Research Focus Areas

Architectural Design Education

Challenging the conventions of design pedagogy in the spatial design studio

The studio becomes the context to explore questions about design pedagogy, aligning with global perspectives on progressive studio practices. Projects in this field challenge the conventional architectural praxis by focusing on alternative design inquiries. The emphasis on innovative thinking adopts practices from related disciplines such as creative arts, cinematography, narrative development, and discursive inquiry.  Within the spatial design environment, the value of ‘design as process’ is explored as a ‘way of knowing’ by considering a variety of qualitative design methodologies assimilated from the social sciences and humanities. Prototyping explorations and ‘design as making’ furthermore expands the creative process. Researchers in this field are required to be critically reflective, considering space as language, medium and context and to document the process of development as part of the research-through-design process.

Designed Ecologies

This field is about how we design multifunctional green infrastructure (GI) to help combat challenges of biodiversity loss, climate adaptation and food security. The Designed Ecologies research programme aims to foster the human nature relationship through social and ecological pathways. Several research projects exist within the programme, with both quantitative and qualitative approaches. This includes: design experiments that test novel planting schemes and technologies to enhance urban biodiversity and ecosystem services; the refugia abilities of planting palettes; cultural relationships with nature; the role of local biodiversity in place perception and place identity; environmental justice perspectives; the selection of species for climate change adaptation; and the food security potential of indigenous species in vertical planting systems.

Keywords: nature values; urban biodiversity; green infrastructure; ecosystem services; place perception; native species; environmental justice; climate adaptation; food security.

Smart Cities and Neighbourhoods

The 21st century is defined by the way we use digital technologies to collect, interpret and exploit data. There is a growing understanding that planning, designing and initiating successful developmental projects need to be grounded within the local context and its socio-spatial dynamics, which requires a much more fine-grained form of data collection and analysis than is currently found in statistical datasets.The objective of this research programme is firstly to develop a methodological framework and digital platform for the collection and sharing of meaningful and useful visual, place-based and human-based spatial, (quantitative and qualitative) data  at a street- and precinct level, such as routinely collected by students in the spatial design disciplines; and secondly, to integrate and interpret such data within neighbourhood scale proxy models ( twins) to assist stakeholders in a) identifying areas of development potential or problem hotspots where interventions would be most useful and sustainable, and b) providing time-line data for trend and network analysis.

Memory, Legacy and Identity

The recording and analysis of, and prospects for, architecture

This research field positions architectural design in an historical continuum of international (and local) theory, practice and traditions. Researchers in this field are interested in the relationship between people, landscape and artefacts of cultural significance and heritage value. Researchers collect, record and analyse information about cultural artefacts and create prospects for architecture, informed by current best practice, as well as legal and heritage frameworks. Current research activities build on over 75 years of Departmental heritage and cultural research and publication. The Department's thriving Architectural Archive, which has generated a number of research outputs, presents prospective researchers with a wealth of unexploited artefacts and data on South African architectural heritage.

Research possibilities include: historical traditions of design, archival practice, cultural landscapes and adaptive re-use, heritage conservation, Modern Movement architectural mediations, cultural landscape design, practice-led design approaches, technology and the theory of construction.

Regenerative and Resilient cities

Future-proofing cities through climate change adaptation and systems transformation

The future of cities will depend on our ability to adapt to changes brought about by the challenges of climate change, ecosystem degradation, new technology, rapid urbanisation and growing inequality. This research area focuses primarily on the retrofitting and transformation of Southern African cities through the interplay between the technological, systemic and spatial design decisions made when developing design solutions. As research context the focus is on scales ranging from the detailed architectural interior to the neighbourhood public realm. The theoretic locus within which the research field is framed considers the sustainability discourse from the position of complex, adaptive systems and eco-systemic thinking – going beyond sustainability to also consider resilience and regenerative design in the adaptation and transformation of cities as social-ecological systems. Current research projects range from the development of a spatial development framework for regenerative and resilient cities, to climate-change adaptation and mitigation strategies for left-over urban spaces and affordable housing.

Inhabitation of Place

Identity and meaning-making through space

Human identity, place and context are integral to cultural production and meaning-making. This research area considers the role of spatial design in identity formation processes, in fostering belonging and in encouraging well-being. Cultural, economic, psychological and social systems are triggers for research and design in the spatial domain. The interface/s between humans, objects and space enables multi-scalar interrogations into the nature of inhabitation. Processes of inhabitation include behaviour, identity expression, rituals, and taste-making as informants to design and research. 

Relevant design/research fields include: behavioural design, co-creation; cultural production; human-centred design; experience design; inclusive design; meaning-making; narrative design; place-making; taste-making; well-being and more.

Urban Citizenship

Participatory architectural research and design as instrument of urban citizenship

Through participatory processes of research and design, the discourse of architecture is extended beyond the realm of architect-as-expert towards the dynamic collaboration of human-centred spatial agency. Immersive ways of engagement enable deepened understanding of particular user needs and contextual variables, to expand the empathic horizon of the designer in order to internalise different perspectives and worldviews. The dynamic expression of space, informed by ritual, inhabitation patterns, interpersonal networked relationships and the appropriation of space, becomes the focus over static architectural proposals. Fluid and temporal conditions of living inform design interventions that are often small in scale, yet big in their impact on the lives of a variety of communities. The scale spectrum implies a concern beyond individual interest alone towards an intentional engagement with the public consciousness of the collective. In this way, co-design as a process is embraced as an instrument of Urban Citizenship, responsive to the complex emergence of African Urbanism.

Relevant associated research/ design fields include: Scholarship of engagement; Public Interest Design; CoDesign; Spatial Agency; Participatory Action Research; Community Action Planning; Systems- and network thinking.


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