Golden thread of Johannesburg’s history represented at Venice Biennale 2023

Photo: Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia
Photo: Andrea Avezzù, La Biennale di Venezia

The 18th International Architecture Exhibition (La Biennale di Venezia), titled The Laboratory of the Future, is curated by Lesley Lokko and centred on six special projects or exhibitions, namely Force Majeure; Dangerous Liaisons; Food, Agriculture & Climate Change; Gender & Geography; Mnemonic and Guests from the Future. For each of these projects/exhibitions, Lesley and her team invited architects to respond to the theme. 

“Central to all the projects is the primacy and potency of one tool: the imagination,” says Lesley. “It is impossible to build a better world if one cannot first imagine it. The Laboratory of the Future begins in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, where 16 practices that represent a distilled force majeure of African and Diasporic architectural production have been gathered. It moves to the Arsenale complex, where participants in the Dangerous Liaisons section rub shoulders with the Curator’s Special Projects, for the first time a category that is as large as the others. Threaded through and amongst the works in both venues are young African and Diasporan practitioners, our Guests from the Future, whose work engages directly with the twin themes of this exhibition, decolonisation and decarbonisation, providing a snapshot, a glimpse of future practices and ways of seeing and being in the world.”

For Threads, which forms part of the Dangerous Liaisons section of the Biennale Architettura 2023, Kate Otten Architects collaborated with Salma Wadee, Lele Ramphele, The Herd Design, Frances van Hasselt and Katriena Kammies to represent the golden thread of Johannesburg’s history as a simultaneous, intuitive reading of landscape narrated by women through craft and making.

This thread started some two billion years ago when a massive meteorite crashed into the earth approximately one hundred kilometres south of the city. Gold deposits were buried in seams deep below the surface, coming to rest in an arc-shaped ridge. The discovery of gold in 1886, and the gold rush that followed, led to the establishment of Johannesburg.

Materials used are natural, decomposable, and specific to South Africa. The makers are women’s collectives, crafts, and age-old traditions. The play of light and shadow, the use of colour and pattern, and the hand-making and collaborative process all represent our approach to architecture that is particular to a place and nurtures the human spirit.

Central to the installation is a suspended loom, delicately woven with mohair to create a cloak that embraces the body, offering warmth and comfort. The installation goes beyond mere aesthetics, Anna Battista writes, incorporating a sociological mapping of the surface landscape and topography. “Here, the presence of green spaces corresponds to privileged and affluent areas, while treeless regions represent impoverished neighbourhoods. Dividing these contrasting landscapes, the remnants of mining waste act as a symbolic boundary.”

The team from Kate Otten Architects remained conscious of the materials they used to be in line with the essence of Africa. The materials were selected to be natural, decomposable and specific to the region, and sourced from the rural Karoo region.

“We have deliberately chosen to frame participants as ‘practitioners’ […] and not ‘architects’ and/or ‘urbanists’, ‘designers’, ‘landscape architects’, ‘engineers’ or ‘academics’ because it is our contention that the rich, complex conditions of both Africa and a rapidly hybridising world call for a different and broader understanding of the term ‘architect’,” says Lesley.

La Biennale di Venezia can be viewed in Venice, Italy at Arsenale and Giardini until 26 November 2023. Visit for more information.

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