The Translation of Dreams. Psychoanalytic and Poetic Devices in South African Architectural Education

  • Stephen Steyn Tshwane University of Technology, University of Johannesburg
  • Sumayya Vally University of Johannesburg


There are two kinds of dreams. There are the dreams that we share, and there are dreams that are our own. Architecture, and the politics of dreams – or the dreams of politics, for that matter – form the context of this essay, and in particular how this thematized a design project in South African architectural education. In the South African context, where the past is often experienced as a nightmare, a fundamental inquiry into the precepts of architectural design and shared history has the potential to relocate repressed events of trauma. These events, which currently exist primarily in the historical record, can be translated into the present, and shown to still be active, but exerting their effects surreptitiously.

This essay aims to presents brief readings of three design-research projects conducted in Unit 11 of the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg. A number of projects are being developed which work through (rather than resolve) concerns of material memory, cultural edifices and politics, employing metaphors of ghosts, nightmares, phantom limbs, exquisite corpses and plastic identities. By illustrating (or designing) such conditions, the unit attempts to bring to the surface some of the historical fragments haunting the South African collective subconscious.

Design-research students are encouraged to make associations more or less freely in the early stages of the design process, after which, through critique, reflexive relationships are established between designed work and its interpretation. The unit makes extensive use of allegory and figuration to create a slight distance between the students’ immediate frame of reference and the complex political realities with which the projects are entangled. This method allows students to expose and interrogate their biases and proclivities. The projects define architecture as a collective dream, condensing, sorting and forgetting our (shared) history.


Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, translated by B. Johnson (London: The Athlone Press, 1981)

Sigmund Freud, On Dreams (1914), translated by M.D. Eder (New York: Dover, 2001 reprint).

Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ (1919), in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XVII (London: Hogarth Press, 1955).

Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923), translated by Joan Riviere (1927) (New York: Norton, 1960 reprint)

J. Lee Kavanau, ‘Sleep, Memory Maintenance and Mental Disorders,’ in The Jour-nal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, vol. 12, no. 2, May (2000), 199-208.

Stéphane Leman Langlois and Clifford Shearing, ‘Transition, Forgiveness and Citi-zenship: The TRC and the Social Construction of Forgiveness’, in F. Du Bois and A. Pedain (eds.), Justice and Reconciliation in Post-Apartheid South Africa (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 206-228.

Adam Philips, One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays (London: Penguin, 2013)

Adam Philips, ‘The Art of Nonfiction No.7’, in The Paris Review, no. 208, (2014)

Warsan Shire, ‘Conversations About Home (At the Deportation Centre)’, in Teach-ing My Mother How to Give Birth (London: Flipped Eye Publishing, 2011)

Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (London: Allen Lane, 2014)

Author Biographies

Stephen Steyn, Tshwane University of Technology, University of Johannesburg

Stephen Steyn completed an MArch (Prof) at the University of Pretoria with a thesis that consisted (contentiously, at the time) of substantial portions of fiction interspersed with academic essays and architectural drawings. He is involved in the post-graduate (or graduate) programmes at both the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture, where he is a Unit Leader (Unit 10) as well as course convener for the Theory and Historyprogrammes. His student design work has been recognized at the national level with the Murray and Roberts Des Baker Design Award (2010) and at the regional level with the Corobrik Architectural Student of the Year Award for Best Use of Clay Masonry (2013).


Sumayya Vally, University of Johannesburg

Digital collage and a forensic approach to space expose Sumayya Vally’s particular obsession with deconstructing and reconstructing image and space. Whether unpacking the city through a microscope or satellite imagery, Sumayya has a particular interest in exposing the parts of its constituency that are largely invisible. Her interests have admitted her into a host of prominent conceptual and investigative projects, including a position as assistant curator and film producer for the 2014 Venice Biennale (South African Pavilion). In 2015, she co-founded the experimental architecture and research firm Counterspace. She currently teaches design at the University of Johannesburg as co-leader of Unit 11 in the Graduate School of Architecture. 


How to Cite
STEYN, Stephen; VALLY, Sumayya. The Translation of Dreams. Psychoanalytic and Poetic Devices in South African Architectural Education. Writingplace, [S.l.], n. 1, p. 101-112, apr. 2018. ISSN 2589-7691. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 26 may 2020. doi: