Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute

Tuesday, 27 June, 5PM – 7PM
Tim Winton Lecture Theatre, Building 213.101
Curtin University. Kent Street, Bentley

Please RSVP your attendance to: HUM-MCCAAdmin@curtin.edu.au
Early responses are appreciated.


‘[We] should begin what is perhaps the most important South African dialogue since the national dialogue that led to the writing of the constitution. This is the dialogue about writing the land.’

These were the words of Njabulo Ndebele in December 1998 in his opening address for the Exhibition blank Architecture, apartheid and after, at the Netherlands Architecture Institute, Rotterdam. Entitled Breaking Free of the present, Ndebele’s words spoke to the urgency he saw for new forms of writing the South African landscape ‘after apartheid’. The exhibition blank_Architecture, apartheid and after opened in Rotterdam in December 1998 and travelled to Berlin, Paris and Johannesburg and was accompanied by an edited volume with the same name.

Six years later, in 2004, Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall edited a special edition of the journal Public Culture entitled Johannesburg: the Elusive Metropolis, in which they suggested that the act of writing is an act of form making. Extending the critique presented in the Volume around writing about South African’s largest city, the structuring of a series of thoughts about contemporary South African cities is a challenging one. Considering writing along these lines, there are many questions of form that need answering or at the least positioning before embarking on such a task.

I shall argue that drawing on American architectural academic Greig Crysler ‘s argument that over the last half century through the processes of globalisation notions of the city have changed radically and that we can no longer talk of cities as ‘bounded domains’ but that we rather need think of interconnected urban networks. He writes that: ‘These conditions suggest that the categories of nation, city, architecture and building cannot be understood as separate entities: they exist as simultaneous and overlapping conditions.’

Taking this suggestion to heart, a close look at the production of writing in and about the spatial disciplines in South Africa reveals a series of ‘forms’. At the same time writing occupies a relatively marginal place within disciplinary production, which is primarily concerned with building, while increasingly interdisciplinary work is exploring South African cities as ‘critical sites for the remixing and reassembling of identities.’ It is, as I have argued previously, within these spaces of internal and external disciplinary production that new forms of writing about buildings, sites, cities and landscapes can be found.

About Noëleen

Noëleen Murray is the Director of the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds the Andrew. W. Mellon Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism. Her architectural degrees (BAS, B.Arch and M.Arch) and her PhD (in African Studies) are from the University of Cape Town. Her key academic books include Desire Lines – Space, Memory and Identity in the Postapartheid City (2007); and Becoming UWC, Reflections, pathways and the unmaking of apartheid’s legacy (2012). Her most recent book, Hostels, Homes Museum, memorializing migrant labour pasts in Lwandle South Africa, co-authored with Leslie Witz, appeared in 2014 and was awarded the Michael M. Ames Award for Innovative Museum Anthropology by the Council for Museum Anthropology of the American Association of Anthropologists. It gives an account of the making of a small museum in the space once planned as a migrant labour compound. Her work offers a reading of architecture under and after apartheid. Current projects in Johannesburg extend this interest in architectural history as well as her passion for gathering spatial archives.


If you have any special requirements to enable you to participate at this event please advise when you RSVP. We will contact you to provide assistance.

For information about disability services at Curtin, please visit disability.curtin.edu.au




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