(En)Countering Archive

Meditating on…Writing

In the past few years there have been several new publications, writings, considerations and contemplations around the concept of archive, its making process, meanings, ideologies, manifestations and contestation.

This piece is a meditation on what it would mean to contest the ‘archive’ through a post-colonial approach; it contemplates an alternate counter-archive, embedded in loss, absence, erasure, extraction, silence and ways or remembering – all of which connect to a spatial relationship through small- and large-scale encounters.

This piece reflects on the concept of home, its representation, its place in memory, its place in a cartography, its place in archive practices.

Thinking on…Artefact

“Home is a place represented by material artefact, memento, piece of furniture, fabric, quality of light, sound of neighbours

Igshaan Adams, 2018

In 2018 I attended an exhibition by Igshaan Adams called When Dust Settles”. The piece, in the photographs below, is a material collection of vinyl flooring, as artefact, and therefore embodied archive of Home.

Photos by author of exhibition titled: Igshaan Adams; WHEN DUST SETTLES – 2018 Standard Bank Gallery

For me, it sparked traces of things which are familiar in the spaces we remember as a collective past, traces of event-space. But also created a deep sense of melancholy in my own emotions –  because it narrated something lost.

Looking at…Site

I am a black woman living and practicing architecture in a post-apartheid, post-colonial landscape, in Johannesburg, South Africa. My parents were born into, and lived their lives at the height of Apartheid. They had a number of homes they moved to and from through the forced relocations enacted by the Apartheid State, law and context of the last century’s circumstance.

Questioning… How many times have you moved homes in your life?

In South Africa, the Group Areas Act of the 1950s saw the violent forced removal of black citizens from their homes to insert white citizens in their place, both figuratively and spatially.

The suburb of Sophiatown, which is one focal point for this narrative, was deemed by the then government as a ‘black spot’, because it was located too close to other white suburbs. Sophiatown was land sold to freehold owners and owned legitimately, legally, with paperwork by black citizens. These owners were forced out and dispossessed of their homes and of their properties. Their homes, social spaces, and personal histories were razed to the ground to be rebuilt for white inhabitants and it was renamed Triomf (Triumph).

This kind of violent erasure happened in many townships and neighbourhoods across South Africa. It was an extension of the policy to segregate citizens racially by enforcing it spatially. Black citizens were further classified into racial sub-categories of ‘Coloured’, Indian, Black, ‘Other Coloured’ etc. and placed into segregated and ring fenced areas for their assigned racial groups. These were re enforced through the creation of buffer zones, reinforcing the racialized model in physical space, and separating Black from White.

Witnessing… Home as a study in Race.

I have started to unpack this idea ofHome using my own family story as a method of tracing when they and I lived in various parts of the city at various points in our lives. As part of engaging lost a narrative, I have taken impressions of one home from each of my parents, whom I have termed as ‘spatial witnesses’.

WITNESS 01: My Father

My dad’s recollection of where they first lived in Sophiatown

They were forcibly removed; and it happened in stages and differently for different families. His family was moved around twice in Sophiatown before they were finally completely ejected from the suburb.

In the second Sophiatown re-location my dad’s family occupied the ‘back rooms’ of his grandfather’s house. There was a shared outside toilet, and communal open space between the main house and outbuildings. They also made use of a large storeroom which, one day, was struck by lightning and went up in flames.

My dad says: “It was destroyed completely. Your Oupa was distraught. (We) stayed a while (at this house). Then the forced removals started. (During that same period) the Sharpeville passbook boycotts happened all over the country. I saw few guys getting shot and killed outside our school.”

Sketch by P. PEACOCK – MAY 2021

My father’s recollections of this time, He would have been a young boy, maybe about ten years old, are laced with trauma and injury. After their second inter-Sophiatown relocation they were moved to another designated neighbourhood when my dad was knocked over by a car and his leg badly broken. His spatial memories are tied to his temporary immobility. After the leg incident, around 1962, they moved to a Western Native Township (Westbury), another racially designated area. On ‘official’ maps, the township was not even named or reflected as inhabited.

Street map not showing western native township (map published around 1972) Holmden’s register of Johannesburg, Randburg, Sandton


My mom’s recollection is a more emotionally loaded response.

This is the first formal home she remembers, which consisted of one room in Ferreirasdorp, and from which they were also forcibly evicted.

Sketch by L. PEACOCK – May 2021

Her recollections are the sounds of the neighbours shouting and swearing at one another, through the thin drywall between rooms; the relationships between people and thus spaces; the places she and her younger siblings played in and who the neighbours were who moved to Westbury when the forced removals in Malay camp or Ferreirasdorp happened. Ironically, like Sophiatown, the street grid and street names remained, but the homes, histories and people were erased.

Street map showing Ferreirasdorp (map published around 1972) Holmden’s register of Johannesburg, Randburg, Sandton

With the help of her aunt’s recollections, my mom says that in the days after the evictions and forced removals in Malay camp that they didn’t have a place to live so they returned to the area and camped in a car until they were allocated a place in Westbury, which is about seven kilometres away. My mom would have been about six or seven years old.

In additional to having erased the places where my parents and their siblings spent their formative years, it also saw the loss of the power and economic benefit of owning property and the added insecurity of being moved further away from work opportunities. This small sample has also highlighted the subtle gendering of spaces. Where cooking, caring (or violence), cleaning, working, handywork, learning etc happened, my mom recalls more clearly. There are different recollections of spaces of public spaces, political activism, protest or struggle (or violence) or control, which are part of my dad’s memories, and which became part of the narrative of his youth.


Here, I and my interest in understanding the context in which my architectural practice is located, becomes the third witness.

I recorded these interactions using video and my personal diary to form an alternate narrative of these erased places. Additionally, I have constructed a poem around the emotive response I had to these conversations which recalls the violence and uncertainty which was expressed and felt. This poem may be used as a bridge between the recorded narrative and the recoded alternative narrative of these moments and spaces. The poem may also become the witnessing mechanism which could unlock the counter-archive because: as its language is emotive, its structure may be fluid. It is an alternate means of recording/recoding a narrative which is not dictated by an institutionalized format.

Word Sketch By A. PEACOCK – May 2021

Reflecting on…Narrative

One recent project in my office, an Urban Development Framework for the Newtown Precinct, raised questions around identity, memory, culture, contested landscape, agency, and excavation of relevant history with respect to the project. Consequently, several absences emerged, and this led me back to my home-archive and led me to conclude that a project such as this holds other families, other histories, very similar but also vastly different to my own because this site, Newtown, was their home too.

Several questions emerged during this exercise on reflection and counter-archive:

What is home or what are its traces, memories, or remnants?

If history or the past is located in an archive, where is it located, what is that archive and or how is it constituted?

Where and what are the absences and who do they represent or belong to?

What are the narratives being played out? In which context

How would this differently inform my practice as an architect?

These provide the impetus to me, for trying to uncover the necessity or relevance of an archive and what its inverse or alternate might be[come].


In proposing the idea of becoming a spatial archivist while exploring the idea of counter-archives, it feels as though it requires a critical positioning of oneself within the existing body of archival practice.

Saidiya Hartman contests the formal archive, its contents, its means of factualizing and establishing power relationships, and creating narrative. She draws lyrical trails through feminist theory centred on black women, their narratives, refusal, activism, and disobedience – what she expresses as ‘waywardness’. In her book Wayward lives, Beautiful Experiments she says:

“Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor.”  

Hartman, S., Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, pg. xiii from A note on method

This suggests that this counter-archive may not be a physical building or a conventionally understood archiving place/space/expression. It may be as ephemeral as the narratives encountered when one confronts memories constructed on trauma and violence, but which must still exist to form relationships, form identity and experience of the places from which those lives are extracted.

Eray Çayli introduces the concept of ‘confrontation’ in his introduction to Field as Archive/Archive as Field, and places it within the current relevant global discourse from a spatial practice perspective. Additionally, he acknowledges the self-reflectivity and interdisciplinarity required to revise notions of traditional archiving practices. Çayli points out that these other archiving practices are often deemed unscientific and irrelevant, but he counters that this is a problematic stance and that the challenge is to create these other archives despite their institutionalized precursors and negative perceptions.

His position reinforces and parallels Hartman’s suggestion that there are other conceptualizations of ‘archive’ which are emerging, particularly around the decolonization discourse.

Engaging with… a Counter – Archive

There are several other texts and authors who question the role of authorship, the authority of the curator, the value and method of the process and ultimately the content of these archives as well as the value of the context and the role of its inhabitants. I would suggest that in this version of the counter-archive that these questions unsettle and create further enquiry and challenge normative knowledge creation, its sources, and formats of representation or presencing in a time when we are seeking ways to think through decoloniality in the built environment sector.

Additionally, the counter-archive’s processes should seek to reconnect and reinstate the originator to the memory/artefact/place and establish relevant narratives which reconnects and simultaneously reconstructs space/place, lived experience and memory.


My practice has found itself looking for the gaps or absences in memories which are spatial, personal, psychological, etc. An alternate and counter-archive is meant to fill in the gaps in those memories.  If the existing biased, singular-narrative historical account is seen as the substructure or scaffolding, then the archive constituted of alternate narrative is what Stuart Hall terms a “suture” between memories. Hall proposes that ‘Identities’ arise from the narrativization of the self, but the necessarily fictional nature of this process in no way undermines the discursive, material or political effectivity, even if the belongingness, the ‘suturing into the story’ through which identities arise is, partly, in the imaginary (as well as the symbolic) and therefore, always, partly constructed in fantasy, or at least within a ‘fantasmatic[JB1] ’ field.

“Moreover, they (identities) emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are more the product of the marking of difference and exclusion, than they are the sign of an identical, naturally-constituted unity…”

pg4, from the introduction by Stuart Hall in: Questions of cultural identity, ed Hall, Stuart and Du Gay, Paul, 1996

Concurrently, location of one’s identity is tied to home or someplace which can be located geographically. The obliteration of that home or being extracted from that home, forcibly or through other circumstances, creates questions and uncertainties around belonging, citizenry and self, it requires:

  • A reimaging and speculative imagining and other modes of witnessing.
  • Us to question our agency as curator/recordist, poet, note taker, spatial practitioner.
  • Me to interrogate my relevance as an architect, which is a reality I am often confronted with in my context.

I think there are instances in the South African context where spatial production happens due to necessity, and which don’t and can’t require the involvement of architects. There are spatial interventions which happen beyond and outside of officially sanctioned and lawful policy. The micro-economies, the ‘informal’ economies and spatialization don’t require the agency of architects, who possess a valuable skillset, but not the intimate knowledges of all lives, lived experiences or contexts which require embedded, local, endemic and other knowledges. It has parallels with the speculative nature which architecture can embody, as a future focussed endeavour.

CONCLUDING around….Counter-Spatial Archiving Practices

This meander through archiving practices revealed silences which I wish to amplify, has revealed the unknowable depth at which all these traumas are buried to make way for living and/or surviving. It also has required a very specific engagement with my personal history.

A kind of anxiety exists around speaking about the past in my family, but I wanted to access that anxious archive to see how it related to a reflective moment I find myself in as a practicing architect. I am interested in spatializing these absences, in reconnecting self-actualized identity to place, in recording, re-coding, tracing, marking and acknowledging these voids in institutionalized archives.

The Counter-Archive intends to reflect the interior context – i.e., how racial segregation and the political machinery of South Africa manifested spatially in the lives of the excluded/ marginalised. This presents the possibility that a counter-archive could exist instead to serve and address these suppressions. Patrick Jaojoco suggests that:

“In order [for us] to reframe our understandings of space, we [should] aim to establish counternarratives and alternative histories that, rather than remaining anecdotes of a time past, can be seen as essential to the stories of how landscapes and the communities that inhabit them have been territorialized, constructed…”

In response to questioning the relevance of any archive made by anyone there is a requirement to respond ethically and embed a critical approach to the process of making that archive. If one accepts that the living archive is the people, their stories and recollections then why should we still have a formalised, recognisable, nameable thing called archive, which may be located geographically and spatially.

I would argue that the ephemeral archive and the tangible archive are and could be the same thing. With the objective of new knowledge creation and confronting this problem, the Counter-Archive must also be able to question itself, its relevance, its applicability and its use for future critical spatial practice.

I would argue that within the context of a reflective, creative practice there is an alternate reading which suggests that the counter-archive, or any archive, may not be necessary because the subverted narrative exist despite the need to collect or legitimise them in some version of a formal archive. Can one create a record of spatial narratives/biographies in a way which is not only reportage? It is not only seeing what is there. It is uncovering the invisible and unwritten.