Huda Tayob

Senior Lecturer at the University of Cape Town—Cape Town, South Africa

[Q] Question
[HT] Huda Tayob

The architectural archive is a carefully constructed collection of documents, fragments, relics that recount certain narratives, certain histories and certain architectures. Gaps, however, exist within these formalised archives—gaps that offer other ways of being, seeing and understanding the material and immaterial worlds around us. How do we begin to saturate those voids in an attempt to uncover new tools, languages and imaginaries that respond to the complexities and intricacies of our world? In this interview, we speak with Huda Tayob about the importance of conversations and the role of fiction in expanding the architectural archive.
Central to your pedagogical approach is the notion of conversation—as a method of bringing in topics, histories and narratives, which have been underrepresented, devalued or absent within the discipline. How have the conditions of the context, in which you operate, triggered this approach of teaching and learning architecture? How has your context directed you into this avenue of research?

There's a long history to the question and also a kind of a shorter answer. The longer answer is related to the context of South Africa and studying in an architecture school. I studied at the University of Cape Town during post-apartheid South Africa. The world was changing around us and it was a very hopeful moment, however, within architecture school, especially at the time, there was very little change in terms of curriculum. It was very much a Eurocentric curriculum, particularly when it came to architectural history and theory—we learnt the European canon with a little bit of North America. I was also in a class of students who were mostly white South African at the time. And growing up in early post-apartheid was quite significant because if you're not from that world or that specific demographic, especially as a young student, you don't always know how to engage with what you're faced, but you know that there's something that's a bit strange.

To contextualise this, there are certain areas of Cape Town which were historically under apartheid—non-white areas—because the city was officially segregated. And one thing that I remember distinctly from starting architecture school is that there was a strange focus on these areas—they were considered the areas that needed to be developed or "fixed". And these were the areas I grew up in—areas where people were forcibly displaced in. My own engagement with this was that, yes these places aren't perfect, but they're also incredibly complex areas. They are not necessarily spaces that need to be “saved”. At a basic level, that was my first engagement with architecture—with architecture school and with architectural pedagogy.

We have to understand that there are often experiences coming from people of colour and minorities that are not in our formal archives. So how do we start to respond to these experiences and how do we create a platform for responding and constructing something more open in this absence?

There was architecture and there were these places and people that needed 'saving'—that framing is definitely central to why I do the work that I do because my lived experience was never really mirrored or reflected in what I was seeing in architecture school. For me, this led to the development of a particular question; what does it mean to speak back to this curriculum—not only in South Africa, but globally, because this kind of teaching was taking place across the world. After doing a PhD in London and teaching at a few schools there, and then coming back to teach at the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, there was an immediate awareness of the changed student demographic and landscape from when I studied. Things had changed so much in South Africa, yet, the curriculum that was being taught was still, largely, the same. Even globally. So how do you respond to that? How do you respond to the fact that these are outdated and irrelevant? And then there is the conversation that's happening behind the scenes—which is that architectural history is not relevant anymore, and students are not interested. But I think history and theory is the basis from which we understand the world in many ways. So for me, working through conversation has been really important, partly as a provocation—I see a lot of my teaching as a provocation to students. It's an invitation for them to think differently to how they've been taught previously, but also to bring something new to the table and open up a space for them to respond. From my own experience, the form of conversation is really important. Not to say that conversations are always equal. I understand that there's always a hierarchy in teaching relationships; and there's a need to respond to that hierarchy consistently. But when I go into a classroom, as a South African with a very particular set of experiences, every student around that table probably has very different life experiences. When working in a context like South Africa, which is historically, and in the present, so physically segregated—we might literally never have gone to the same schools, lived in the same kinds of areas and we would have had completely divergent backgrounds and histories. So conversations, for me, are an acknowledgement of our differences and a way for us to bridge the gap in our various forms of knowledge.

At one level, it's part of this acknowledgement of the divergences and the gaps. But it's also saying, if we want to understand architecture, architectural theory and architectural history differently, we have to think about the world as it is. We have to understand that there are often experiences coming from people of colour and minorities that are not in our formal archives. So how do we start to respond to these experiences and how do we create a platform for responding and constructing something more open in this absence?

Conversations and discursive forms of sharing and producing knowledge, within the institution, are often deemed as unproductive or rejected—there is always an emphasis or push to produce a ‘final product’. How have you navigated this tension? How do conversations translate into the work of your students?

To speak about a specific history and theory curriculum, such as the ones that I set up at the GSA—where I was given the opportunity to test out a curriculum in the South African context—part of my approach was to teach through seminars with smaller groups, in order to foster a more conversive space. The way I structured the course was to bring in materials that were framed loosely around ways of thinking about architecture through an expanded field. Part of the conversation was thinking about what it means to make an African-centred curriculum, but also thinking about Africa within the globe in an attempt to further open out the discourse.

The materials usually range from those that are canonical and conventionally used in architecture, to materials that are usually not included within architectural education and discourse. For example, we discuss things such as the game Playtime by Jacques Tati which is a film widely written about by architectural scholars, but we also discuss a range of films—one of my favourites is La Noire De by Ousman Sembene1Ousmane Sembene (1966)
La Noire De
—it's a story of a black Senegalese woman who moves from Dakar to France as a nanny for a French family. It speaks about moving within the city from the more informal settlements to the central city. It speaks about race, gender and global migration. So the conversations are usually framed around what it means to look at these films as archives of architecture and what it means to think about cities through these very different lenses. They are also framed around what it means to think about the experiences of cities and of architecture that are often overlooked—people such as women of colour and domestic workers that are omnipresent in cities everywhere in the globe, but are often forgotten or overlooked. This is where people's personal experience and their own lived histories become incredibly valuable to the conversation. 'A Decolonial Feminism' by Francoise Verges2Francoise Verges (2021)
A Decolonial Feminism.
asks the question "who cleans our cities?” and essentially from an architectural or urban perspective, asks us what it means to think about the world from the perspective of those who clean it, and the wider question around waste? So the seminar series works as a form of provocation to open up those questions around who we are usually leaving out of our architectural archives. These provocations already exist in the materials and in the films but the seminar becomes a space that further expands that conversation.

In addition to the films that I propose, the students are asked to bring additional materials of their own. This is how the conversation becomes something else—it becomes a way for me to understand the wider set of references that students are already engaging with, but also opens up an even wider set of conversations. At the end of the year, the students produced a collective zine—it became a material object that is in circulation for the next set of students; to have as a reference point to engage with and discuss. So these wider references and the conversations around them became a part of the wider open-ended curriculum in a way. And because of the way we were looking at creative methodology, especially something like film which is a form of archive but also a practice in itself—there were many students who took on this way of reading, thinking and experimenting into their design studio. It was really interesting to see how these references were carried through in different ways.

Something that we found throughout our education was the limitations of the references that were offered to us, and the resistance we faced from the faculty in our attempts to diversify those references. What kind of reactions or responses did you receive when introducing references that usually function outside of the architectural realm into the school? And how did you navigate those limitations?

That is the problem with any curriculum. You need to think about the lifespan of a curriculum and how it might travel? Last year, when I ran a film workshop with the first year design students at University of Cape Town, there was a huge amount of anxiety from staff and I received various negative responses, including colleagues telling me quite directly that 'this is not really architecture.' My way of managing this particular project was working with supportive colleagues outside of the institution. This particular workshop was in collaboration with Reem Sharif, based at the University of East London at the time, and with her students. The collaboration was based on reading and thinking about films that we thought were interesting, and then asking students to go out and make a one minute film. The head of the school was really supportive and I was given the space to do that workshop, but the difficulties were that Reem and I had to do all the groundwork and it was a lot to do—how do you work online with 120 students across two hemispheres? It becomes a lot of work as a facilitator and constantly pushing back the resistance to it. But in the end, it was amazing because, even though I didn't have much buy in from all of the faculty, the input of the students was incredible. And this was noticed and noted by faculty who were like, 'wow, suddenly we've almost got 100% attendance;from students who we hadn't really seen engaging before’ and that helped hugely. Even though some of this work requires extra sessions or extra work, at the end, it's incredibly rewarding—it shows that there is a need for this space and starts to shift the dynamics within the faculty and the curriculum.

This is one example of an important part of this type of work—to build allegiances with people who are supportive and are interested in similar approaches. Often this happens across or beyond institutional boundaries, and across different parts of the world. Those are the kinds of conversations and debates that are critical and supportive, but also help many of us to continue to do this kind of work.

The Race, Space and Architecture curriculum that you've developed is very much focused on bringing all these different histories and tying them into an architectural space, but also focuses on challenging the accessibility to these types of resources. Could you talk about the relationship between this curriculum and the experiences you had through facilitating certain conversations and references within the institution?

Race, Space and Architecture evolved out of a project with Suzanne Hall at the London School of Economics. This was just after I had finished my PhD; I was teaching in various schools in London, and was working as a researcher with Suzanne Hall. We were working on her project called Migrant Margins3Huda Tayob (2021)
Opaque Architectures of Care
which was focused on looking at African migration in Cape Town and thinking about wide issues around race and reading historical and theoretical works from the very long Black radical tradition. We were reading these really interesting texts, and reflected on the fact that these were missing from both of our educations. Architectural schools are just so resistant to doing anything differently, and this isn't to undermine previous instances of radical curricula in any way, but they're often short-lived and end up reverting back to the canon. So through these conversations, we thought, why keep this as a research project? Let's think about what it means to put together an open-access curriculum that may be accessed by those without the resources we had.

So we started by speaking to a few people in London who are working on race and space—not necessarily just within architecture, but within geography, sociology and other fields. We decided to use the work that we were doing and our position within the institution to make this slightly more public offering—as a way to speak back to the constraints of the institution and to respond to the fact that we had encountered students who were looking for something more than what they're getting from their education and don't necessarily always have the tools to access wider resources and conversations. The initial phase was a reading list, with the intention that we make a website that's as accessible as possible—which we launched in 2020 with Thandi Loewenson. The project is definitely a continuous back and forth and it operates as a form of conversation in itself.

A curriculum that is named Race, Space and Architecture, it is a provocation. It is an assertion that architecture needs to speak to race and space, and it needs to speak to these topics through other disciplines, through wider fields and through acknowledging works that are written or made by people other than architectural academics.

I don't teach courses about race, space and architecture because for me, these questions are central to everything that we do as architects. This is the world we live in—and this is really important to acknowledge. Most of my teaching has been around topics such as architecture and migration, where racialized migration is central; or architecture and feminism, which race comes into it. The Race, Space and Architecture curriculum therefore holds a slightly different space by explicitly naming a place to think about race and architecture. It becomes a very important resource, for educators and students. This is especially in a context such as South Africa where there are paywalls that limit our access to a lot of resources.

The project was really made possible through the generosity of people sharing open access texts, which was an amazing response to see. More generally, I think it has become a really important project that reminds us all about the importance of holding a bit of distance from institutions because they often don't allow certain things to happen, or they won't allow certain things to happen. Especially because many of us have difficult relationships with institutions, for many reasons—whether it's gendered or racialised. We are all aware of the difficulties that minorities or women face in institutions, so keeping a bit of distance and having a space of autonomy is always really important.

As you mentioned, you don't teach the Race, Space and Architecture curriculum within schools, but is it a resource that is continually referred to in institutions?

Yes. So I don't teach it as a curriculum, but I use a lot of the resources, and I often refer my students to it. It's very much a side project that we are continuously working on in the background because we've realised that there seems to be a consistent need for it all around the world. I often receive emails from students around the world asking for access to certain resources. People are constantly looking for practical materials, framings and articles that are not usually accessible to us.

For me, as a curriculum that is named Race, Space and Architecture, it is a provocation. It is an assertion that architecture needs to speak to race and space, and it needs to speak to these topics through other disciplines, through wider fields and through acknowledging works that are written or made by people other than architectural academics.

It's interesting that the curriculum is framed around 6 different actions or movements. Usually, curriculums are rigidly framed under nouns;’deliverables, assessments, criterias’ rather than actions. Could you talk about some of the reasons behind this framing?

For me, this project evolved out of a series of conversations that were around migration. We were thinking about the position of migrants in the cities. At the heart of it was thinking about movement and how space is produced through spatial processes rather than something that is fixed or central. Part of that thinking comes from considering migrants and how they make cities and how this is always a process—it is always in flux in relation to places elsewhere.

Another influence for me, behind that framing comes from a text by Franz Fanon titled 'Unveiling Algeria'4Franz Fanon (1965)
Unveiling Algeria
particular context it speaks, but for how Fanon speaks to this practice of unveiling as something that is incredibly personal and embodied, but also political. It is about occupying space in a city. It is about resistance. It is an act that was sometimes a symbol of domination and control, but also used as a push-back against the French occupation. So for me, thinking through that particular text and what it means to think about spatial processes and transitive verbs as a way of understanding urban space as embodied has been a central concern.

More generally, it comes from an understanding that space is always produced, it's not necessarily a given. It is also an understanding that the racialisation of space is always produced. And partly, this also comes from the work within the Black geography. People like Katherine McKittrick5Katherine McKittrick (2006)
Demonic Grounds.
in particular, who remind us that racialized geographies are not something we inherit, but they are also actively maintained in the present. They're not inevitable. They're not things that we have to necessarily live with, so an act of resistance is always necessary. So thinking about space as a verb becomes a way to acknowledge that as much as extracting, for instance, is an ongoing and historical process, there are ways to think beyond it because it is something that is actively maintained in the present.

Additionally, as a provocation, what Race, Space and Architecture does through the six framings—and I don't think that those particular six categories are necessarily the only ones to think through—but that they offer ways of thinking about racialized processes across scales and geographies as always in relation. For instance, through thinking about 'centralising' and how cities or spaces are made through the making of white centres. Or through thinking about 'extracting' and extractive zones. Or thinking about 'domesticating' and the home as a space that is central to how individuals and subjects are made. So the bigger project within this framing is not only about how we expand the materials we use to think about architecture, but actually to ask what architecture is and what it means to radically rethink it?

The question around 'what is architecture' is really intriguing. A struggle we have within the discipline, particularly when bringing up issues of race, is that often it is hard to express and address explicitly—with the standard tools and mediums of architectural representation. So we resort to finding other avenues and languages to engage with these issues. You spoke about film, as a method of bringing in these types of topics into architecture—what other lenses or disciplines do you bring in to open up space for these types of conversations?

In the history and theory courses that I've been working on, it has often been about bringing together things that are treated as separate. Working through methods, fields and archives as entangled, was a central framing for the GSA courses, and responding to how these are often treated as distinct silos. So we have the methods that we use, we have the fields that we study in, and we have the archives that we look at. Yet, methodologies are always about knowledge production because they are framed by certain fields and certain archives, and this is similar for the other terms. I have been teaching specifically through; film, fiction, architectural manifestos and exhibitions; as a way of thinking quite explicitly about the politics of architecture and architectural representation. I've also focused on things like ethnography, so actual field work as method and archive. I work with oral histories and sound—though slightly more loosely, as they are somewhat more difficult to work with, but still really interesting to think through with students. In the last few years, this ‘methods’ course which I started at the GSA, has been shifting and contracting depending on where I'm teaching or who I'm teaching, so it's not a fixed thing.

To bring back your question around the difficulties of engaging with topics such as race within architecture, I agree that it can be very challenging, but I also believe that these kinds of conversations are very important. A project I'm working on now, for instance, looks at Cape Dutch Architecture, which is very widely considered in South Africa and it's often considered the starting point of architectural history. The project examines the reading of this Architecture in formal architectural history and the archives against fictional narratives, and also against the ghost stories that are within the archive. These are ghost stories that are mentioned in the architectural and wider archives—stories of people hearing footsteps of slaves in particular houses repeatedly over time or stories of mutiny or revolt. Thinking through these traces and poetic or fictional responses has been a really important way to ask; how do we speak to the limits of architecture that already exist in the archive? It's just that we need to know how to read these archives differently. We need to be open to that process. So I don't really have a direct answer to your question, but in some of my work fiction and poetry has definitely a way to bring in new ways of thinking of architecture and to bring in new questions and topics into the field that might be difficult through more conventional academic writing

For me, the underlying part of any conversation or any kind of work is really a mutual respect that is actively worked on. It is important to acknowledge that we need to actively work on respect, repair and gratitude.
There is a sense of reciprocity that unfolds throughout your work—in both the way you teach, and how you build a curriculum. Could you expand upon how reciprocity fosters or cultivates practices of care and support?

Thinking about care is really central to the work of developing any curriculum. There needs to be a careful mapping of geographies, concerns, ranges of people and ranges of issues that we're speaking about—especially when we talk about questions of race, gender, inclusion or exclusion, and any other question of that nature. There needs to be a certain level of recognition and investment when engaging with that type of work. The institution and architecture as a discipline in general doesn't necessarily always allow for the space to do that. Care shouldn't be about working long hours or 24-hour days in order to produce a certain outcome, but it is a careful balancing act where you invest whatever time you have in carefully understanding the intricacies of the topics you're dealing with. In the history and theory courses that I run, I always try to contain the output required in order to allow time for the students to actually engage with the work that they're doing.

I'm also very aware that care can also be a form of containment—containing what people do and in some instances, care can even become a form of control. I think it's important to say this because the problem with some of the work around care in academia is that it can become overbearing or a requirement for oversharing. So for me, beyond thinking about care, I think that questions of repair are increasingly more valuable. How do we collectively work on repairing curriculum and pedagogy, that acknowledge different perspectives and positions? How do we collectively work through reparative processes, spaces and architectures? There's this really amazing essay that was part of the Archive of Forgetfulness which I curated. The author Nkgopoleng Moloi6Nkgopoleng Moloi (2021)
Gestures of Gratitude.
examines the archives of a slave woman and suggests a methodology of gratitude, which I find incredibly valuable in a different approach to the focus given to care. Gratitude is not necessarily reciprocal—we're not asking for anything in return. Having gratitude for those who have come before—for the work that is done is an important gesture. And for me, the underlying part of any conversation or any kind of work is really a mutual respect that is actively worked on. It is important to acknowledge that we need to actively work on respect, repair and gratitude.