Inaugural Lecture

The New South

26 October 2017 / Senate Room, Solomon Mahlangu House, University of the Witwatersrand

Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism, and Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray, in her inaugural lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand, presented a summary of her intellectual interests in the role, place and disciplinary histories of Johannesburg, through an elaboration of her flagship research project ‘The New South’. The project investigates the making and unmaking of the ‘dream’ space envisaged by a set of key South African architects, planners and urban designers during the dying days of apartheid, for out-mined land located to the south of Johannesburg.

Murray’s presentation took a journey through her 20-year body of research as a way to explore the intellectual suggestions contained in the title of the talk. Starting with a set of propositions connected to the idea of the ‘south’ as it has emerged in her own field in contemporary urban studies, she asked the audience to think of a genealogy of the term as it has appeared through a process of working against notions of the north and the west. Articulated as a constellation of work (some might say a new canon of sorts), it presents variously as in ‘Southern Theory’, in postcolonial studies as ‘subaltern’, or in ideas of ‘south-south collaboration’, and in practice in ‘Southern Cities’.

She used these ideas to formulate a series of questions pertaining to an approach to what ‘critical architecture and urbanism’ (the name of the Chair) might mean in relation to a set of readings in the spatial disciplines in contemporary South Africa. Murray’s thinking is particularly directed to the city that she finds herself in, Johannesburg, where thinking the tensions between ‘new geographies of exclusion’ and ‘landscapes of wealth’ have become frames for  a consideration of the contemporary contests over a parcel of land once envisaged as the ‘The New South’, in terms of what, at the time, constituted a bold new approach to urban planning located around the old Crown Mines (later Rand Mines Properties) site in the southern areas of Johannesburg.

As a point of departure into thinking through these ideas of forming an approach to a method of thinking about architecture and urbanism critically, she examined the space in a manner that one might call from a broadly ‘humanities perspective’ where, borrowing from African Studies scholar Harry Garuba’s notion of  ‘discursive space’, the site necessarily is challenging and interdisciplinary. This is of course also a direct reference to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Initiative, which links the intellectual projects of the Wits City Institute to key projects across the continents of North America, Europe and Africa.

Noëleen Murray joined the University of the Witwatersrand in 2015 to take up the position as the first Director of the Wits City Institute and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism. The Institute is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the Humanities, Architecture and Urbanism grant category. The Wits City Institute is the last of the six 21st Century Research Institutes to be established by Wits. The core intellectual and research contribution of the Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism is to bring humanities disciplines into a working relationship around debates on the city and the role played by architecture in particular. In her capacity as Chair, Murray has initiated a multidisciplinary research programme on the city, both in local and in broader comparative terms with a focus on the history and practice of architecture, critical spatial practice, and urbanism in the city, creating strong linkages between humanities and architecture, and involving creative scholars in relevant disciplines.

Since 2015, the Institute has supported many postgraduate scholars across the university, hosted regular seminars, workshops, and exhibitions, and has developed academic projects and publications. This has enabled the Institute to grow as a hub for creative, critical, intellectual debate, and as a touch point for new collaborations across the continent and beyond.