In 1974, the Johannesburg-born architecture student, Stanley Saitowitz, submitted the required thesis at the end of his five-year professional degree in architecture. A Dissertation met, but pushed back against the validation criteria for the professional degree of architect. Housed in the architecture library of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and restored in 2012, it is considered here as a touchstone for the development of architectural vocabularies beyond colonial epistemologies.

Drawing on oral and unpublished histories of A Dissertation, the chapter locates it in intertwined conditions – those specific to Saitowitz’s auto-didactic practice and those necessitated by colonial dominance in the Global South. It was created during the height of apartheid excess, during forced removals of Blacks from urban and rural homes, when white men were conscripted to support the system. Education was informed by a Calvinist Christian doctrine that reinforced white supremacy and criminalized interracial and same-sex relationships. Saitowitz’s understanding of education as a self-directed practice of “unlearning” was central to the way in which he found a way to become an architect under these repressive conditions. He assigned an agential potential to architecture to meet the “need for total transformation” that could be developed through a language “that gives work and tone and image to that which is silent, distorted, and suppressed on the one hand, and in the realm of self-determination through architecture’s very mechanism, on the other” (1974). Re-reading A Dissertation at a moment of renewed calls for decolonization of the curriculum of the South is a way of understating that this contribution was a pioneering work. It is both a model for a renewed commitment to a rebellious auto-didacticism beyond white lived experience, and a call to watch Black space as a new institutional formation.