Graduate School of Architecture (GSA)

UJ’s Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) is proud to offer the Unit System, a method of teaching first established at the Architectural Association in London in the 70s, and now adopted globally by major schools of architecture. We are the first and (so far) only school of architecture in Africa to run the Unit System and this year, students will be able to choose from nine equally exciting Units on offer.

We believe firmly that our best efforts are always collective, that working together produces better results. We often think the problems and challenges we face in Africa are unique but in fat, they’re not. Migration, displacement, identity, technology, sustainability . . . these are the same issues that the rest of the world is grappling with. We ask our students to think locally and globally at the same time; to think deeply and critically about our continent and its relationship to the rest of the world. We ask that they see themselves less as a professional body trained to deal with specific issues, but more as a part of a global network of citizen-architects, all working towards the same goal: a better world.


Prof Lesley Lokko
Prof LESLEY LOKKO is an architect, academic and the author of ten best-selling novels. She is currently Head of School at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed her architectural training at the Bartlett School of Architecture, in 1994, and went on to complete her PhD from the University of London in 2007. She has taught at schools of architecture in the US, the UK and South Africa. She is the editor of White Papers, Black Marks: Race, Culture, Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2000) and has ben an on-going contributor to discourses around identity, race, African urbanism and the speculative nature of African architectural space and practice for over twenty-five years. She is a regular juror at international competitions and symposia, and is a long-term contributor to BBC World. In 2004, she made the successful transition from academic to novelist with the publication of her first novel, Sundowners (Orion 2004), a UK-Guardian top forty best-seller, and has since then followed with nine further best-sellers, which have been translated into fifteen languages.

What If?


Today’s architects find themselves in a world driven by unprecedented urban growth, technological and material innovations and a desire to find new solutions to situations that fifty years ago would have been almost unthinkable. It’s an exciting and challenging time, made even more so by the speed at which built environments across the globe are changing. Welcome to the age of architecture experimentalism. This is the time for change. It is the time for innovative thinking, for thinking outside the box. In fact, it is time to toss the box altogether and embrace the question, ‘what if . . . ?’ The survival and success of our discipline relies almost solely upon one word: attitude. Are we up to the challenges the world is throwing at us? It’s make or break time for architects.

The University of Johannesburg’s Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) is at the forefront of this drive for a change in attitude and our students have plenty of it. They continuously open themselves to feel, dream, imagine and as a result, reimagine the future of architecture itself. As it’s often said, there are three mistakes people commonly make when thinking about the future. One is to imagine that everything will change, that nothing will remain the same. Another is to imagine that nothing will change, that everything will remain the same. The third, and most dangerous, is not to think about it at all.

For some, the idea of re-imagining the profession from the ground up is terrifying, a risky proposition that will lead to chaos. Better to stay where it’s safe, with what we know. Not UJ’s GSA. We are ready to shake things up. Not because we discard, disrespect or wish to ignore the rich and astonishing history of the discipline, but because we are excited about the future and we know there is so much more to explore. Inside every architect there is the thought – or hope, or faith – that things could be better. We have the talent at UJ’s GSA to revolutionise the industry, to re-think how we teach and practice, driven by the desire to create a better, more sustainable, more equitable and, yes, more beautiful world.

How we will do this, you may ask. We will start with one simple but critical question: “what if…?”

What if buildings of the future could successfully integrate the internal demands for comfort, style, health and safety with external demands such as the impact on the environment? What if we could build even smarter buildings that have a positive impact on the environment, the surrounding communities and all citizens – beyond four walls? Could we build intelligent living structures that absorb air, water, ground and noise pollution? In future, could we only use carbon-negative materials to construct?

What if we could have buildings with interoperable, connected devices and systems that could “feel” our emotional state as soon as we enter the front door and then adjust the background music, wall colours and ambient lighting to lift our mood and improve our performance and mental health? What if buildings could monitor each individual’s comfort and adjust the temperature and airflow accordingly.

What if buildings could be 100% safe with no health, safety or environmental risks such as sick building syndrome, air and noise pollution, injuries or being victims of crime? What if buildings could be our ”go to” places of security and safety? What if buildings could predict and warn us of any danger or risks prior to the event? Could buildings predict environmental disasters such as earth quakes and ‘react’ to ensure its occupants’ safety?

What if we use drones to deliver materials to site in order to speed up productivity and to monitor construction processes, sending data to the cloud to be analysed for any required adjustments to the project?

What if we could design self-assembling blocks that work as a system of cubes with no external moving parts that can assemble, then break apart and reassemble in a new shape through microchips and wireless signals that control the internal moving parts, and magnets that snap the pieces together firmly?

Living with people who differ from us is one of the world’s most pressing challenges. What if we were to re-think public spaces that celebrated difference, encouraged tolerance and inspired a sense of shared destiny? What if our environments were designed to bring out the best in each other, instead of the worst? What if architecture could actually change the way people think about life itself?

Unrealistic? Maybe, maybe not…

Many of these seemingly futuristic technologies are already commercially available and in use today, including 3D printing, unmanned drone aircraft, and robotic construction systems. The question is: are today’s architects forward-thinking enough and ready to adopt and embrace and explore these technologies? What if all architects could also be futurologists? What if all industries could collaborate to ensure our future on earth is bright?

What if we could involve communities by asking for their input before we build structures that we think they will like and accept? What if we could give them virtual tours and experiences of the structures before it is built and let them comment on social media? What if we follow an open innovation approach and involve more people, industries, competitors, communities and artificial intelligence during the design phase?

Unlikely? Perhaps. However, today we are surrounded by the “previously unlikely”. What is important for us at UJ’s GSA, is no matter how ‘unlikely’ things may seem, we will never stop dreaming, never stop asking ‘what if’ and never accept the status quo. At UJ’s GSA, we will persevere in our quest for innovation and global excellence. And we will succeed. And that’s exciting.