“To be hopeful is to be deeply human”: this is probably one of the most important statements curator Lesley Lokko made during the presentation of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, for the Venice Architecture Biennale, significantly entitled The Laboratory of the Future. Listening to the words pronounced by Lokko, who is an established Ghanaian-Scottish architect and academic as well as a narrative writer, this exhibition promises to connect the local to the universal from a highly inclusive perspective, without leaving us hopeless even during such difficult times.
Lokko graduated from London’s Bartlett School of Architecture and holds a PhD in architecture from the University of London. She’s been teaching at several renowned institutions across United States, Europe, Africa and Australia, while receiving numerous prestigious awards and assignments all over the world. In 2015, she founded the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2019, she was nominated Dean of Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture in New York, a position from which she resigned in 2020 to found the African Futures Institute in Accra, Ghana, a graduate school to promote an interdisciplinary approach towards architectural research.
While we are waiting to visit the exhibition that will be open from 20 May to 26 November 2023 between Giardini, Arsenale and other venues located in the city of Venice, Italy, it is already clear that the focus will be a very specific place: the Africa continent, together with all the complexities it represents not only for itself, but also for the whole humanity. In fact, Lokko says, there is no doubt that “according to anthropology, we are all Africans”, but this is not the only reason why Africa is the place we should turn back our gaze during the times we are living in. After the beginning of the pandemic, inequalities as well as social and geopolitical tensions have been rising and becoming more and more evident: one of the two global issues that have been emerging during the last decades, decolonisation and decarbonisation, inevitably converge on Africa. Africa is better known to be the youngest continent on our planet and, when it comes to architecture, we should not be surprised it is also considered the territory where urbanisation grows faster. This often leads to collateral effects because of the frequent lack of planning, but still makes Africa the most dynamic place in the world also for this field. According to Lokko, Africa is definitely the place where the future starts from, and “what happens in Africa, happens to us all”.
There is evidence that it is necessary to overcome the incomprehensions due to centuries of Eurocentrism, as also highlighted during his introduction by Roberto Cicutto, President of La Biennale di Venezia: while we listen to a quote from the lectio magistralis originally given by Umberto Eco at the inauguration of Expo Milano back in 2015, it’s almost impossible not to reflect on how widely the world’s fairs, and even the Venice Biennale itself have been showing Eurocentric dynamics in the shape of pavilions for a very long time. Lesley Lokko, thanks to over thirty years of experience in the research and education fields crossing different cultural contexts, embodies the possibility of a mutual dialogue between Europe and what is undoubtedly the majority of humanity, if we finally leave behind us the Eurocentric perspective and consider the rest of the world as it deserves.
This dialogue doesn’t exclusively regard different cultural and geographical contexts, but also disciplines. During the presentation, eloquent slides scroll behind the curator: moving from the modern conception of “carnival” developed by the Russian philosopher Michail Bakhtin, to a famous quote on the urgency of contrasting climate change by Barack Obama, Lokko demonstrates the ability to connect many references to each other while following the direction of a common and meaningful purpose.
Among many other references, the most representative is the concept of “workshop” theorized by the American sociologist Richard Sennett. “Workshop” is at the core of “The Craftsman”, one of Sennett’s most important essays, and effectively explains the title chosen by Lokko for this Biennale. The noun “laboratory” reminds the field of modern science, where laboratories are mostly spaces that end to be separated and even isolated from the surrounding context, while the “workshop”, according to Sennett, isn’t just a physical space, but also a relational space where community can meet and renew connections between people and disciplines, as has previously happened in ancient cultures such as the Greek and the Chinese. Since we are in Venice, a city where both architecture and craftsmanship have often been deeply connected and have been leading to extraordinary results, we also ask Lokko what role does she suppose craftsmanship has in the relation between “race”, “culture” and “space”, the three key words where her architecture biennale starts. “One of the things that is very interesting about Sennett’s description of the workshop is that it is not just a place where you come to make things, it’s also a place where you come to make ideas”, Lokko replies, and this answer can only make us even more curious about how this “complex, but necessary” exhibition will be.
When we later asked Lokko how we might put the incredible interdisciplinarity characterising African architecture in relation with the European humanism, she replies it’s definitely time “to think beyond the narrow boundaries of architecture, landscape, urbanism”. This means that the African perspective might help all of us to rethink and “expand” our vision not only regarding to the more specific field of architecture, but also to broader global issues.