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Venice Architecture Biennale focuses on Africa

Stefan Dege
June 4, 2023

The first Architecture Biennale curated by an African looks at the challenges facing the world's fastest-growing continent. This year's exhibition features many works by Africans and the African diaspora.

A man wearing traditional Masai clothes walks under an installation,
This year's Architecture Biennale addresses the many challenges facing AfricaImage: Antonio Calanni/AP/picture alliance

The 18th edition of the architecture exhibition in Venice, which runs until November 26, 2023 is designed as a workshop of ideas under the theme "Laboratory of the Future." This year's 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. 

This year's installment 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 Naa Norle Lokko at a press conference ahead of the event: "It's about change."

And change is much needed. According to UN predictions, the world's population will grow from its current 8 billion to 10 billion by 2050. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the population could double. That's incredible, said Peter Cachola Schmal, architecture expert and director of the German Architecture Museum 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, 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 world's youngest population and the fastest urbanization — with 4% annual growth that often happens at the expense of local ecosystems. All of this puts Africa at the forefront of climate change, said Lokko.

Infrographic showing population growth projections for African cities until 2035

There is no doubt that Africa has a huge need for construction. The question is how to build in times of climate change: the construction and operation of buildings accounts for about 40% of climate-damaging emissions, according to the WWF. Cement production alone accounts for about 8% 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 Schmal in a DW interview. "The future contradicts all our goals of saving the world from climate collapse." 

Outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, view of buildings with yards from above.
African cities, like Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, are growing rapidlyImage: Ulrich Zillmann/FotoMedienService/picture alliance

China forges ahead with Africa's construction plans

There is also the very practical question: Who is going to build the 1 billion housing units needed to accommodate all the people flocking to the growing megacities? Who, if not China?

For years, China's strategy has been to build African infrastructure, said Schmal, 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 said. "They have the experience that we don't have," he argued. "The West slept through that."

Whether the Venice Architecture Biennale is a wake-up call remains to be seen. The show 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.

Lokko at home in many worlds

Lokko, born in 1964, is widely traveled. She grew up in Accra, the capital of  Ghana, and moved to the United Kingdom to study Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford University. She then studied architecture in London, where she earned her doctorate. Over her decadeslong career, she has taught on four continents.

 Lesley Lokko, woman smiles into camera, leans on green glass wall.
The exhibition's 'essential gesture' is change, said Lesley LokkoImage: Murdo Macleod

Lokko 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 was the case at 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 also be heard loud and clear in Venice.

West 'must prepare' for Africa's growth

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

Sustainability is the focus of the German pavilion at the Biennale, under the motto "Open for Maintenance — Open due to Reconstruction," jointly curated by Summacumfemmer, ARCH+ 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.

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

Learning from Africa: Lesley Lokko

This article was originally written in German.