2019 Johannesburg SA, Cape Verde Islands CV, Reunion Island RE, Morocco MA, Africa CF

Unit 12: An African Almanac

hijra هجرة Searching for design expression for hybrid identity and contested territory.


GSA Unit 12 is led by Sumayya Vally in 2019 at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg 

In Arabic, the term Hijra refers to ’emigrating’, ‘passing’ or ‘coming’, a word with both Latin and Arabic roots. Historically, it describes the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, escaping persecution. Included in its etymology are the words for ‘departure’, ‘exodus’ and ‘journey’. Interestingly, in Urdu, the term has also come to mean ‘fluidity of identity’ or a ‘third’ identity, of gender and culture in particular. In this definition, the body is understood to be a literal site of transition, a vessel through which culture and identity journey, a place in which both are housed. In the modern period, human migration within or between sovereign states, either through controlled (legal immigration) or uncontrolled means (refugees, economic migrants, for example). Involuntary migration includes forced displacement (deportation, slavery, human trafficking) and flight (war refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing, for example).

Traditionally, the role of architecture has been to confine or control space, shaping historical experience and social relations in static form. As a result, the history of people for whom movement, not static, is the predominant experience does not find easy or direct translation into form. 

Unit 12 is interested in finding forms of material and spatial representation for this most contemporary human experience. We believe there is enormous architectural potential in working with the migratory, the diasporic, the mythical, the performative and the narrative to create new spatial possibilities for these themes. The Unit works with digital allegories, performance, linguistics, sound and other embodied archives. 

The aim is to challenge students to tell their own ‘stories’, to find their own appropriate tools of representation, to speculate with ambition and aplomb on the appropriate form, structure, material and programme for a uniquely African architectural vocabulary.