Setting the Stage for Africa at the Venice Architecture Biennale

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Setting the Stage for Africa at the Venice Architecture Biennale

For most of her life, the Ghanaian Scottish architect and educator Lesley Lokko, curator of the forthcoming Venice Architecture Biennale, has moved between worlds. She grew up in both Accra, the capital, with its two seasons and hot steady climate, and cool coastal Dundee. “Scotland was shiver,” she recalled. “Ghana was sweat.”

Her ability to inhabit and interpret multiple worlds is a talent that Lokko, 59, the Architecture Biennale’s first curator of African descent, is bringing to “The Laboratory of the Future,” an ambitious exploration of Africa’s impact on the globe — and vice versa. More than half the Biennale’s 89 participants are from Africa or the African diaspora — many of them “shape-shifters,” as Lokko calls them, whose work transcends traditional definitions of architecture as well as geography.

Among the Venetian Who’s Who is the Pritzker Prize winner Diébédo Francis Kéré (Burkina Faso and Berlin); Sumayya Vally and Moad Musbahi (Johannesburg, London, Tripoli, New York); Cave_Bureau (Nairobi), a firm that has 3-D mapped Shimoni slave caves on the Kenyan coast. The Brooklyn-based Nigerian visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous and the noted British Ghanaian architect David Adjaye (Accra, London and New York), a close friend and collaborator best known in the United States for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“It is an opportunity to talk to the rest of the world about Africa, and also to talk to Africa from here,” Lokko said in a series of email and video interviews from Venice, keeping the details under wraps until the press opening May 18. Sub-Saharan Africa is often regarded as the most rapidly urbanizing and youthful population on the planet, she points out, with most people speaking more than one language. “The ability to be several things at once — traditional and modern, African and global, colonized and independent — is a strong thread running through the continent and the Diaspora,” she said. “We’re used to having to think about resources, about switching on a light with no guarantee of electricity. We’re able to grapple with change. That capacity to overcome, to negotiate, to navigate ones’ surroundings is going to take center stage.”

A shape-shifter herself, Lokko has long been immersed in issues of race, space and architecture — the subject of a pathbreaking book she wrote and edited while still a graduate student at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, from which she earned a Ph.D. Earlier this year, King Charles III named Lokko an officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.) for services to architecture and education. In 2015, she founded an influential graduate school of architecture at the University of Johannesburg. A mere four months before the. Biennale came calling, she opened the African Futures Institute in Accra, a postgraduate “Pan-African think tank” with public programs and an international reach that seeks to fill in sorely-needed gaps in existing architectural education‌.

Those considered “minorities” in the West are actually the global majority, she observes. “When you are African, you speak to a world that has an existing view of who and what you are,” she said. “You walk with this kind of label. So for me, the Biennale was an opportunity to both talk about the label, to confront it in a way, but to also show underneath how similar we are.”

Although the Biennale is hardly the first major exhibition to focus on Black and diasporic practitioners, the cascading crises of climate change, rapid urbanization, migration, global health emergencies and a deep imperative to decolonize institutions and spaces — starting with the historically Eurocentric Biennale itself — arguably make Lokko’s focus on hybrid forms of practice timely, be it planners as policy experts or artist-environmentalists.

Walter Hood, a landscape designer and artist in Oakland, Calif., will offer an installation at the Biennale entitled “Native(s)” with his design for a set of public buildings for a South Carolina Gullah Community, inspired by a locally native landscape in which the community conserves sweetgrass for basket making.

The ability to “make do” and creatively improvise with existing resources can also offer a template for a sustainable future. “She has been saying for a while that it’s ‘our time,” Akosua Obeng Mensah, an architect practicing in Accra, said of Lokko, noting that roughly 80 percent of development in sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be built.

Anonymous International style skyscrapers still dominate many African cities. “A certain generation of architects have seen ‘the other’ — Europe or America — as the model to aspire to, and unscrambling that to interpret your own modernity is very hard,” said Adjaye, who expanded his practice in Ghana and has collaborated on the African Futures Institute. “In spotting Lesley,” he added, “what the Biennale is getting is a real on-the-pulse desire of the continent to reimagine itself.”

Lokko’s father, Dr. Ferdinand Gordon Lokko, was a Ghanaian surgeon who was sent by the government to study medicine in Scotland shortly after Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957. Like many Ghanaian men sent abroad, he returned with a white wife. (Lokko’s parents divorced when she was young.) Her father’s mother had no schooling. “I often think about the distance my father traveled — not just literally but culturally and emotionally,” she said.

Mixed-race children in Ghana were known as “half-castes” and Lokko recalls standing in front of the mirror wondering: “‘Where is the line? Is it down the middle?” she said.

She always thought of herself as half Ghanaian, half Scottish until she arrived in England at age 17 to attend boarding school. “I was suddenly Black, and I understood very quickly that in the U.K. Black was its own identity,” she said. “It seemed to subsume all the cultural nuances I grew up with.”

She went to Oxford, but left to follow a boyfriend to the U.S. As a girl, she sought solace as her parents’ marriage dissolved by poring over kitchen magazines; in Los Angeles, where she spent four years, a chance visit with an employer to a tabletop store led to a eureka moment in which he suggested that she pursue architecture.

Building has never been her forte — “I can’t even change a light bulb,” she jokes — and she went from being a student at Bartlett to teaching there practically overnight. By the late 1990s, however, she felt increasingly stymied that the issues she cared about were not widely shared. “I’ve always thought of ‘race’ as a powerfully creative category of exploration and expression,” she said. “I was fed up trying to find a way to talk about identity, race and Africa in architecture that wasn’t only about poverty and ‘informality,’ a word I loathe,” a reference to slums.

So in a plot twist worthy of Jackie Collins, the British romance novelist whose books she devoured, Lokko stepped away from architecture for 14 years to write fiction — after reading a Time Out guide to writing a best seller. Her novels — 12 and counting — blend female-centered stories of passion and romance with questions of racial and cultural identity — “heavy messages in the froth,” as one reviewer put it. The latest is “Soul Sisters,” a burn-the-midnight-oil cross-cultural tale set largely in Edinburgh and Johannesburg.

She returned to teaching at the University of Johannesburg in 2014, where she noticed that there were no Black architecture students. Student protests over fees, unjust educational disparities and calls for decolonization were rocking campuses across South Africa. There was “a hunger for change,” Lokko recalled, and it seemed possible to attract a new generation of builders focused on issues like spatial apartheid — the deliberately designed racially segregated settlements forged under white South African state control.

Lokko’s fleeting gig as dean of the City University of New York’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, from which she resigned in 2020 after less than a year, made headlines in the architecture world. “It was a bad fit on both sides,” she said, in which her management style — “not formal enough, not cautious enough, not political enough” — didn’t work, complicated by the lockdown. “The history of race, labor and gender in the United States is complex and far from resolved,” she added. (“I think it’s fair to say I’m quite polarizing.”) She was also reeling from a personal tragedy: Months before her arrival, her 52-year-old sister died from a stroke and seven weeks later, her 50-year-old brother had a fatal heart attack. “It was the worst year of my life,” she said.

New York’s loss was Accra’s gain: With $2.5 million in grants from the Ford and Mellon foundations, Lokko returned home to pursue a long-held dream to create an institute that would produce what Adjaye, a patron, calls “the whole gamut — planners, policy thinkers, inventors of materials and systems and a body of intellectuals who really understand the built environment ‌and what this means for future possibilities of the continent‌.”(The Institute has plans to establish a second location at Seme City in Benin that would allow it to straddle the region’s Francophone and Anglophone cultures.)

But the Biennale remains a “very exclusive European event for western audiences,” noted Livingstone Mukasa, a Ugandan architect and researcher in upstate New York and co-editor of the seven-volume “Architectural Guide: Sub-Saharan Africa.” “The question is whether this seasonal curiosity is the right platform to try to make seismic shifts”

In a sense, the Biennale is the African Futures Institute writ large: the Venetian extravaganza even includes a monthlong,first-ever “Biennale College Architettura” in which career practitioners and students will work on design projects with high-profile masters.

“She is using the Biennale as a platform to extend the work she has been doing for decades,” said Toni L. Griffin, a New York-based planner and urban designer whose outdoor installation will be featured in Venice. In graduate school, Griffin never had a professor of color and women were few. “Lesley is able to set the stage for others,” she said, ”and expose the network that for some of us has always been there.”

Biennale Architectura 2023: The Laboratory of the Future

Opens to the public May 20 through Nov. 26 in Venice, Italy;

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