09 December 2022 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Heather Dodd and Prof Jonathan Noble
Heather Dodd is the first student to graduate from the UFS’ PhD in Architecture with specialisation in Design. Pictured are Dodd with Prof Jonathan Noble.

In 2018, the Department of Architecture at the University of the Free State (UFS) launched a new practice-based PhD programme with an entirely new degree, titled ‘PhD in Architecture with specialisation in Design’. Fourteen PhD candidates and five master’s students who intend to progress to doctoral study, enrolled in the programme. 

The first PhD graduate from this programme is Heather Dodd, who graduated at the December 2022 graduation ceremony. Dodd’s thesis is titled: Small Moves. Spatial Tactics for Transformation.

Transforming the city

Dodd says her PhD focused on a selection of key projects from the oeuvre of her practice, Savage + Dodd Architects, which were explored in relation to various design and thinking tactics. Brickfields in Newton, Johannesburg, the Ekhaya Precinct in Hillbrow, and the Elangeni Social Housing Project are some of the projects included in her thesis.

“Our mode of practice stems from a socio-political context where spatial transformation is both an underlay and a key driver of design,” says Dodd. 

“Housing and public buildings are studied across four case study chapters, situated in relation to the urban and public realm of the post-apartheid city, and the tactical practices that have emerged from these,” she explains. 

A primary research methodology involved the use of diagrams to extract and define various tactical interventions, and in doing so, to draw out the unifying themes within the work. “In this, a practice of ‘small moves’ is identified – an incremental small scale adaptive process that works to transform the city,” states Dodd who, years ago, in her emerging practice of the early post-apartheid period, started to confront the challenges of a new and rapidly changing urban context, which had retained a legacy of spatial inequality.

SA context with global connections 

After considering further study, Dodd heard about the practice-based PhD programme at the UFS, which was introduced by Prof Jonathan Noble, Head of the Department of Architecture. Based on contemporary models in Australia and Europe, this programme appealed to Dodd, who sees it as a relevant approach to pursuing research related to her profession as a designer.

“I believe that the programme has enormous potential in building a body of knowledge in the architectural profession in this country and I would like to laude Prof Noble and the UFS for embarking on this programme,” says Dodd.

“I am extremely proud to be the first graduate of this programme.”

One of the highlights for Dodd, who has been practising architecture for the past 25 years, was the exploration conducted during the course of the programme, allowing her to interrogate her ‘modes of practise’ at Savage + Dodd Architects. “This strengthens how I think about my work as well as the design processes that I engage in,” she says. 

She also enjoyed the symposia that were presented as part of the programme, allowing her the opportunity to engage with fellow candidates and critics. “I believe that Prof Noble has done an excellent job in reaching out to similar programmes in Australia and to academics from abroad who have been very supportive of this programme – both in terms of participating in our seminars and inviting us to join their seminars virtually. In this way, he has grounded the programme in our South African context but opened it up to global connections,” she states. 

According to Dodd, a practice-based thesis is best suited to mid-career professionals who already have established careers but wish to engage in further study. She recommends it to practising architects who have a body of work on which to draw. The PhD programme at the UFS also allows for ‘design-led’ study, which is better suited to younger candidates who wish to embark upon a new body of creative work.

An important milestone

Although well established at top universities abroad, this programme is a first for South Africa.

“The programme is an important milestone for us in architecture, both locally and nationally,” says Prof Noble. 

He explains that the primary objective of the programme is to harvest and study the implicit orientations, operations, and achievements of design, and to enlist creativity in the formation of new knowledge. “It is a mode of study that facilitates analytical reflection, stimulates creative action, and opens new insights into the unique logic of design,” says Prof Noble.

“The difference between this programme and a conventional study is that a traditional PhD might consist of a written document of some 80 000 words, where the emphasis is placed on verbal discussion and argument, and images are mostly included as forms of evidence. A creative PhD, however, might be split 50/50 between a written study of, say 40 000 words, together with an equivalent in the form of creative work. In other words, the ‘designed’ aspect of the thesis is valued on its own terms as a creative form of inquiry, one that supplements the written or discursive component of the study,” Prof Noble explains.

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