Architecture – “Africa produces less than 4% of the world’s carbon emissions. Just because our history has been intercepted [colonised] by others, it doesn’t mean our future has to be.” Writes Burkinabé architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Diébédo Francis Kéré at his installation at Venice Architecture Biennale 2023. This year, under the overarching main theme Laboratories of the Future, curator Lesley Lokko finally (!) brought together the projects, challenges, and visions of architects and artists from Africa and the African diaspora to take centre stage.
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“Africa is the laboratory of the future,” Scottish-Ghanan architect Lesley Lokko told Archipanic. Lokko is the first black woman to curate La Biennale di Venezia. “We are at the forefront of climate change and the biggest challenges of our time, including immigration. Narrating contemporary architecture without taking into consideration the African perspective would mean building an incomplete narrative.”
From here, Archipanic’s editor-in-chief Enrico Zilli selected ten powerful stories and projects at the Laboratories of the Future exhibition’s two main sections: Force Majeure at the Central Pavilion at Giardini and Dangerous Liaisons at Arsenale.
Sir David Adjaye, founder and principal of Adjaye Associates, created a monumental pyramidal installation on the dock at Arsenale. Envisioned as a space for both reflection and active programming, two oculi punctuate the black timber structure, while the internal space is a sculpted ovoid reminiscent of a cave.
At the Central Pavilion, Adjaye showcases stunning models of some of his prominent projects, including the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library and its precolonial inspiration and the Edo Museum of West African Art/Creative District, which aims to reconstruct resurrect and reposition ancient Benin City as a powerhouse of cultural output.
Diébédo Francis Kéré
Before colonisation, Africans used simple techniques and low-tech local materials such as wood, clay, and mud. Today, their homes are built from concrete or non-sustainable materials, while the interiors are crammed with consumerist plastic objects. “Why don’t we harness the past and combine it with new technologies to create a more sustainable way of building and living?” Questions Diébédo Francis Kéré.
Through three rooms, the architect presents a traditional clay home, messy contemporary interiors, and a local-driven ultra-performative material the studio has developed for environmentally friendly homes.
Nigerien studio atelier masōmī presents recent projects in Niamey, Niger’s capital and largest city. Making architecture in a context of scarcity, extreme climate, and economic vulnerability is challenging. In particular, the “erasure of traditional building techniques from the public consciousness provides us with a laboratory from which to make thoughtful architecture inspired by the past while innovating towards the future.” Says the studio founder Mariam Issoufou Kamara.
The focus is on the process as a tool to bring local narratives to the fore, translating dispossessed identities and history into architectural form. Models hanging on the walls like pictures are framed by plans hand-drawn by Issoufou Kamara.
Chicagoan artist and architect Theaster Gates presents a video installation narrating ten years of BAR – Black Arts Retreat, his platform for Afro-American creatives. By sharing this film, Gates demonstrates the complexities of the very notion of Black space and how temporal Black spaces can be built to advance the cause of the arts and convene artists of colour in a self-determined manner.
Hood Design Studio
In the wetlands near Charleston and in the Lowcountry in South Carolina, United States, urban development and the diminishing of rural land tenure endanger a ‘native’ Black cultural landscape forging a dialectic between the enslaved Gullah Geechee people, plantations, Carolina Gold rice, sweetgrass baskets, and Africa. Wetland development and diminishing rural land tenure endanger these ‘native’ cultural landscapes. Can villages like Phillips survive?
Hood Design Studio architecturally explores such challenges with a double installation. The studio creates an immersive interior experience at the Central Pavilion and brings the Gulla Geechee marshes and their typical structures on stilts to the Carlo Scarpa Sculpture Garden.
Studio Sean Canti
American architect Sean Canti presents an installation loosely based on two sheds built by his great-grandfather Edgar in Eliot, South Carolina, US. He called him Bubba. One shed is a home of joy, belonging, and struggle. The other is a juke joint filled with smoke, rhythm, and blues. The beauty laid bare in Bubba’s sheds acknowledges a set of practices entirely foreign and overlooked, steeped in the Black vernacular. In these simple forms, quite extraordinary inventions abound. Values of reuse and care are of the same essence.
At the Central Pavilion, Nigerian architect Olalekan Jeyifous recreates an imaginary lounge of the ACE/AAP project. To repair the damage done to the African continent’s ecoregions by former colonial powers, the African Conservation Effort (ACE) applied Indigenous knowledge systems to developing advanced networks that synthesized renewable energy and green technologies. The ACE – All-Africa Protoport is a network of sprawling low-impact, zero-emissions travel complexes situated off the coasts of major ports of Africa and African diaspora countries such as the United States, Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil.
Serge Attukwei Clottey
Serge Attukwei Clottey presents his Afrogallonism ongoing project rooted in histories of trade and migration and raising awareness of Africa’s environmental issues. The Ghanan artist upcycles yellow 1-gallon tanks, a single-use global material he cuts, drills, stitches, and melts to create site-specific installations worldwide. Installed along the upper support structure of the Gaggiandre at Arsenale, the work dialogues with the Venetian site hanging organically, its shape defined by its own weight, suspended above the water, the reflection catching along the surface below.
Gloria Cabral, Sammy Baloji, and Cécile Fromont
Brazilian architect Gloria Cabral, architect and constructor Sammy Baloji from Congo, and Cécile Fromont from Martinica joined forces to ‘weave’ an architectural, textile-like facade/tapestry made from upcycled debris from construction sites that connects both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Inspired by the historical Kongo kingdom and their Brazilian Indigenous cognates, the wall and its motifs highlight the value of debris and the potential of patterns to form architectural, historical, and social structures for a reimagined future.
Kate Otten Architects
Kate Otten involved South African women in crafting a map of Johannesburg’s geological, geopolitical, and sociological history. Two billion years ago, a massive meteorite crashed into the earth approximately one hundred kilometres south of the city. Gold deposits were buried in seams deep below the surface, coming to rest in an arc-shaped ridge. The discovery of gold in 1886, and the gold rush that followed, led to the establishment of Johannesburg. The play of light and shadow, the use of colour and pattern, and the hand-making and collaborative process all represent our approach to architecture that is particular to a place and nurtures the human spirit.