Interview with Suzi Hall, urban ethnographer and architect

Suzanne (Suzi) Hall is an ethnographer at the LSE, London, where she explores people’s lives in urban spaces. Prior to that she worked as an architect in South Africa. Her 2012 book City, Street and Citizen: the Measure of the Ordinary, published by Routledge, draws on her ethnography of the Walworth Road, a bustling, dynamic street in south London but also a “contextual lens with which to view local expressions of social adaptation in the face of global change.” (2012:4) She coordinates the Super-diverse Streets project based at LSE Cities in London and this interview (by email) follows a May 2015 course there on Critical Urban Ethnography.

Do your own experiences of school shape how you think of people sharing space now?

A definitive no: I grew up in Apartheid South Africa and went to state schools. Both my primary and high schools were standardized buildings where any remote notion of imaginative space was entirely obfuscated by bureaucratic monotony. I do remember that my high school had one courtyard space in which there was a flaming red Poinsettia tree, the one marvel in a thoroughly dull environment.

You’re an architect and an urban ethnographer – what it is about space and people that interests you?

I am intrigued by the possibilities of imagination, and how ambitions and expressions are formed in and form space. I have been drawn to the everyday dimensions of these possibilities, however, my underlying intrigue is how space is political, how it reconfigures our sense of self and other.

You designed a primary school in South Africa – could you tell me a little about that experience?

I designed a high school with Jacqui Perrin in a remote and very poor township in Cape Town called Masibambane. We were given a stunning brief to reimagine what a community school would be like. The process of delving into that brief was far more complex. The school was already partly in place – a desolate collection of prefabricated rectangles orthogonally ordered across the site. Also in place was a labyrinth of administrative standards of what a school is and isn’t deemed to be. We put enormous effort into a sense of good light and generous volumes. Most essentially we focused on threshold spaces and informal gathering areas, and the relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces. Through a sequence of verandahs, courtyards and pools of trees, we tried to make a sensuous sequence of green and shade, spaces of reprieve in a tough landscape.

In your ethnography of the Walworth Road, people bring in and re-constitute different parts of the world to make something new in south London. I think of schools in a similar way – students bring in experiences and through their actions with others in those already established cultures, something new emerges. In the case of school though, there’s often a tension between the curriculum (as established, valued forms and objects of knowledge) and students’ less predictable, less official knowledges. Both are important. Do you recognise this tension and if so, how does it play out in terms of living in the city with existing cultures and new cultures alongside or in each other?

There is a suffocating fixation on belonging as a moral imperative, and with it very narrow understandings of what it means to participate, learn and share. I am increasingly intrigued by spaces in the city that allow for experimentation and ways of learning about self and other without prescribed agendas or over-programmed spaces. In my work, these appear as the multitude of semi-public interiors that line the street, bringing together large and small rooms and a range of interests. There is always a crucial hinterland to the street, where a number of rooms are explicitly claimed for very particular groups and memberships – churches, mosques, libraries, doctors’ surgeries and clinics. This range of loose and tight memberships is crucial to the varied life of the street.

From your ethnography is there one thing about people living together that stands out? One comment? One scene? A feeling?

Social contact refines our capacities to socialise, to experiment and to participate.

What’s important for thinking about space – in the next 5 years? In the next 50 years?

I’d like to say more flexibility. But I fear the dramatic growth of inequality, and the expulsion of more and more urban inhabitants to the urban margins. I’d have to therefore say, ‘More inclusion, less segregation, at all costs.’

An architect and an educationalist are sitting together, having coffee. What conversation do they need to have?

Perhaps they should begin by asking what the equivalent might be of sitting together, having a coffee, in a school environment.


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