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Venice Biennale resets the post-colonial balance

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Chris Foges

Lesley Lokko’s ‘uncomfortable and uplifting’ exhibition confronts architecture’s complicity in post-colonial violence and environmental destruction

The 18th Venice Biennale of Architecture is presented as a turning point, both for the festival and the discipline. ‘Rupture’ is the word used by its curator, the Scottish-Ghanaian architect, teacher and writer Lesley Lokko. That’s probably right. Until now, the most exalted platform in architecture has been given to the grand schemes and recherché preoccupations of established stars, mostly from Europe, the Americas and Asia. Lokko’s Laboratory of the Future instead turns the spotlight on people and places that have been not only under-represented here, but largely excluded from the story of architecture.

For the first time, architects and artists from Africa and its diaspora comprise the majority of the 89 contributors to the exhibition, presented in two giant venues at the Arsenale and the Giardini, surrounded by the national pavilions that make up the other half of the event. The gender balance is 50-50; the average age just 43. Many are what Lokko calls ‘hybrids’, working across disciplinary and cultural boundaries. All were asked to address twin themes of decolonisation and decarbonisation, and to ‘bring their authentic selves’.

The result is a bold, complex exhibition that seems urgent and deeply felt. It is uncomfortable and uplifting, forcing us to confront violence and environmental destruction in which architecture is complicit, while pointing – in a vague way – to a more equitable future. Like all recent biennales it is vast, scattershot and uneven, but just about held together by Lokko’s clarity of purpose.

Some of the most potent exhibits deal with the enduring legacies of historic exploitation. With architect Gloria Cabral and historian Cécile Fromont, Congolese photographer Sammy Baloji has produced a rippling, glittering wall of smashed brick and coloured glass, scored with precise geometric patterns. The motifs derive from textiles from the Kongo kingdom and Brazil – places linked by the slave trade – while the structure is made of demolition waste from the former imperial capital, Brussells. It is a beautiful evocation of the idea that value can be created from the ‘debris’ of the past.

  • Griot, by Studio Barnes.
    Griot, by Studio Barnes. Credit: Marco Zorzanello
  • Debris of History, Matters of Memory by Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont.
    Debris of History, Matters of Memory by Gloria Cabral and Sammy Baloji with Cécile Fromont. Credit: Andrea Avezzù
  • Bengali Song by Arinjoy Sen.
    Bengali Song by Arinjoy Sen. Credit: Marco Zorzanello

Miami-based Germane Barnes challenges the assumption that the dominant voice in architecture can speak for all. His gnarled column carved from black marble, representing diasporic identities, is offered as a ‘sixth order’ that rejects the rules of the classical tradition. It finds a chilling echo in an exhibit by Mabel O Wilson with Höweler & Yoon. In sound and light they convey what little is known about 4000 enslaved people who built the University of Virginia, whose Thomas Jefferson-designed classical Rotunda represents the power of reason. The words of one, Isabella Gibbons, are stencilled on the backdrop: ‘Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping post... No, we have not, or ever will’.

Alongside painful histories in the guise of ostensibly beautiful objects, there are heart-on-sleeve celebrations of identity and community. Lokko calls it a ‘collective outpouring of pride and joy’. One standout is an alluring triptych by Kolkata-born, London-based, Arinjoy Sen. Made with Bengali garment workers, it depicts architect Marina Tabassum’s bamboo monsoon shelter and scenes of communal construction among palms and meandering watercourses, in a hymn to co-operation between people and with the planet.

Another recurrent theme is ongoing plunder of far-away lands. A son-et-lumière by Andrés Jaque dramatises an unexpected link between New York’s $25bn Hudson Yards and Xolobeni in South Africa. The exaggerated lustre of stainless steel skyscrapers relies on titanium extraction that depletes the soil and throws up choking dust.

Thandi Loewenson’s intricate drawings tie exploration of the cosmos to the exploitation of African sites from which satellites were launched. They are etched on graphite mined in Mozambique – a major component of the batteries integral to much sustainable technology – a telling illustration of Lokko’s contention that decarbonisation and decolonisation are inseparably connected. ‘After all,’ she says bluntly, ‘the Black body was Europe’s first unit of energy’.

These are complex stories, not easily communicated through the sort of art-objects that predominate, or at the breakneck pace of a large show. Most exhibits need long captions – unhelpfully in small type and low light. The effort required is usually rewarded, but it’s hard going.

ACE/AAP, by Olalekan Jeyifous - the imaginary lounge of a transport hub on the Barotse floodplain.
ACE/AAP, by Olalekan Jeyifous - the imaginary lounge of a transport hub on the Barotse floodplain. Credit: Matteo de Mayda

Also frustrating is a general absence of buildings, although a small sample of African projects hints at a serious effort to develop new languages for architecture whose starting point lies outside the Western canon. David Adjaye presents current work on both sides of the Atlantic – from the national cathedral in his native Ghana to the Newton Enslaved Burial Ground in Barbados – whose design is rooted in local cultures and geography. Niger’s Atelier Masōmī shows its striking public buildings against chalk wall-drawings of vernacular Sahelian architecture. A clay structure by Francis Kéré explores the low-carbon potential of traditional construction in Burkina Faso.

You also get a fascinating glimpse of Koffi & Diabaté’s sustainable masterplan for the town of Ebrah in Cote d’Ivoire. Otherwise there’s little engagement with large-scale development. It is a significant omission. Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, and perhaps 80% of the buildings it will need don’t yet exist. Choices made now will shape the lives of billions and determine global efforts to decarbonise. Nowhere does the design of buildings matter more.

At its opening, however, Lokko rejected criticism that the exhibition ‘stops short’ of architecture, saying: ‘The opposite is true; it’s our conventional understanding of architecture that stops short’. The discipline, she argues, is broader than the profession, taking a legitimate interest in all aspects of land use, and in territories defined instead by culture, economics or technology.

Work on show includes research, community organising and activism. A gripping film details architect Alison Killing’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work to identify China’s Uyghur concentration camps from satellite photos. Architectural skills are also deployed to recognise spaces claimed by those who don’t get to shape the built environment. Le Laboratoire d’Architecture uses simple line drawings to map nomad encampments in Tunisia and halts for travellers’ caravans in Lausanne. A film by London-based Gbolade Studio documents social networks forged by the Windrush generation through dominoes clubs.

Lokko insists, too, on the primary importance of the imagination in building a better future, especially where circumstances seem to limit possibility. So we get a fair bit of freewheeling speculation, unfettered by the practicalities of concrete propositions. In that vein are diverse contributions by Estudio AO, MMA Design Studio and Forensic Architecture which examine below-ground traces of ancient settlements in South Africa, Amazonia and Ukraine. These finds are pitched as inspiration for more sustainable, egalitarian forms of urban organisation, though what that might look like remains unclear.

  • Counteract, an installation by Kéré Architecture, demonstrates low carbon construction using traditional techniques.
    Counteract, an installation by Kéré Architecture, demonstrates low carbon construction using traditional techniques. Credit: Matteo de Mayda
  • Process, an exhibit by atelier masōmī, pairs models of the architect’s projects with chalk drawings of historic vernacular buildings in the Sahel.
    Process, an exhibit by atelier masōmī, pairs models of the architect’s projects with chalk drawings of historic vernacular buildings in the Sahel. Credit: Matteo de Mayda
  • Installation of work by Flores & Prats at the Arsenale.
    Installation of work by Flores & Prats at the Arsenale. Credit: Andrea Avezzù
  • Drawing by Thandi Loewenson.
    Drawing by Thandi Loewenson. Credit: Matteo de Mayda

A fantastical suggestion comes from Brooklyn-based Nigerian artist Olalekan Jeyifous. In a room set up as the lounge of an imaginary African transport hub, he presents a counterfactual history in which extractive colonial rule is replaced with a continental conservation effort mingling advanced technology and indigenous knowledge. Imagery depicts people shuttling about on drones, clad in the wide lapels and military fatigues of 1960s liberation movements.

Jeyifous’ exuberant, immersive installation is an anomaly in a biennale with significantly fewer room- or building-scaled installations than recent editions. Instead, textiles abound, as do digital works and films. In places the show seems to be stretched very thin.

In part, that reflects a laudable effort to minimise environmental impact. It’s also about money. Although sponsors have pitched in, many exhibitors lack the resources of the large practices who usually appear here. Lokko addresses that point with rare frankness at the entrance, listing barriers to participation that range from software priced for the Global North to difficulty in securing visas. The connection between means, representation and the opportunities that follow might be one of the most valuable insights visitors take away. If this biennale triggers a recalibration of expectations, so much the better.

Lokko prefaced the show by saying that its ‘essential gesture’ would be change. And it seems unlikely that the biennale will revert fully to type; a dam has burst. But what effect will this exhibition – which offers more questions than answers – have beyond its walls? As Lokko advised participants, quoting Maya Angelou, it’s not what you did or said that people remember, it’s how you made them feel. For many visitors I spoke to, the Laboratory of the Future was received like a cool drink in a desert. They left energised and optimistic that this is indeed a transformational moment, helping to catalyse a more diverse, pluralistic and ethical turn in the culture of architecture. Lokko is hopeful, too, if circumspect. ‘All events are beginnings in some ways. This one offers a unique platform,’ she says. ‘More fool all of us if we don’t build on it’.