Our research agenda is rooted in disciplinary approaches of architecture, geography, anthropology, social and political theory, and history, and oriented towards global Southern and postcolonial questions. With a regional focus on Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, we research cities and landscapes in an expanded field of public engagement, pedagogy, and extra-university collaboration. Our most important intellectual and institutional partner is the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

Key themes of current research are:

Infrastructure and architecture in (post)colonial geographies

This research cluster focuses on how infrastructure and built heritage shape urban and political geographies in (post)colonial conditions. Formative for this cluster has been the SNF project “How infrastructure shapes territory in Africa” (2018-2023), led by Kenny Cupers. Within this project, Ernest Sewordor’s dissertation combines urban studies with global history and uses race as an analytical lens to examine the relationships between infrastructure and the urban transformation of industrial gold-extraction enclaves in colonial-era Ghana. Thomas Betschart’s dissertation examines the economic, social, structural and political changes wrought by Ethiopia's state developmental agenda, focusing on the reciprocal entanglements of infrastructure development and urbanization in Ethiopia's Sidama region. Giulia Scotto’s dissertation maps how the infrastructural, architectural and propagandistic operations of the Italian national hydrocarbon agency ENI shaped postcolonial urbanization in Tanzania. Focusing on the Trans-African highway and its legacies in Africa’s current mega-infrastructure boom, Kenny Cupers explores infrastructure as African worldmaking.

Emilio Distretti’s work explores the intersections between architectural heritage connected to (post)colonial histories of violence and the curatorial practices of its preservation. Emilio engages with critical research methodologies to deploy the public dimension and function of architecture as a space for repair from colonialism and its racialized, social and economic aftermaths, a space for critical knowledge production around preservation. He collaborates with the art collective DAAR-Decolonizing Architecture Art Research and with RIWAQ - Centre for Architectural Conservation in Palestine. Also in the context of Palestine, Saad Amira ’s PhD research explores the nexus between political ecology and settler colonialism. Saad’s work brings together different scholarly traditions, rooted in the social history of modern Palestine and in the study of social movements in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Jon Schubert’s work analyses how colonial economic architecture in the Angolan port town of Lobito reverberates, after recent rehabilitation, in people’s lives in times of economic crisis.

Everyday urbanisms and geographies of knowledge in urban governance and practice

Andrew Tucker explores how global North discourses, policy processes and funding mandates to support marginalised communities in the urban South impact upon and are reconfigured by local communities (including individuals with same-sex desire). This work is also exploring the key role that sexuality plays in the ways in which we come to comprehend the workings of the post-colonial African city. He is currently especially interested in understanding how solidarities can function across North/South divides, that draw together local urban communities and international stakeholders. In her research, Laura Nkula-Wenz focuses on urban governance transformation, the construction of local political agency through the engagement of African cities with interurban policy networks and knowledge producers, as well as the role of experimentation in how African cities respond to local challenges and global uncertainties. Inspired by the challenge of Southern urbanism to also engage in propositional scholarship, Laura has also worked in the nexus of culture and urban change, as well as on the role professional integrity plays in mitigating corruption in the urban planning sector.

At the core of Anna Selmeczi’s research are questions about knowledge practices and collective political agency in cities of the Global South. For instance, through pedagogies of social movement organising, how do poor urban dwellers’ expose and contest what they are supposed to know from the perspective of those who govern? Or, how do public art interventions challenge ideas about who ‘the public’ consists of? Exploring knowledge-making in/through urban studies, in their forthcoming book titled Knowing the City, Sophie Oldfield, the late Clive Barnett, and Anna track the changes in South African urban scholarship over the last four decades, looking at how urbanists’ thinking and practice have shifted from apartheid to democracy, and how these shifts have impacted on the role, nature, and theoretical practices of urban studies in South Africa and beyond.

A new cluster of research looks at climate urbanism, and more specifically at how African coastal cities deal with the looming climate crisis, and how a host of variously situated, unequal actors remake and adapt the city, as part of the SNF-funded project PRECURBICA: Precarious Urbanisms in Coastal Africa. Starting in 2022, PRECURBICA centres African actors on the same analytical plane as the ‘global’ urban planners and policymakers that typically dominate these debates. Rather than seeing urban ‘precariousness’ as an endemic condition that mires African societies in a position of dependency, the project takes it as an invitation to uncover strategies of living and making the city in the face of looming crisis and learn from these. The project is coordinated by Jon Schubert, who is looking at post-cyclone reconstruction in Beira, Mozambique. Within the project, Ambre Alfredo will do research in Cotonou, Semhar Haile in Freetown, and Dany Franck Tiwa in Douala, while Natalie Schöbitz will explore processes and possibilities of radical incrementalism in Mombasa.

Urban and architectural analysis of migration and displacement

This cluster advances critical research on migration, camps, borders, and the infrastructures of state violence. In the African context, Maren Larsen studies how UN soldiers live their encampment in the city of Goma, eastern DRC during their peacekeeping tenure and how the East African Crude Oil Pipeline project induces displacement and voluntary migration to the region of Tanga in north-eastern Tanzania. Alaa Dia investigates the ways in which the built environment and infrastructural solutions shape the experiences of migrants, impacting the relationship between the state, its citizens, and non-citizens. Focusing on the Aegean Islands, Alaa’s doctoral research project examines the materiality of the built environment to understand the political and social dynamics at play in contemporary migration management and the power of infrastructure in shaping border spaces.

Shourideh C. Molavi works in Palestine to investigate the intersections between law, violence and power. Working with Forensic Architecture, she uses visual methodologies that place incidents of state violence in time and space. The full scope of her investigative interventions can be explored here. Focusing on Palestinian diasporic imaginaries as cultural resistance, Andreea Midvighi explores the complex ways in which the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria (formerly the biggest Palestinian refugee camp) continues to exist despite its destruction. Within this context, she investigates how artworks and memory practices contribute to a counter-archive challenging epistemicide of Palestine. Her PhD study builds on a growing scholarly and activist movement to recognize refugee camps as places of heritage.

Planetary politics of design

This cluster brings together research on the role of design in planetary transformations. Formative for this cluster is the SNF Sinergia project Governing Through Design, led by Claudia Mareis, Orit Halpern, and Kenny Cupers. Within this framework, Laura Nkula-Wenz and Kenny Cupers have launched South Designs for Planetary Futures. In supporting six projects that straddle the spheres of academia, activism and design practice, this initiative seeks to support Southern knowledge-making and amplify indigenous voices and alternative practices, which still tend to be marginalized in debates around our planetary future. Focusing on the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Kenny Cupers has also started a collaborative research project with Girma Hundessa and Cole Roskam to investigate architecture as a form of transnational governance.

Several current doctoral projects also fall within the purview of this research theme. Lea Nienhoff’s dissertation explores large-scale modernist urban planning in the global East, focusing on the formal and informal politics, the critical and artistic reflections that accompanied the construction of ‘socialist space’. Her project is part of the project “Decolonizing Socialism: Entangled Internationalism. An Intersectional Study of Cold War Projects from East Germany in Cinema and Cybernetics with Relevance for the 21st Century”, based at HEAD Genève and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Fabrizio Furiassi’s research exposes the relations between under-observed urban transformations and material flows, using theories and methodologies from the social sciences, to centralize the agency of construction materials in historical change. His doctoral thesis traces the urbanization of Sicily during Italy’s post-war building boom, elucidating the social and spatial impacts of the Mafia’s concrete developments. Solveig Suess’ research centers on histories of how environmental sensing has articulated Earth’s transformations. Her dissertation project proposes to understand the calculation of fixing and managing nature amidst the climate crisis, and its entanglement with the continual development of large-scale infrastructures under the Belt and Road Initiative. Solveig uses documentary filmmaking as a method to investigate aesthetics in geopolitical systems.