Amina Kaskar

Co-Founder of Counterspace—Johannesburg, South Africa
Associate Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand—Johannesburg, South Africa

[Q] Question
[AK] Amina Kaskar

Modernist city buildings currently dominate our definition of architecture. Permanence, monumentality and building regulations are considered the pillars of what distinguishes ‘architecture’ from ‘objects’. Architectures, however, exist within a range of spatialities—in the ephemeral, the experiential, and the temporary. Architectures exist within the fleeting spaces that we once appropriated to the perpetual spaces that we still continue to inhabit. How do we begin to expand our understanding of architecture within an institution that is built upon rigid processes and legacies? In this interview we speak with Amina Kaskar about her attempts at exploring soft-spatialities as forms of architecture within the institution and beyond.
Much of your work is centred around topics of migration and its role in shaping spaces and narratives within the city. This is clearly demonstrated through the collaborative work you do at Counterspace1 Counterspace Studio
and the topic of your current PhD — which focuses on South Asian migrant spaces in Johannesburg. How has this trajectory of research been influenced by your own educational experience? How do these topics and questions translate into the studios you teach?

I studied at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for both my undergraduate and postgraduate in Architecture. I then went on to study a Master's in Human Settlements at KU Leuven in Belgium. This for me, was an integral part of my architectural journey in terms of forming my own research and PhD work. I started to really focus on larger scale urban work as I was able to engage with a lot of migrant spaces and refugee narratives within Brussels North. As you mentioned, I’m currently working on my PhD also at KU Leuven. In particular, I’m looking at the soft-spatialities associated with South Asian migrant spaces. Using inherited knowledge and intergenerational knowledge systems to find out how we form and appropriate spaces within the city of Johannesburg. I was also involved in various curatorial projects, working on museum projects for the women's living heritage monument, and the Maropeng Cradle of Humankind Museum2 The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site
. This made me quite passionate about exhibition and curatorial work as a medium to explore my research.

Many of those topics and questions are interwoven into the design studio. I definitely try to use the pedagogical space as a testing ground for some of these research ideas. Last year, I ran a design studio called Metropolitan Nomads. That studio was within the Johannesburg CBD. It looked at migrant spaces and urged students to generate particular lenses to try and understand nomadic practices and temporary spaces in the city. Much of the narrative around soft spatialities is how people appropriate spaces in unassuming ways through lightweight and mobile structures. The studio becomes a very interesting and collaborative space. A lot of the students who are interested in these sorts of themes in the studio, either engage in my own personal work or take on those themes in their own master’s thesis work.

It’s really about giving the students ownership of that work and trying to find some sort of passion or interest that they can take on in their own research. I don’t want to impose my own interest and research onto the studio.

The demands of the architecture curriculum and by large the institution, often push students into a cycle of constant production. There is no time left for deeper speculation and research. As a tutor, how do you mediate between this pressure of production while ensuring that these topics are given the time and integrity to be properly addressed and unpacked?

This is definitely a challenge in architectural universities. I’m not completely sure if the work that we’ve been doing solves that. But we do try to alleviate some of those pressures by changing the deliverables in a way so that it’s not this heavy output in terms of plans, sections, elevations, or other traditional architectural documents.

For me, what’s been particularly exciting is this idea of performative methodologies. With my students last year, they had to design small scale architectures at the scale of the person. The idea wasn’t that they worked on this project and then presented it to me. Rather, once they had designed and completed the project, they would have to let it out into the world and present it to the people that needed to hear about the research they were doing in relation to the city. The students had the freedom to decide which mediums and formats they would use to capture and translate that information back to me and to the university.

The priorities and responsibilities of the project were therefore shifted towards the inhabitants of the city, as opposed to what I expected from them, or what the university required. With COVID and everything moving online, it’s allowed us to push the limits in terms of what the students produce, even more. We were really trying to use the online medium and the virtual realm to also limit the excessive production of work. We experimented with this last year and it was this idea of a drawing triptych. Students are required to just do three drawings and that was it. They would have to communicate their complete projects, really pushing themselves in how they would undertake that. So if you are limited to just one drawing or three drawings, you have to really think, what are you communicating? It’s not about quantity, but quality. How can you push yourself to express what you need to in a limited amount of work? It was an interesting exercise that made students dedicate their time to really think about the concepts and implications of their projects rather than use their time to produce countless drawings that could mean nothing.

The outputs of the research-based design studios are often met with criticisms from the broader faculty. Within our faculty, there has been an increased focus on pragmatism therefore projects of a more research-based nature are not deemed as valid as “10 drawings and a giant model”. Do you often face the same criticisms within the institutions that you teach?
I do remember vividly and clearly how restrictive it was when I was studying. I remember how painful and stressful it was to try and legitimise your own thoughts when it wasn’t being legitimised by the system.

Yes, for sure. It’s interesting because usually each studio is driven by a specific academic or designer that’s focusing on their particular research work. If you are driving a studio according to your own architectural interest, it becomes a bit messy in terms of critiquing the output because it is experimental in some way. The students present the work across the boards of the different electives and studios all together, therefore you can see that disparity in the work. There are certain studios that are producing outputs that are much, much different to that of what I’m producing in my studio. We try to move away from comparing the apples to bananas situation. Especially over the years, the outputs are becoming so diverse in that someone’s producing a form-based output, as opposed to people who are still doing drawings—it’s becoming very difficult to put them side by side and compare them in a particular way.

It always comes back to the question of “Is this still architecture?”. I come across this often when interviewing these South Asian migrants about South Africa. People say ‘Where’s the architecture, we don’t see the architecture, you’re speaking about social narratives, interviews, spaces that are there one day, and then they disappear the next. What is the actual architecture that you’re designing?”. Through our teaching we are trying to disrupt this narrative of the modernist city building being the dominant definition of architecture and the only reference we include in the set curriculum. I know for myself, I felt very confined in this bubble during my earlier studies. I was very much wanting to work within a space of artistic practice. I loved lightweight, ephemeral design that used light, fabric and lightweight and mobile structures. The output that they required from us was usually a building that needed plumbing, electrical and structure. That very much was the narrative that was driven and it became really difficult because there was no space for exploration.

I do remember vividly and clearly how restrictive it was when I was studying. I remember how painful and stressful it was to try and legitimise your own thoughts when it wasn’t being legitimised by the system. It is important that we do give the students some sort of flexibility in their own voice, even if there are power structures that are still trying to impose those outputs

We agree on this and have felt the same way. The crit/critique is a space where much of this frustration and anxiety manifests. You are expected to stand in front of a panel and present your work. Most of the time, it is a panel of full of white males and you, as a POC, have to prove your case. It really does exacerbate those dominant power structures.

It is interesting that you share that point. I have been teaching first years and when you teach first year, you realise there’s a lot of accepted norms that you have just become so accustomed to. The students say “why is this normal?”

The fact that they say, “Why are you guys so mean when presenting our project?” took us back a little bit, because I thought, “We know we’re not being mean, this is just how architecture is critiqued and you’re going to be critiqued in that way for the rest of your life, whether you’re a student or whether you built a massive building. That’s just how architecture is...” It really made us internalise exactly what you’re saying. When you're in the position of the lecturer or tutor, you always think it’s for the benefit of the student that you critique in this particular way. From this position, you don’t see it as being harsh. It’s an interesting thing, because I can see both sides, how it’s coming across as personal and it is very emotional and/or dismissive and attack-like. For me I don’t know how to achieve that balance yet.

When I was in Belgium, there was a different structure that tried to break away from the traditional crit format. It was very collaborative as you didn’t present individually but rather you present as a group. They treated the students as if they were a team or an office working together. Even though you worked on individual projects, it was never about you. It was about the team, which was really nice. I quite enjoyed that. If one person needed some support in any way during the presentation, there was always backup. It was never about standing in a studio and presenting to a jury. It was very much a social space with people passing in and out of the spaces and projects. You were talking to your fellow students, academics and the externals—it didn’t feel very top-down at all.

That’s always been our hope and our objective; to reframe architectural education and how we represent it to a wider audience.
You mentioned earlier that you had an interest in exhibitions and curation. These rituals/mediums have the potential to act as a testing ground for new ideas and experimentations. What is the role of exhibition and curation within the design studios you teach?

Exhibitions and curating was the only space that allowed me to practice architecture in the way that I wanted to. I am able to do quite detailed designs while still exploring experiential and ephemeral qualities. When I graduated, there were very limited spaces in terms of architectural practices where you can be a bit more free in terms of designing all these brilliant, beautiful things. I found my home in this curatorial space working for exhibition design companies.

The semesters that I teach are quite short therefore they don't allow the time for a formal exhibition at the end of each semester—it’s out of my control to an extent. But there are opportunities where I still implement notions of an exhibition within the subject's structure. As I mentioned before, I had students who built some sort of human scale structure and that they took out into the real world. So it wasn’t an exhibition as such but the idea was to take the design project and present it in a different sort of environment. Whether that was an exhibition that people could view and walk past, or if it was a space where people can pause. Because for me, if it’s an exhibition in the studio space, that’s just a pinup right. It's just architecture being viewed by architects, which is not as fun and interesting as taking it out into the real world. This exploration of what an architectural exhibition could be, lead the concepts behind one of Counterspace’s very first projects

We approached our university to ask them whether we could do an exhibition for our masters’ student work. They said yes to go ahead. We found a location in the inner city and we wanted to create a supermarket. So we printed all our architectural work on milk cartons, cereal boxes, loaves of bread and we had trolleys. We invited people to shop and buy architectural projects and engage with it in a different way. That’s always been our hope and our objective; to reframe architectural education and how we represent it to a wider audience. I hope to extend this to my own architectural teaching. If only the semester gave me the time and freedom to try, fail, experiment and explore with all that a little bit more.