This year’s edition of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, titled The Laboratory of the Future, addresses social issues — decarbonisation and decolonisation in particular — focusing on the African continent and the African diaspora.
Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic, and novelist Lesley Lokko is the first African woman to curate the event, which runs from May 20 to November 26 at the Giardini, the Arsenale, and Forte Marghera. Comprising imagery, film, recordings, photography, drawings and models, as well as performances, panel discussions, dance, poetry, and installations the biennale is the culmination of the efforts of 89 practitioners, more than half of whom are African or are part of the African diaspora, split equally in terms of gender.
Lokko’s intention is to consider the African continent as the protagonist of the future. “There’s a wealth of talent and energy in the world’s youngest continent [by its inhabitants’ average age] that confirmed my earlier intuition: Africa is the laboratory of the future,” she says.
“We are at the coal face of change, demographically, environmentally, politically, and culturally. Our long, complex, and often troubled history has prepared us well to face uncertainty, which other parts of the world are now facing at an unprecedented speed.
“Fundamentally, architecture is about translation; the translation of an idea into a drawing; a drawing into a model; a model into a building, and so on. I doubt there’s an African alive who doesn’t speak more than one language. Translation is at the very heart of everything we, as Africans do. We translate language, context, identity, geography ... it makes us uniquely attuned to this profession in ways I haven’t encountered before.”
The Laboratory of the Future comprises several distinct parts: Force Majeure, Dangerous Liaisons, Special Projects, Guests from the Future, Carnival, College, and The Archive of the Future. The central themes of the exhibition — decarbonisation and decolonisation — are complex processes and offer solutions to global issues, but they require time, empathy, and imagination. The exhibition is intended to provide space “to surface different perspectives and ways of framing and working with complexity that may be useful, helpful, informative to those who visit, and those who take part”.
Interpreting the theme Force Majeure in the central pavilion are 16 practitioners who are some of the most significant contributors to African and African diasporic architecture today. They include Adjaye Associates, Atelier Masomi, Kéré Architecture, MASS Design Group, Sumayya Vally alongside Moad Musbahi, and Theaster Gates Studio.
Dangerous Liaisons takes place in the Arsenale complex and features 37 practitioners whose work moves across disciplines, geographies, and new forms of partnership and collaboration.
Guests from the Future provides a glimpse into the architects of tomorrow, and features the 23 participants' interests, concerns, and ambitions. There are also three special participants whose work complements the curator’s footnotes, a thread that runs throughout the exhibition. They are filmmaker Amos Gitai, architecture’s first poet laureate Rhael “Lionheart” Cape, and photographer James Morris.
The Laboratory of the Future in many ways reflects Lokko’s academic credentials as a professor of architecture as well as founding two architecture institutions, the Graduate School of Architecture in Johannesburg, in 2015, and The African Futures Institute in Ghana in 2021.
In making the connection between curating and education, Lokko notes: “Both projects were, or are, experiments, which means they come with a certain amount of risk. Learning how to manage and navigate risk has been an integral part of the process of curatorship. By that, I mean all kinds of risk: financial, human resources, material, conceptual, ideological, and so on.
“What is especially gratifying is the sense that each of these experiences has helped shape the next experience — a kind of thread running through them.”
The biennale also introduces the Biennale College Architettura for early career practitioners and academics, which runs from June 25 to July 22. The open call for the fully-funded, experimental school of architecture will result in 50 emerging practitioners getting the opportunity to focus on the twin themes of the exhibition, led by Lokko with 15 renowned international tutors.
An increase in the scope of the curator’s Special Projects is another first for the exhibition. “The decision to enlarge this category was an extension of the Biennale College idea, which is that discussion and co-production often yield unexpected joy and insight,” Lokko explains. Here, Lokko worked with the participants more collaboratively, learning with, through, and from each other.
“There were several topics that were of particular interest — gender, memory, food production and consumption, [and] storytelling, for example — that benefited enormously from a more extended engagement between curator and participant,” she says.
The Laboratory of the Future focuses on change, facilitated by Lokko’s overseeing a space that allows for disruptive narratives and can pave the way to a more inclusive future in architecture, fostered through collaboration and tapping into the imagination of underrepresented communities.
Befitting its focus on “agents of change”, Lokko notes that “every participant of the exhibition has been changed by the experience”. As such, the event is sure to yield further insights, deepen understanding, and bring its visitors, audience, and participants closer to the solutions we seek.