The key of change

Lesley Lokko reveals her Architecture Biennale
by Michele Cerruti But

During this interview with Lesley Lokko, curator of he 18th. Architecture Biennale, we focused on a couple of keywords to explore her Laboratory of the Future. The five keywords we have chosen are: OTHERWISE, FUTURE, NARRATOLOGY, and the two binomials THEORY/PRACTICE and TIME/IMAGINARY.

When I started thinking about the opportunity to put Africa centre stage in the Biennale, I began to think about an expanded Africa, because the truth of our existence in Africa is that we are always in the mirror of the diaspora

We think that the Biennale is focusing many times on the very concept of the “otherwise”. Nevertheless, while in Italian the word “otherwise” seems to refer to a planet B, we must find another solution, “an alternative”, since most of the selected practitioners deal with the otherwise differently. It seems that, as a result of a process of reframing history, the otherwise is more about “somewhere else”, another place, rather than about an alternative. Pratictioners such as atelier masōmī, Theaster Gates Studio, and Cave_bureau are deeply working on this aspect.
I don’t know if I understand “otherwise” in quite the same way you are describing it. For me “otherwise” implies not just an alternative but also something different. So I understand it in this sense: “I would have done this otherwise, I would have done something else”. There is a kind of contingency involved. And I think the point with most of the practitioners is that they don’t think of themselves as “otherwise”, they think of themselves as central to architectural practice. There is a way in which many of these practitioners are framed not necessarily as “otherwise”, but just as “other”. As I have said many times, when you are inside Africa it’s very difficult to think of yourself as “other”. Because you just are. The exhibition, I think, is trying to walk that tightrope between being confident and comfortable enough to take place, to take the stage. Being aware enough that you are always viewed from the lens of someone else. But also, being brave enough not to allow the gaze on you to alter what you want to say. It’s a very complex way of saying that we are both otherwise and not otherwise simultaneously. I don’t know if that complicates the question or if it simplifies it. I think it was Frantz Fanon who said that one of the first things he understood about being black in the world was the fact of being the object of other people’s gazes [editor’s note: check especially the fifth chapter of F. Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks”]. That awareness of being looked at as well as being at the same time one’s own self, I think is a complicated and quite complex condition. I’m sure many of the practitioners who are taking part in the Biennale straddle that tightrope carefully.

You just reminded me of the work The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. Within this “undercommons” there is much of that framework: somehow you are already there. You suggest something, you can live differently, but the difference is already in the present and not somewhere else.
When you try to do something different or you bring voices that have not previously been in the centre, there is always a huge expectation that you are going to say something that is radically different. After all, this is just an exhibition and these are just “practitioners” who express ideas, concepts, and I did what any other curator of an exhibition would have done. So, on the one hand, I think people who come to this exhibition expecting to see something otherworldly or otherwise will probably be disappointed because we are not otherworldly, we are not from somewhere else, we are from here. I think the difference is really in the approach. Possibly also in the use of resources, in the attitude towards building, towards architecture, towards power. It is more in the nuances and in the subtlety of approach that one will find a difference.

Curator’s Room, Archive of the Future, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

We may describe it with Kafka, with a sort of “consistent minority”, which is somehow what we also try to use to understand the future. You said that The Laboratory of the Future is something very practical. But what is the matter of the future? We see that many practitioners suggest a non-existing future or possibly a future made of both ancestor memories and practice-based scenarios. What L.L. suggests is a very concrete and pragmatic idea of the future, the future like a collective workshop, an atelier. Maybe someone could label this Biennale like a sort of reflection on Afrofuturism. But we also think that, by looking at the practices of, for instance, Hood Design Studio, MASS Design Group, or Craig McClenaghan , this is only partially true, as this labelling is definitely not enough.
The desire to name something in order to understand it is very deep in all of us. To grasp something, you have to be able to articulate it. And labels like Afrofuturism, laboratory, future, Africa are useful in one sense, because they are a kind of shortcuts to comprehension. But I am actually interested in the gap between the shortcut and the long understanding, because it is in that long and deep understanding where the common lies. We all grapple with trying to understand where we are from, where we are going, what we are doing, and why we are doing what we’re doing. This is a universal conundrum. And so, by bringing voices and people and places that have not generally been invited to the table, I’m hoping that we will have an expanded sense of what the table actually consists of. An exhibition is quite an interesting space because its time is quite finite. The Biennale lasts for six months, which is quite a long time to engage with something. So it’s somewhere between the sound bite of Afrofuturism (which conjures up magic, if you like), and the reality of the concrete conditions of life in other places, as well as of life here. This relationship between minority and majority is interesting because, quite frankly, the practitioners who are invited are the global majority. It is only here that we are seen as a minority. This tension, which comes back to the first question that you raised, this tension between “other” and “self” is present in almost everything. I don’t see it so much as an answer to something. I see it more as an attempt to ask an intelligent set of questions and maybe that’s not what an exhibition is supposed to do. An exhibition, I think, is supposed to give you a sense of an answer to something. This exhibition for me comes before the answer, trying to understand how to frame the questions.

An architecture exhibition is an almost perfect marriage of these two things: the novelist’s desire to explore and the architect’s desire to make

Lokko’s approach is interesting because it is really about trying to deeply enter in each of the aspects that she pointed out. It can be used as an opportunity for having a larger view on reality. And what is even more interesting is this crossing between architecture and what we may call “narratology”. Of course, this is also related very much to her specific practice, which is multifaceted, dealing not only with spaces, images, but also with narratives. This is true also for the practitioners, if we just think for instance about the amazing work by Toni L. Griffin and her Urban American City (urbanAC): The just city, the just urbanism is all about narrations. Let’s think about Project Detroit, for instance. Or even about the fantastic images by Olalekan Jeyifous. What is the role of narratology in Architecture and Urbanism, in a world which is practice-based. In other words, what is the “practice of narrating”?
When I started writing fiction, I went to fiction out of anger. I was angry with Architecture as a discipline because I felt it didn’t allow me at the time, and we are talking about 30 years ago, the space to explore anything. I felt like Architecture simply wanted me to explain myself. And the point I kept trying to make, even as a student, was that it is very difficult to explore something and at the same time trying to explain it. So, I moved away from Architecture to fiction because I thought fiction would be more forgiving as the role of the explorer in fiction was already understood. When Architecture was told to me as a story, my job was not to explore, my job was to fix it, was to make things and material concrete and real. But when I started writing fiction and literally sat down to start writing a novel, I was amazed at how similar writing a novel is to do an architectural project, for me they were almost the same process. So I think the experience of writing fiction for 10 or 15 years, or however long it was, gave me enough confidence to think that I could approach Architecture in the same way, that I could see Architecture as a form of narration even if its tools, to a certain extent, are slightly different, as they involve space, drawing, materials, surfaces and temperature, and so on. But the impulse to try to say something, to me, has always been at the heart of Architecture and in some ways an exhibition is an almost perfect marriage of those two things: the novelist’s desire to explore and the architect’s desire to make. I think they are two sides of the same coin. This is the first time I’ve ever curated anything, and it may as well be the last, but it was very interesting bringing together these two worlds.

It is like a formal reconciliation between practice and theory…
Yes, and I also think that I had never fully understood the difference between practice and academia or between academia and novel writing, those boundaries to me are not very clear. I recognise that my approach to architectural practice is only one of many. There are many ways to approach this subject matter, but I think the thing that keeps me fascinated by Architecture is its plurality. I went into architecture hoping that I would know something very, very deeply. This was the initial attraction but, by the time I left, I actually knew lots and lots of things but very, very shallow.

In Italy we often say that engineers know everything about one thing and architects know something about everything.
That’s true and that was not what I thought the architect would be when I went into it. I went into it thinking I would be a little bit like an engineer or a doctor. I would know one thing really, really well but it didn’t happen.

Curator’s Room, Square, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The binomial theory/practice is maybe not even a binomial, but rather a holistic way of seeing Architecture, spreading practice and theory, or practice and research. Going through the practitioners we find something that suggests an even larger perspective. In the past in Europe we had this huge reflection on agency driven by Jeremy Till, Tatjana Schneider and Nishat Awan [Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, 2011]. Their reflection about the attitudes towards our capabilities to impact on space and reality is amazing. Nevertheless, when we look at practitioners such as Ibrahim Mahama or at the work of Kibwe Tavares with Basis, we may think there is something else. Probably the strong relation with KNUST in Accra and Kumasi had a big effect on these practices: they are doing architecture and art at the same time, and this is definitely something different. We asked L.L. what is the specific contribution that the African diaspora is giving to this new attitude of practice/theory.
At the time when I first started thinking about who this exhibition would encompass, I was reading The Black Atlantic [editor’s note: the Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness by paul gilroy] about this idea of a nation space or a national identity that is beyond the nation state. And this was very interesting to me. Also thinking about it in terms of paul gilroy’s writings on black music and how he conceived the black atlantic as a kind of identity of the future. In other words, people are joined not by geography or birth, but by a set of experiences. when I started thinking about the opportunity to put Africa centre stage in the Biennale, I began to think about an expanded Africa, because the truth of our existence in Africa is that we are always in the mirror of the diaspora. So, especially for people who operate in the architecture and art worlds it is very rare that you only practise, and you only exist in one location. You always exist in relation to somewhere else as well. whether it’s through information technology or through the internet or through culture, whatever it is, even ideology, we are also in reflection of other places, so it was very important for me to somehow capture this aspect. And that is partly why both in the arsenale and in the Central Pavilion at the Giardini there are so many practitioners who are here and there simultaneously, because this is the nature of their practice and it is also the nature of their references. When I met the curators from the national pavilions, one of the things which was so interesting in our conversation – since a lot of them actually responded to the statement “the laboratory of the future” – was that they seemed to be inventing new territories of commonality. Somebody in Grenada as well as in Abu Dhabi, for instance, might be working with water resources, referencing something that is happening in Finland. You begin to get this territory, this kind of geography that has nothing to do with the location, but it has to do with climate change. So I began to think about these big questions of decolonization and decarbonization. Could they actually be the forerunners of new forms of not just solidarity, but actually identity? I was recently reading something about Gen Z. the concept of gender is so fluid amongst Gen Z because they understand it as a spectrum of possibilities. And I kept thinking: “This is also very interesting because, at its core, it is a quest for identity”. And unlike the identities of the 19th and maybe even 20th century, which tended to be quite fixed, quite located, quite defensive, we’re now moving into a much more hybrid and fluid understanding. It is as if our behaviours, our language, our architectures haven’t quite caught up to that. So maybe in some ways this exhibition and this group of practitioners are a way to explore that.

Arsenale, ph: Andrea Avezzù, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

We have to refigure out this question, which was meant to discuss about imaginaries. It was based on the idea that we are always coping with the Western imaginary, but in this Biennale, in a way, L.L. is suggesting that there is a hopefully decolonial or post-colonial imaginary. What she is saying now is moving forward: “The history of Architecture is not wrong, it is just not complete! It just doesn’t consider all the people around the table.” What she is saying now, talking about new territories of commonality, is that the point is not to figure out another imaginary, something that is de-colonial so we can overcome the past, but that the imaginary is already there, since the presence of the Blackness is itself a contemporary imaginary. Extremely significant is, for instance, the choice of Courage Dzidula Kpodo with his work Postbox Ghana. Observing how people are coping with modern Architecture, and how they relate to it since it is already there, is a great idea. The question we meant to ask her was: What is the imaginary you are suggesting? But now we would rather ask: What is the time of the imaginary you are trying to delve into?
As I have said so many times before, we are the world’s youngest continent. The average age is under 20. We are half the age of Europe and the United States. For the vast majority of people on our continent, the bulk of their lives has yet to come. In that context, if you give agency – and I don’t mean it in the rather sort of American way of “I want to empower people” –, if you give agency to a population who has the bulk of their life in front of them it’s a very powerful force, because they have time to explore, make mistakes, reframe, re-attempt, re-frame again. I remember, maybe about 10 years ago, being at a conference where there was an Austrian architect talking about a project where he had brought the homeless and students together in the same programme. His reasoning was that students have most of their life ahead, while many of the homeless feel as if their lives were over. By bringing these two constituencies together, he wanted to explore that tension between long time and short time, or long time and no time. And so for me, bringing so many young voices to this Biennale was an opportunity to say: “We have time. Time, in a sense, is on our side.”
What you say at 24 or 27 may not be the same thing you say at 57. Here’s the opportunity to say something because you can continuously come back to it. You know, I’m 60, so this is also a strange time in a way to do this, because I’m also very conscious that maybe there’s another 10 years of this kind of production left. I also feel in a way that I’m saying the same thing today that I said 30 years ago. Except 30 years ago, Architecture wasn’t ready to hear it. So it’s a kind of a strange time to understand that now there is an audience for it.

My students would like to ask you how to become practitioners of the future…
The only real answer I can give to students who ask me how to become practitioners is to encourage them to have an authentic voice. Whatever that voice is. I spent a lot of my time studying Architecture, trying to be like what I thought an architect should be. But I think that when I realised that that voice had to be my voice was the moment that, in a way, I was free

Featured image: Lesley Lokko, ph: Jacopo Salvi, courtesy La Biennale di Venezia

The Black shift of the 18th Venice Architecture Biennale