Economies of Humanitarian Architectural Practice

Postcolonial dimensions of humanitarian architectural practice challenge designers to wrangle with new professional subjectivities. This means facing the disconnect between professional norms and standards on the one hand and, on the other hand, a personal ethic shaped by postcolonial consciousness. Using design ethnography, we compare two forms of humanitarian architectural practice in, respectively, France and Québec. These forms signal how the postcolonial changes what it means and can mean to be ethical in design practice particularly as it involves children and youth in Syria forcibly entangled as internally-displaced persons in the civil war. (The project appears here in the international and peer-reviewed journal Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 20, 4 (2018): 510-528.)


Philosopher Children Moving through Spacetime Childhood studies has taken a posthumanist turn. This has entailed interrogating childhood governance shaped by binaries severing children from each other, adults, animals, plants, and the inanimate. With full ethics review and approval, and collaborators on five continents, we seek to understand the intra-actions of a second grade class in South Africa engaging each other, posthumanism, adults, crocodiles, and the sea. These philosopher children mapping and moving through spacetime offer post-apartheid South Africa another way to undo colonial-apartheid supremacies and reconfigure borders of "the classroom" as space. (The project is part of the ongoing Decolonising Early Childhood Discourses project led by Karin Murris

and supported with National Research Foundation (NRF) funds. See Afield's published contribution in Literacies, Literature and Learning: Reading Classrooms Differently (Routledge, 2018), pp. 187-203.)

Democratic Early Childhood Development (DECD)

Studies emphasise links between early childhood development (ECD) and children’s wellbeing. DECD spatialises elements that South African stakeholders consider critical to ECD centre (i.e., crèche, or daycare centre) success. With full research ethics approval, and funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), we design, construct, and study an ECD prototype situated in townships. In addition to permit drawings prepared with local architects, project publications appear in English here and French here in Bulletin FrancoPaix 2, 1 (2017): 1-6. "Spatialising the curriculum" used to bring together curriculum, policy, and infrastructure appears here in the international and peer-reviewed Journal of Curriculum Studies (2019) (with Emily J. Ashton). A book deploying design ethnography and research-creation by Mah and Rivers titled Democratic Architectures of Early Childhood Development is in progress.

Building Design Citizenship in Chicago

In 2013, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) closed 50 schools mostly serving African American and Latinx students. The schools were, CPS claimed, “failed” and under-enrolled. Officials revealed plans to sell surplus schools. Yet most of the schools remain unsold and other decommissioned schools sold but empty. The project represents our adaptive reuse conceptual design for Overton Elementary School—one of the shuttered schools on the largely Black South Side. Specifically, the project becomes a way to operationalise design to promote activism and reflexive citizenship outside the normative parameters of "the school." Further, the project connects Overton’s historic Bronzeville neighbourhood to adjacent communities with diverse racial and socioeconomic demographics. (A PDF of Afield's project report is below.)

Housing Refugee Youth (w/ David J. Roberts)

Housing protocols for minors and youth in Canada bare traces of 19th and 20th century measures designed for white and Christian children deemed to be in need of heteropatriarchal care. Considering the demographic diversity of Independent Refugee Youth in particular (i.e., those unaccompanied and/or separated), this situated research-creation project is used, first, to map current Greater Toronto Area (GTA) housing provisions for and everyday life of Independent Refugee Youth in the GTA. And, second, the project is used to co-design alternative housing possibilities in partnership with GTA stakeholders—including former Independent Refugee Minors and Youth, services providers, and others. The project is generously funded by a grant from the Connaught Fund and it has full ethics review approval.

Greening Schoolyards

Through a partnership with École publique Hélène-Gravel, a concrete playground was transformed into a play environment concept and design featuring natural elements (e.g., grass, undulating hills, and wood play structures). The playground concept and design has a dual function. First, it enables children to socialize through play in a less artificial and controlled environment. Second, flooding persists on the site due to its excessively hard surface coverage and proximity to a watershed. So, the playground as designed also serves as a swale and rain garden. (Documentation of the project (attached here via PDF) includes a project proposal with images as well as a publication in the journal School Planning & Management 54, 8 (August 2015): 28, 30-31.)

Refugee Housing without Exception

South Africa experienced another wave of xenophobic violence in April 2015 mostly directed at Africans from other parts of the continent. Between these attacks, and publicised 2008 attacks, South Africa’s government devised plans to construct a "model" camp to house refugees and those seeking refugee status. The project is used to understand the space of exception created by government’s proposal considering South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. This is done by contextualising the South African case, placing this case within existing scholarship, and problematising government’s model. Beyond this, though, the project is utilised to present a conceptual camp design as counterproposal highlighting design’s power to negate spatial exception. (Published in the international and peer-reviewed journal Space and Culture 19, 4 (2016): 390-405. Access the article here.)


Decolonising the Toilet

A wave of trans-student activism swept the University of Cape Town campus starting in 2015. Much of this activism (which students dubbed "Fallism") inflected and was inflected by the Rhodes Must Fall (#RhodesMustFall) and Fees Must Fall (#FeesMustFall) movements prevalent on South African university campuses in 2015 and 2016. (Activism starting in South Africa inspired related acts of student protest in Britain and the United States particularly amongst students of colour.) This project, presented via long-form journalism, is used to understand UCT student demands for spatial justice on campus in the form of non-gendered bathrooms. It is also used to present other possibilities for nurturing spatial justice at one primary school in suburban Cape Town. The article appears here in the March 2017 edition of the progressive magazine Briarpatch.

Le campus urbain comme un espace postcolonial

In September 2019, the Université de Montréal opened a $350M “urban campus” dedicated to scientific and technological research. Major stakeholders hope that this higher education facility will be an economic engine for Montréal and Québec. Conceptualization of the project largely revolves around notions of the creative economy and creative class with higher education institutions being key to “new economy” growth. We add a different layer to the urban campus conversation by making a postcolonial criticality and sensibility central to the “integrated urban campus.” The project is ongoing. It is a part of the larger Du terrain vague project funded by the Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines (CRSH). Afield's first output (2017) for this project can be found on the Penser créer l'urbain website in French here.

Negotiating Difference in Post-apartheid Housing

The project is an investigation of the visual qualities of design practice in post-apartheid South Africa. We specifically address the visual power of social mapping within the context of a “coloured” housing development for the poor in Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain suburb. Considering South Africa’s history, expanded design practice as highlighted in the project helps to commence the undoing of apartheid’s embedded and lingering impact by mitigating power differentials between planners and designers, on the one hand, and informal housing residents on the other. (Published in the international and peer-reviewed African Identities: The Journal of Economics, Culture and Society 11, 3 (2013): 290-303. PDF below.)

Situated Architectural Politics

Diverse and dynamic architectural practitioners from around the world like Thailand's Patama Roonrakwit are making their way in architecture—outside conventional professional practice. This project is used to connect the politics of practitioners moving between plugged and unplugged practice to the nuts-and-bolts of architectural practice. Based on five case studies from five continents, such an exploration is especially pertinent at a moment when architectural practitioners are impacted by globalisation and its neoliberalism yielding gross inequalities within and between South-North contexts, and when populist fervour ripples across and within South-North spatial contexts. (Contracted with Dalhousie Architectural Press as inaugural book in the Design Matters series edited by Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine MacyThe book is supported by a generous grant from the Graham Foundation.)

Referrals and Newcomer Youth (w/ David J. Roberts)

This service design project is centered on a key question: What improvements to service provision for newcomer youth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) might come from aligning design thinking and social science? With this research question at the core, and by elevating the voices and experiences of newcomer youth with appropriate ethics approval, we use advanced mapping technologies as well as focus groups and surveys of newcomer youth and service providers to understand the breadth and specificity of wrap-around services required and accessed by newcomer youth. We additionally consider how these youth access various services through formal and informal referrals processes. This will enable us to devise and implement a referrals curriculum with our client--a large GTA social service organisation serving 10,000+ youth across status difference each year. The project is generously funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

© 2021 by afield. 

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