By Hashim Tarmahomed
Under the curatorial leadership of Scottish-Ghanaian architect, educator, and writer Lesley Lokko, La Biennale di Venezia hosted its first-ever Biennale College Architettura. Conceptualised by Lokko as an ‘experimental architecture school’, much like her other work in architectural education, the College adopted the themes of the 2023 Biennale – decolonisation and decarbonisation, itself becoming a Laboratory of the Future.
Calling upon students, graduates and young spatial practitioners from across the globe to participate in the educational experience, 50 out of 986 applicants were selected. Of the 50, nine are South African (or have South African affiliations). They are: Olufolajimi Akinboboye, Bonnie Bopela, Khaalid Dangor, Zakiyyah Haffejee, Kawthar Jeewa, Phadi Mabe, Oratile Mothoagae, Nicole Moyo, and Lelentle Ramphele. Of the 15 tutors, four are South African (or South African affiliated), namely: Sarah de Villiers, Thireshen Govender, Dr Philippa Tumubweinee, and Lokko herself. The programme took place in Venice between 24 June and 21 July 2023.
What emerged from discussions with some of these participants was a common approach to treat the experience as verbal, active, and becoming. Rather than focusing on a predefined outcome or tangible production, it was considered as a formative moment that would stretch into the futures of their careers. For Nicole Moyo, a Toronto-based architect and lecturer, particularly refreshing of the College experience was that it was unprecedented, and participants were free from predetermined expectations, the restrictions of language, and the singularities of conventional architecture school structures. Collectively, participants could shape their own meanings of the engagement, which they very compellingly did.
The verbs listening, diverging and projecting are used to describe the collectivities of this participation.
Reflecting on her experience, Bonnie Bopela, a Master of Architecture student at Wits University, notes how listening formed part of her creative process. She drew from the maternal intimacies and matriarchal structures that she inherited from her family to conceptualise a position in her spatial practice, framed through her unit, Radical Empathies. Here, students were exposed to indigenous knowledge systems in local agricultural practices, where people connect to their landscapes by working with their environments, not against them. Empathy for other living organisms shapes their ecosystems, and in the global architectural (and broader) field that is overwhelmingly exploitative and extractive, empathy becomes a radical act.
Moyo considers the complexities of the architect’s claim of saviourhood, and what that means for communities, their agencies and their priorities. She thinks deeply about the ways in which architects, beyond their own agendas, should engage with communities. Otherwise put, Khaalid Dangor, a Master of Architecture student at the UJ Graduate School of Architecture says: “What allyship is, is listening. Not speaking louder than, not speaking for, not speaking on behalf of, but, listening, and you can’t be listening if you’re speaking.”
The College was an opportunity for students to occupy unfamiliar territories and question existing occupations. Dangor, who generally shies away from working in a 1:1 scale, worked with the A Boat for Doing Nothing unit (co-tutored by Dr Philippa Tumubweinee of the University of Cape Town), which tasked itself with the construction of Penélope, a boat, educational almanack, and love letter to the city of Venice. A project of reclaim and reimagination, the boat was assembled from waste accumulated by the exhibition.
Phadi Mabe, a doctoral candidate and educator based at the University of the Free State, says: “Material matter(s) which was laboured with prototyping a boat was met with performative pro(test)ing as a means of divergent exploration and composition.” For Mabe, the College experience has been one of creative and intellectual redirection. He poetically describes the boat as a device to “project worlds beyond the horizons of Venice.”
Some participants spoke more directly to the exhibition. Lelentle Ramphele, a Johannesburg-based architect, constructed a film to critically respond to the distribution of space for national pavilions in the Giardini. Using water, he tells a story about recalibration. Moyo’s experience of the exhibitions more broadly ignited a curatorial instinct within her, and she pursued a bold project that critically re-curated the exhibition in the Giardini, reiterating and reimagining the connotations of Africa as the laboratory of the future.
Within the same unit, which focused on Practice, Oratile Mothoagae, an architect, academic and archivist at the University of Pretoria, expanded on his current research which foregrounds the histories of marginalised peoples, specifically looking at documenting and preserving Indigenous Building Systems in Southern Africa, like Bopela, drawing on his personal familial experiences.
Sarah de Villiers, architect at spaceKIOSK based between Johannesburg and Milan, was part of the curatorial team of the Biennale and co-tutored the unit Image Heist in the College. Reflecting on her experience as a tutor, de Villiers found profound value in engagement among participants and tutors where the work “cut through a number of parallel and diverging topical political issues, and issues concerning our spatial worlds in which we live, work and sometimes teach.” For Johannesburg-based practising architect Olufolajimi Akinboboye, “the experience became a remarkable crucible of innovation, where we dared to challenge conventions, dismantle boundaries, and reimagine the essence of architecture itself.”
Importantly, the College demonstrates that not only can a deeply intellectual experience exist within a space of generosity, community, and agency, but that these intersections also enable experimentation, exploration, and evolution. Expanding on this space of generosity, de Villiers says, “I also found immense value in suspending approaches that over-intellectualise and overexplain, and rather forefront situations that develop trust, humour and forms of delight between collaborating participants and other tutors.” This is rare, yet necessary, in contemporary architectural practice and academia.
This story is made possible by the Arts Story Incubator programme of Breinstorm Brand Architects, in collaboration with Klyntji and IQOQO. It is funded by a PESP-3 grant that is supported by BASA and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture.