Lesley Lokko Prepares for Venice What Africa as a Future Laboratory for Architecture Means

In curating the Biennale Architettura 2023 in Venice in May, Lesley Lokko is set to make history as the exhibition’s first Black architect. Lokko’s career as an architect has been eclectic but always revolving around the subject of Africa’s past, present and future.

In 1981, during the near-collapse of the Ghanaian economy, Lesley Lokko’s father, a medical doctor, was among the many middle-income-earning Ghanaians who could afford to leave Ghana with four children. Lokko, an architect and novelist whose mother was Scottish, was born in the United Kingdom but spent her childhood in Ghana. Although bi-racial, Lokko’s earliest memories were not of ‘difference’, but of being ‘at home’. Speaking to me last year, she explained, ‘Growing up, my father was very clear that we were Ghanaian and I saw myself as half-Ghanaian, half-Scottish; not half-Black, half-white.’

Lokko arrived in the UK, in 1981, as a 17-year​-​​ ​old teenager and her world as she knew it changed. ‘I arrived in the UK and was suddenly told I was “Black”, not Ghanaian,” she said. ‘It didn’t make sense to me.’ When Lokko tells this part of her story, she speaks with a very fierce facial expression: ‘It wasn’t how I would have described myself. In Ghana, no one is simply Black because everyone is Black. Suddenly, I had a new identity that was not of my own making.’

Lokko spent the next 40 years of her life trying to understand what it meant to be Black, both as an academic and a novelist. According to her, ‘What bothered me most was the sense that being Black simply meant not being white. That’s not deep or rich enough to satisfy anyone.’

Her academic path was long and varied. After leaving Ghana, Lokko took her A-levels at Malvern St. James, an English boarding school. She later gained admission to study Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford University but left the university shortly afterwards for a degree in Sociology in Los Angeles. Twenty-nine, and unhappy with the identity politics she encountered in the US, she returned to the UK. ‘In America,’ she told me, ‘it was actually worse, because the Americans were much more ignorant about identity than in England.’ In contrast to the popular view of America as the land of opportunity, Lokko found America ruthless in terms of class and race. The American system’s brutality, according to Lokko in a 2008 interview with the UK’s Independent, is a ‘vicious social Darwinism’. America, she added, ‘was made by immigrants but their attitudes towards contemporary immigrants shocked me.’

One day, while working as an office manager in Los Angeles, Lokko had a conversation with her manager that changed the direction of her life. He had asked her to help him choose some countertops for a venture he was starting and showed her a sketch. Since her mother had been an art teacher, Lokko knew how to draw a perspective and she made one for him. After reviewing her drawing, he said, ‘You ought to be an architect.’ I asked her, ‘So the discussion that made you decide to become an architect was totally unplanned?’ And she replied, ‘Totally unplanned.’  

Following the discussion with manager, Lokko enrolled at University College, London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, where she completed her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. By the time she graduated, she found that, contrary to her initial belief, there was still so much more to be discovered. Recalling that moment, she explained: 

I wanted to understand it and be a better student at it than I was in my undergraduate days. And then I discovered that architecture was not something that you could ever know in its entirety. I found that most architects spent too much time arguing about what was and what was not architecture. I left university knowing far less than I knew when I came in. But that desire to understand it differently lasted for the rest of my career. 

Although Lokko found architecture frustrating, she also excelled at it, gaining a doctorate in the field in 2007. But at the same time, Lokko began looking for creative outlets beyond architecture; during the search, she came across a Time Out article on how to write a blockbuster, and in 2004, she published her first novel, Sundowners. Since then, Lokko has published twelve novels and is set to deliver another one after curating La Biennale di Venezia later this year, beginning from May 20th. 

Though Lokko regards her novels as commercial works produced for money, the roots of her writing are not trivial. She had, after all, been a lifelong reader and had drunk from the gourds of renowned literary influences such as Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and David Malouf. As such, her works, which began on a commercial note, went on to tackle much serious topics like race, immigration and the identity politics of America and Europe.  

It was while she was a lecturer in architecture in the Netherlands in 2014 that she met a professor from the University of Johannesburg. After the lecture, they exchanged contacts and by the time Lokko returned to the UK, he emailed her to ask if she would take up a role as an external examiner. She accepted and wound up moving permanently to Johannesburg where she established a new Postgraduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. It had been nearly 20 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa. At the time, South African university students were amid a series of widespread protests. South Africa itself was at a cultural crossroads as the country tried to move on from the ghost of its apartheid past into a more independent present. Lokko saw that in order for South Africans to truly make progress in their newfound journey, they needed some reforms in their architectural systems, a considerable amount of which had been set up to support apartheid. She felt the apartheid’s architectural systems were part of deliberate strategies white authorities had put in place to condition Black South Africa to live and behave in certain ways that were inferior to their white counterparts.  

As such, Lokko’s interests and concerns surrounding race and identity politics found a natural home in South Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, joined the University of Johannesburg and eventually partnered with the university to set up its Graduate School of Architecture. She introduced the Metric style of teaching architecture, which involved the use of standard measurements as a teaching tool and was first developed at the University College, London, and found to the agreement of the University of Johannesburg authority, how effective this style of teaching was. ‘I was working 18-20 hours a day to make sure the standard of what I wanted to achieve was kept. Then suddenly my sister died and I left the country and my time there came to an end.’ 

In 2018, Lokko told Global Voices, ‘Apartheid couldn’t have happened without complicity of the architectural profession — that spatial carving up of the landscape — blacks live here, whites live here. This is how a white person should live and work; that’s what a black person deserves.’ She felt that part of the dilemma of the architecture profession at the time was that very little new ways of seeing, learning or teaching architecture had come into place. This partly necessitated Lokko’s interest in introducing the metric system of teaching architecture at the University of Johannesburg. 

In 2019, Lokko moved to America, where she took a job as the Dean of Anne and Bernard Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York. Once again, she was confronted with racism. ‘Immediately I took up the job, I knew it was a mistake,’ she told me, and a year later, she resigned. In an earlier piece reported by the Guardian UK, Lokko was said to have resigned for reasons of self-preservation: ‘Black women not being respected…’, ‘I did not feel like staying in America afterwards again…’ 

Following these experiences, in 2020, she returned home to Ghana where she established the African Futures Institute, a research centre, postgraduate school of architecture and public events platform. 

Lesley Lokko’s career as an architect has been eclectic, replete with the activities of a researcher, writer, editor, and nomadic intellectual who travels endlessly round the world to deliver lectures. And yet, the heart of her work has remained in Africa. Lokko’s bond with the continent has been one of constantly renewed kinship refined by optimism. At the beginning of our discussion, she had said, ‘When I returned to Ghana in 1992, the kiosks and the small businesses that had disappeared from the streets in 1981 had come back. Today in Ghana, things are much better than they were 40 years ago.’  

In curating the 2023 Biennale Architettura in Venice this May, Lokko is set to make history as the first Black architect to carry out this endeavour. Through her career in architecture, she has tirelessly advocated for ‘new ways of seeing’, drawing an intersection between history and the aspirations of Africans both at home and in the diaspora. For her, the role of the architect is to project onto the ground, the social and cultural values of any given society; to build structures that represent these values in society.  

The President of La Biennale di Venezia, Roberto Cicutto, relayed that the Curator’s duty is to afford the world a comprehensive overview as possible of the themes and projects suitable for dealing with future scenarios. Africa is presently at the centre of this debate about the future and, as curator, Lokko fits very well into this equation. In Cicutto’s words,  

Lesley Lokko, as curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, is a way of welcoming the gaze of an international personality who is able to interpret, through different roles, her own position in the contemporary debate on architecture and cities, which takes as its starting point her own experience immersed in a continent that is increasingly becoming a laboratory of experimentation and proposals for the whole contemporary world. I believe that this immersion in reality is the best way to dialogue with the questions raised by the 2021 Exhibition curated by Hashim Sarkis. 

The Biennale Architettura 2023 envisions Africa as a laboratory for the future of architecture. In formally announcing the theme, Lokko said,  

In Europe we speak of minorities and diversity, but the truth is that the West’s minorities are the global majority. There is one place on this planet where all these questions of equity, race, hope and fear converge and coalesce. Africa. At an anthropological level, we are all African. And what happens in Africa happens to us all.   

The importance of the Biennale Architettura 2023 with respect to Africa does not just end at the fact that it considers Africa with optimism. It lies in the reconsideration of the word, ‘Laboratory’ itself. In Lokko’s words,  

Today, the word ‘laboratory’ is more generally associated with scientific experimentation and conjures up images of a specific kind of room or building. But Richard Sennett’s examination of the word ‘workshop’, from which the word ‘laboratory’ stems, deepens the concept of collaborative endeavours in a different way. In the ancient world, in both China and Greece, the workshop was the most important institution anchoring civic life… We envisage our exhibition as a kind of workshop, a laboratory where architects and practitioners across an expanded field of creative disciplines draw out examples from their contemporary practices that chart a path for the audience—participants and visitors alike—to weave through, imagining for themselves what the future can hold. 

This is what the next phase of Lokko’s career holds for Africa: a bigger conceptual view of the present and what the future holds for us

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