Venice Architecture Biennale focuses on Africa

By, Delhi
Jun 04, 2023 04:42 PM IST

The first ever Architecture Biennale curated by an African features many works by Africans and the African diaspora.

The 18th edition of the architecture exhibition in Venice, which runs until November 26, 2023 is designed as a workshop of ideas and its theme is "Laboratory of the Future." This year's "La Biennale," at which architects from all over the world will congregate, presents 63 national pavilions in the old brick halls of the Arsenale, the former shipyard and naval base of the former Republic of Venice.

The first ever Architecture Biennale curated by an African, it features many works by Africans and the African diaspora. (Thomas Imo/photothek/imago images)
The first ever Architecture Biennale curated by an African, it features many works by Africans and the African diaspora. (Thomas Imo/photothek/imago images)

This year's instalment is dominated by climate change issues and a reappraisal of the colonial era. It's about questions of production, resources and representation, said chief curator Lesley Lokko at a press conference ahead of the event: "It's about change."

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(Also Read | Venice Architectural Biennale gives overdue voice to long-silenced Africa)

And change is much needed. According to United Nations predictions, the world's population will grow from its current eight billion to 10 billion by 2050. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the population could double. That's incredible, says Peter Cachola Schmal, architecture expert and director of the German Architecture Museum (DAM) in Frankfurt. The fact is that these people will need — and want — a roof over their heads.

Great demand for construction in Africa

For this reason, Lesley Naa Norle Lokko has deliberately focused on the African continent. The Ghanaian-Scottish architect, university lecturer and bestselling novelist curated the show's central exhibition — and invited 55 offices from around the world, with many from Africa or having African roots.

The consequences of global warming, resource consumption and migration are especially visible on the continent, and it's where Lokko sees the greatest challenges for architecture. Africa is the continent with the youngest population in the world and the fastest urbanization — with 4% annual growth that happens often at the expense of local ecosystems. All of which puts Africa at the forefront of climate change, the curator says.

There is no doubt that Africa has a huge need for construction. The question is how to build in times of climate change: Building construction and operation account for about 40% of climate-damaging emissions, according to the WWF and cement production alone accounts for about eight percent of greenhouse gases worldwide.

That poses a dilemma. "What does it mean for the world's CO2 management if unimaginable quantities of cement are produced in Africa all at once?" asked architecture expert Peter Cachola Schmal in an interview with DW. "The future contradicts all our goals of saving the world from climate collapse."

China forges ahead

There is also the very practical question: Who is going to build the one billion housing units needed to accommodate all the people flocking to the growing megacities? Who, if not China?

China's strategy for years has been to build African infrastructure, Schmal says, adding that the "Chinese can do it." In China, they have shown they can produce infrastructure — housing, construction, transportation — for tens of millions of people within a few years, he says. "They have the experience that we don't have," the DAM director argues. "The West slept through that."

Whether the Venice International Architecture Exhibition is a wake-up call remains to be seen. The show at the Lido certainly presents as a showcase of ideas, curated for the first time by a woman who grew up in Africa and who likely has different perspective on global architecture.

At home in many worlds

Lesley Lokko, born in 1964, is widely-travelled. The daughter of a Ghanaian and a Scot, she grew up in Ghana's capital, Accra, studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford as well as architecture in London, where she earned her doctorate. She has taught on four continents.

She is also a bestselling author, having published novels over the past 20 years that set a political and moral bar for contemporary events, from "Sundowners" in 2003 to "Soul Sisters" in 2021. Many of her books explore the lives of black women in all corners of the world.

The architect has two buzzwords for her colleagues concerning the debate about the future — decarbonization and decolonization, lowering CO2 emissions and overcoming the legacy of colonization respectively. Both are likely to be discussed at the Venice architecture show. As in the case of last year's documenta 15, the world's largest art exhibition based in the German city of Kassel, the voice of the global South will be loud and clear in Venice too.

The West 'must prepare'

The future of the planet will be decided in Africa, says Peter Cachola Schmal. Living conditions for sub-Saharan Africa's population must be "adequate," he warns, adding it would be wise to help support the effort. Otherwise, more refugees could be headed to Europe. "The West must prepare," he says.

Sustainability is the focus of the German pavilion at the 2023 Venice International Architecture Exhibition, under the motto "Open for Maintenance — Open because of Reconstruction," jointly curated by Summacumfemmer, Ach+ and Büro Juliane Greb. They took over the pavilion as designed by Berlin-based artist, Maria Eichhorn, for last year's International Art Exhibition. It exposes the basic structures of a building converted by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, the winner of the architecture show's Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement was announced weeks ago: The prize goes to the Nigerian artist, designer and architect Demas Nwoko.

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