Writing Sumayya Vally
2020 Perspecta 53: ONUS

Soils, Walls, and their Funambulists

Perspecta 53: ONUS
Yale School of Architecture

This issue of Perspecta focuses on the theme of ‘onus’ in architecture. More than any other profession, the ethics of architecture are elastic. In theory, the terms are rigid.

Architects are trained and licensed professionals, bound to competently execute contractual terms for a paying client. Yet reality is blurrier. Capitalism creates responsibility only between designer and client, yet the outcomes of this bond are pervasive. Although much of the built environment is ostensibly designed for one client’s needs, its effects reverberate politically, environmentally, and culturally, affecting large swaths of the population in unexpected ways. Collectively, the weight of these varied threads of accountability—to the Earth, to geographic cultures, to other species, to other people—seems paralyzing, requiring immaculately designed solutions to the world’s most indeterminate and painful challenges. But without this onus, what is our purpose as architects? As the writers, architects, and thinkers in Perspecta 53 reveal, the assumption of these burdens as part of life’s work offers offers the most acute opportunity for fulfillment, and the largest chance to subvert our world’s most ingrained injustices.

Oft quoted Czech writer Milan Kundera rightly mused that an absence of burden

causes man to be lighter than air…and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Soils, Walls and their Funambulists

A top-down, autocratic perception does not reveal the realities and qualities of our city, particularly its uitvalgrond. The realities of Johannesburg necessitate multiple gazes, multiple ways of understanding that cannot be deduced from the plan alone. Much of the city is comprised of subversive and informal activities occurring beyond the limits of formal planning and design. As such, we need new and different ways to understand them. Text and narrative may be one such gaze. Photographic studies, radio-active readings, sound, etc. may all be other points of entry into understanding our city.

Architecture is as much concerned with communication and story-telling as it is with shelter. Architects create and imagine new places and bring them into being, altering and shaping our realities. The relationship between our experi-ences, our mental images and our physical existences are never settled; all of these continuously form, inform and undo each other. There is no truly objective way of seeing. For spatial practitioners, rather than describe Johannesburg conditions through empirical planning technologies alone, we need to supplement our inventory of design language to include new ways of seeing. What can be recorded and described, in ways we are not accustomed to, can offer entirely an entirely new understanding of architecture.

– Sumayya Vally



  • Author:
    Sumayya Vally,
  • Institution:

    Yale School of Architecture

  • Editors:

    Caroline Acheatel, Paul J. Lorenz, Paul Rasmussen and Alexander Stagge