Future Visions

Decolonising architecture with Lesley Lokko


Just over 2000 years ago, Pliny the Elder uttered: “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi” (“Out of Africa there is always something new”). No-one is perhaps better equipped to discuss this idea than Professor Lesley Lokko. Currently Head of the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg, Lesley’s perspective is at once critical and confident, exuding the optimism found in the latent potential of her students, yet acutely aware of the varied challenges they face beyond the safe space of her classrooms. Danielle Mileo caught up with Lesley after her lecture ‘What Pliny Said’ at the World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam late last year, to discuss the challenges around decolonisation and pedagogy in architectural education on the African continent.


Danielle Mileo

Your lecture today got me thinking about the relationship between South Africa and Australia. You spoke about the difference between African and English novelists, in that African novelists are constantly glancing over their shoulders looking for approval from elsewhere. Historically speaking, Australian architects – and perhaps architects from other countries, like South Africa, with a history of European colonisation – are doing the same thing; that is, trying to situate ourselves within a European context from the outside. How does that differ from countries that didn’t have the same kind of European settlement, like Ghana or Senegal?

Lesley Lokko

We often speak of ourselves as being part of the post-colonial world, but there was a real distinction during the British Empire between dominions and colonies. Dominions were settled by Europeans; colonies were simply ruled. I’m from Ghana, West Africa, which was a colony, not a dominion – no Europeans ever came to Ghana to become Ghanaians – so we didn’t have the same issues of language and blood and land and belonging as, I think, Australia, and particularly South Africa, do. But there is something about the insecurity of being mentally and emotionally away from the ‘centre’, or the mother country, that is very, very similar.

In Ghana, we speak English – it’s the official language – in the same way that English, French and Portuguese are the official languages of the African Union. So, here you have a situation where the official, public language is English, but in private we speak our own languages. Our public persona is always constructed in the image of someone else – it’s a bit like having double vision. You may look at yourself, but you’re also looking at other people looking at you, which is unsettling. The ‘self’ to which you refer is both your real self and this imaginary, European self who represents your aspirations, your ambitions, often in a deeply insecure way. And, in that regard, I think Australia is probably slightly ahead of South Africa, partly because the relationship between its Indigenous population and its settler population is the opposite. South Africa is 8.9 percent minority white population and 90.1 percent black. But that struggle to find oneself, to find one’s bona fide identity, is something that really connects the two places, and, in a way, this umbilical cord that we all have towards this other place is very difficult to cut.

GSA Summer Show, GSA MOAD, Maboneng, Johannesburg 2018. Photo by Tristan McLaren.

I think that same sense of insecurity permeates almost everything. For example, most African cultures are oral, not written. If you’re an African writer, therefore, your readership is largely elsewhere, a readership that often knows nothing of the context or topics that you write about. For an African writer interested in exploring his or her sense of self or his or her place in the world – which is what most writers do – it’s complicated by the fact that you have to first explain who you are to your reader before you’re able to explore anything. And that’s the double bind – you can’t explore and explain simultaneously. I think Australia is possibly like that as well. That you’re trying to explain your identity at the same time as you construct it.

To be angry, to want to change things, is only the first step in a very, very long journey.

DMThat’s it – it’s an interesting place to exist as an architect or novelist, but perhaps especially as an educator. I understand that at the GSA, of which you are Head, the curriculum is constantly developing to deal with this idea of decolonisation, what it means and how you redefine it. What is decolonisation in practice, as a pedagogical approach, and how is it helping to deal with some of these issues of identity for your students?

LLI think that, at the moment, decolonisation is a political statement, it’s not yet a pedagogy or a curriculum. We don’t know what a decolonised pedagogy looks like. The first metaphorical bullets have been fired – particularly the student protests in 2015 and 2016 [at South African universities], which said, “Look, we need to deal with this, urgently.” In South Africa, decolonisation is linked very closely to transformation, which in that context means greater representation of Africans, and greater representation of our histories and our canon.

But deep, real and meaningful decolonisation, I think, is a really interesting intellectual endeavour, which will take time. To be angry, to want to change things, is only the first step in a very, very long journey. You need the anger to sustain the energy when the going gets tough, because it’s not easy, it’s not something to be undertaken lightly. Re-thinking the canon is also about re-making the canon and that’s not a single-generation project. In South Africa’s quite volatile political situation, there’s a danger that the anger becomes the only thing that remains, and the deep work of trying to understand how one constructs a new identity (what are the steps that you take? Where do you go for your source material? What are the processes involved in translation?) doesn’t get done, because it’s not sexy, it’s not headline-grabbing.

DM So, do you see the school as getting under, or perhaps behind, the anger and pushing it further?

LL Absolutely, and for me that’s the pedagogical experiment – to go beneath the surface, underneath the skin of things, no pun intended. It’s interesting because sometimes it’s work that borders on the edge of unethical, often disturbing. In the South African context, issues of ‘race’ and identity are incredibly emotive and emotional issues.

GSA Reviews, GSA MOAD, Maboneng, Johannesburg 2018. Photo by Lesley Lokko.

DMIt sounds like a very different educational experience. What do you see as the key differences at the GSA compared to other architecture schools?

LLThe modernist education system was assumed to be universal, so all students basically studied the same things: same history, same precedents, same technological approach. There was little room for experimentation; but also, whenever you steered off the beaten track of the colonial canon, there was a huge insecurity about what to do with that. Everyone’s keen to see or understand what ‘African’ architecture might look like, but not so keen to allow the space for the answers to develop.

From my perspective, the system I found when I arrived in 2014 was quite repressive. Yes, it might have been considered complete, or grounded, or secure in its mimicry of a European tradition, but the context in Africa is so different. Where the unit system differs is that it takes the authority of education and breaks it down. It’s partly to do with personality, partly to do with the tutor’s own lived experience, but it’s also partly to do with the experimental relationship between student and tutor, which is very different from the old master–pupil relationship. So, while it’s a system that evolved in London in the 1970s that I don’t think was ever designed for this context, 50 years later, in a completely different kind of territory, it’s been liberating. And it’s partly been because so much of what you teach is up for questioning. [Our] school really is a school of formulating questions, it’s not in the business of formulating answers yet. We’re still too early at the beginning of that process. Along the way, you do make attempts at answering, but the idea that you should know immediately what African architecture is, what identity means, what black space is – these things are premature.

The spatial planning required to ensure that as a white South African, you can live in a white suburb, get onto a white freeway and go to a white business district and never see another black person – that’s skill. At an engineering level, how do you design a city around those principles? Who was responsible?

DMYou once said, “Apartheid couldn’t have happened without the complicity of the architectural profession…” What are some concrete examples of that complicity? And what elements of that heritage are still around; what has survived?

LLThere are two ways. One is to do with what you call ‘spatial practices’, where you carve up, literally, the landscape into areas for blacks, areas for whites. No-one ever speaks about it, but the spatial planning required to ensure that as a white South African, you can live in a white suburb, get onto a white freeway and go to a white business district and never see another black person – that’s skill. At an engineering level, how do you design a city around those principles? Who was responsible?

In some ways, I think of the Holocaust – someone designed the gas chambers; someone designed the concentration camps. They didn’t just ‘happen’. In the same way, some architect designed the NE-52 township house. It stands for ‘non-European 52’, the ‘model’ house for an African. Some architect put their name to that child’s image of a house – a rectangular box with a door and two windows – and that model was rolled out across the entire South African landscape. So, for 90 percent of the population that’s the image of home. At both a macro and a micro level, architecture was deeply complicit, but we don’t speak about it.

Now, the new rhetoric in South Africa is all around social justice and social responsibility, and poverty reduction and so on, but in my mind that’s equally racist. Why do black students have a reduced diet of what is architecturally appropriate? For many of the black students, the last place they want to go is a township. They’ve spent a generation trying to get out of it.

I think architecture has had such a deep and embedded relationship with spatial practices – colonisation, settlement, dispossession. If you don’t teach students to question it, you’re ignoring a huge part of what the profession does. There’s an almost inbuilt resistance in South Africa, because people don’t equate architecture with progressive thinking, or with optimism, or with aspirations for a better future. Architecture is associated with the very worst. We have to somehow undo that damage, and part of that is giving students agency to say that my history, my experience, my language, my culture, has something to do with this discipline.

Every act of architecture is a proposition. You can’t only be critical, otherwise you’d be critics or historians or writers. In the act of design there is an implicit faith in the idea of something that isn’t yet here, something that’s about to come.

DMHas there been any kind of adaptive reuse or reappropriation of these houses in a positive sense?

LLI think the housing question is a real pressing question, because on one level there’s an incredibly basic need. The pressures of urbanisation are real. There is a generation of architects, between the ages of 30 and 40, who are really trying to address questions like, what does it mean to dwell? What is a home? What are those constructs? Unfortunately, the pressure of rolling out housing, I think, simply replaced the NE-52 with a brick model that looks no different. And there just hasn’t been the room for experimentation that allows people to say, “Look, if I’m a rural Zulu person who’s come to the city, what am I looking for in a home? How do I embody my cultural practices?” How do you embody polygamy, for example, in a two-bedroom house? It’s those sorts of questions no-one speaks about.

DMAnd within the school context?

LLWe’re starting to. But I’ve been told point-blank by white colleagues that what the school is doing is incredibly irresponsible, because there’s no point in teaching black students to dream, they need to go out and get jobs, earn money and support their families. And I’m like, “Please, really?” So, you know, it’s a complex situation.

DMFor me, architecture school is all about dreaming, and thinking bigger and doing all the things you can’t do once you get into practice.

A student presents at International Critics Week, GSA MOAD, Maboneng, 19-22 September 2018. Photo by Katherine Krone.

LLExactly, live out your imagination and not just your history.

DMYou’ve spoken and written a lot about the idea that one’s primary identity can be defined by a lack of something. Do you think a lack of an architectural identity – and here I mean an overarching ‘school’ or ‘style’ borne specifically from your locality and considered local – has an impact on the way young architects position themselves in the world?

LLAt a very subliminal level, architecture tells a very important story about one’s place in the world, literally. So, it’s not just about your aspirations, it’s about your rootedness – ‘this signifies something about who I am’. What’s interesting in these newer contexts is that the question of ‘who I am’ is emergent – there’s no definitive answer. I see that as an optimistic space, but that’s because I’m in education. If I were in practice, there would be an incredible impatience about, you know, get me to that style, get me to that form, get me to this materiality that says something about who I am. We’re playing a long game here, and the long game requires an awful lot of patience and an awful lot of sometimes-getting-it-right and sometimes-getting-it-wrong. But I can’t think of any other architectural space that is as dynamic. So, it’s frustrating and empowering at the same time.

At a basic level, every act of architecture is a proposition. You can’t only be critical, otherwise you’d be critics or historians or writers. In the act of design there is an implicit faith in the idea of something that isn’t yet here, something that’s about to come. In these emergent economies, where everything is up for grabs, it’s a great discipline to be aligned with that potentiality. The difficult thing has been to know where to draw the boundaries, because too much freedom can also result in anarchy. I have no children, so I don’t have an innate sense of how to set boundaries with a younger generation. And, you know, on one level architecture is all about drawing lines, but I’ve also found that often the lines are porous.

A big warm thank you to Lesley for chatting with us after her lecture at World Architecture Festival. Lesley the novelist has a website here; Lesley the architecture scholar has just been appointed Dean of Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College New York – congrats!