WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Cristóbal Palma/Spies Architects (SA Pavilion), Marco Zorzanello/La Biennale di Venezia (”Threads”), Andrea Avezzù/La Biennale di Venezia (”[Na Bulongo]”) and (”Letters from The Landscape”), Matteo de Mayda/La Biennale di Venezia (”The African Post Office”)
South African architects have been an impressive force at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.
At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, South African architects have had a spectacular showing. Not only is there a South African Pavilion – a spot in a building called the Arsenale, where it’s had a national pavilion since 2012 – but another dozen or so of our architects and artists are included in the international exhibition too.
The theme for this year’s biennale is “The Laboratory of the Future”, and for the first time, it’s curated by an African woman, Lesley Lokko. She spent several years in SA: she set up the Graduate School of Architecture at UJ and ran it, so she knows the local architectural scene well. She was also on the panel that selected the South African practice Counterspace for the Serpentine Pavilion in 2021, and brought architect Sumayya Vally to global attention.
Part of Lesley’s mission has been to emphasise African philosophies, approaches and forms of knowledge as a basis for a decolonised African architecture. As she said in her opening address, “In architecture particularly, the dominant voice has historically been a singular, exclusive voice, whose reach and power ignores huge swathes of humanity – financially, creatively, conceptually – as though we have been listening to and speaking in one tongue only. The ‘story’ of architecture is therefore incomplete.”
The central idea behind her exhibition at the biennale was to rethink how we conceptualise and make architecture. “Central to all projects is the primacy and potency of one tool: the imagination,” she said. “It is impossible to build a better world if one cannot first imagine it.”
So this is where the South African participants at the biennale found themselves: trying to imagine a different type of architecture, or aspects of a different way of seeing the world and of doing things. Their work is on display in the Italian city until 26 November.
The international exhibition consists of several parts, including “Force Majeure”, “Dangerous Liaisons”, “Curator’s Special Projects” and “Guests from the Future“. The South African participants were:
In the ”Dangerous Liaisons” section
“Threads“ by Kate Otten Architects Kate Otten, working with two creative collectives, The Herd Designs and Frances vH Mohair to craft her installation using tapestry and beads, tells a visual story of Johannesburg. It is at once a three- dimensional map and a history. As Kate says, “Unlike a linear, patriarchal recording, ‘Threads’ tells a story that is a simultaneous intuitive reading of landscape and social geographies, told through age-old traditions of craft and making by hand.”
“Origins” by MMA Design Studio In this work, which fuses film, dance and architecture, Mphethi Morojele provides an artistic and emotional response to the discovery in 2019 of an Iron Age city on the site of Kweneng, south of Johannesburg, by the Wits Department of Archaeology. This discovery puts paid to the colonial notion that the landscape there was unpopulated by indigenous people, and sets in motion a counter-narrative.
“Index of Edges” by Huda Tayob Architectural historian Huda Tayob, currently a lecturer in architectural studies at the University of Manchester, draws on the histories, sites and stories of East African coastal cities to explore the encounters and knowledge that arise from living along the edge of the sea. Her installation includes maps, early film footage (1897 to 1941), stories, songs and other research.
“Drawing Memory into Being” by Tanzeem Razak (Lemon Pebble Architects & Urban Designers) and Nabeel Essa (Office 24-7 Architecture) This installation takes the form of a ghostly, broken and fragmented ruin, which deals with forced removals under apartheid. Using a fading image of erased buildings as inspiration, this installation evokes the presence of erased and interrupted histories, particularly through the poetic act of protest of performing salah – Islamic prayers – on the grounds of forced removals.
“Tectonic Shifts” by Wolff Architects This installation, which received a Special Mention award, metaphorically represents the recent work of this Cape Town studio as a geological section, with drawings and photos of the projects, as well as materials linked to the themes that inform them, printed on textile as cyanotype or blueprints – a reference to SA’s energy crisis, as they require only sunlight to make.
In the ”Force Majeure” section
“The African Post Office” by Sumayya Vally (with Moad Musbahi) In a kind of visual pun on the idea of the postal network as a bureaucratic mechanism that represents intercontinental routes and ways of sorting or processing connections, this installation manifests the concept of a post as a pole or totem, which are seen as “sociocultural technologies with far-reaching African influence”.
In the ”Food, Agriculture & Climate Change” section
“[na Bulongo] With Soil” by Gloria Pavita This installation uses soil as a material carrier of “the extractive, exploitative and violent practices of the colonial and apartheid regimes”, and pays homage to the themes of care, repair, reclamation and repatriation.
In the ”Gender & Geography” section
“You Will Find Your People Here” by Mareli Stolp and Clare Loveday (with Caroline Wanjiku Kihato and Sedinam Awo Tsegah) This work is a combination of performance, film, composition and artwork based on Caroline Wanjiku Kihato’s book, Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Everyday life in an in-between city, about the lives of women from different parts of the continent who came to live in Joburg.
“Embodiments: Port of Sihr – Final Act” by Gugulethu Sibonelelo Mthembu Gugulethu Mthembu, a young architect, performer and gender activist, presents a performance work that draws on African oral storytelling, slam poetry, design research and critiques to retell the story of a shapeshifting female spirit, and redress histories and legacies of female oppression and representation.
In the ”Mnemonic” section
“Letters from the Landscape” by Craig McClenaghan
This experimental mapping project uses handmade paper created from and imprinted with materials from various sites around South Africa to make a kind of suspended atlas, in which landscape and map become interchangeable, reframing our relationship with memory and landscape.
From ”Guests From The Future”
“Tales of the Vulnerability of African Women in Transit Spaces” by Kgaugelo Lekalakala (Blac Space) Using Surrealist imagery, Kgaugelo explores the ways in which African women navigate transit and transitional spaces such as taxi ranks, walkways and sidewalks, as both real and metaphorical places, and focuses on their journeys.
The South African Pavilion
The South African Pavilion, curated by Sechaba Maape, Emmanuel Nkambule and Stephen Steyn, includes three related zones. The space inside the pavilion is defined by permeable or “soft“ walls of hanging rope, which, the curators explain, function as “something that defines a space” but also connects spaces or undoes barriers.
The approach the pavilion takes has its origins in rock carvings depicting the building plans of a vast civilisation known as the Bokoni, dating back to the 1500s. The drawings, the curators say, were not architectural plans but rather architecture as “a way for them to understand their politics and society in visual terms”. For the Bokoni, “architecture was quite a direct translation of social structures”. Hence the title of the pavilion: “The Structure of a People”. So, the curators used architecture, in this sense, to think about contemporary“spatial practice”, and to consider how we can learn from indigenous knowledge systems in a way that is relevant today and how “a spatial structure could facilitate social relationships”.
Rather than the clichéd notions of African architecture as mud walls and the like, they’ve abstracted what they call local “spatial logic” to find its essence, inserting it into a modern architectural language. This isn’t just a way of creating a vision of modern African architecture, but of revealing the invisible: creating an opportunity to see what already exists, to recognise its value, and to present it as “something that we can offer to the world”.