Written by Khensani de Klerk
To kick off the first blog post, I’ve decided to write about one of the most pinnacle influencers of the thoughts that led me to create Matri-Archi. She is unapologetically succinct in her writing. As a critic, her approach to posing questions in architecture has been immensely rich and evocatively frank. In 2015, in my second year of architecture at UCT, I was fortunate enough to see a lecture of hers- It was a lively time when our School had responded for the first time, to the political climate of the institution and country, with Rhodes having fell earlier that year. And so she was invited as a guest speaker in a series of Transformation lectures that ran over the semester. She has taught at copious schools of architecture around the world including the prestigious Barlett School of Architecture, London Metropolitan University and University of Greenwich – all in the UK. In addition, Iowa State University, University of Ilinios at Chicago and at the University of Michigan as a Martin Luther King Visiting Professor.
Lesley Lokko has focused her writing around relationships between architecture, globalization and cultural identity. Born in the UK, raised in Accra Ghana and currently juggling living between London and Johannesburg, one can imagine that Lesley’s critique is heavily influenced by the experience of navigating these spaces as a black womxn. To extend on this formal introduction, Lokko studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning, University College London, graduating in 1995 with a BSc(Arch) and DipArch. Thereafter gaining her PhD from the University of London in 2007. She is now a professor at The University of Johannesburg. Shout out to the lucky UJ Masters classes that have been taught under her unit, she recently took a unit to Zanzibar where they swam deep in an urban planning ocean. I’ve put a few links of Lesley’s work “On The Shelf” so give that a read if you’re wanting to be swept away by one of the most prolific contemporary black womxn architecture critics of our time. Aside from being a critic and architect, Lesley has published eight best selling novels. WOW! And just to mention to you all, I’ve met this lady, and she is nothing close to a frail gogo academic, give the Vimeo lecture on The Culprit is Culture held at TUM Fakultät für Architektur in 2013 a watch, evidence of her being a dream queen.
OK but onto the juice of the post, and I do insist on keeping it short. I do hope that after reading this, personal agency will lead you to reading more of Lokko’s work. This post is centered around the Introduction of Lokko’s White Papers, Black Marks published in 2000. This was the first of her writings I read through a recommended reading for a history course I had taken during 2015.
After introducing this blog, and rereading White Papers, Black Marks, I was gob smacked by how Lokko had pre-empted such specific identity issues in architecture space with relevance to today a whole 17 years ago in this paper. (They existed back then as well I suppose). Lokko looks to architectural knowledge- and similarly to the decolonial project of institutions- interrogates what we learn and teach as “history”. For too long African knowledge has sat in the dusty bottom drawer of miscellaneous goods whilst Western knowledge sits on the shelves of what we see the truth to be. With education as the source of sustaining humanity- the production of knowledge- it is critical that we begin to interrogate history due to its disgustingly non-inclusive record in Architecture.
History is reliant on context, which has driven the frustration of Africans around Eurocentric systems in Africa. To use South Africa as an example, where we as a nation are comprised of rich and plentiful cultures mixed into one pot geographically (obviously through colonialism and economic shifts etc. movements have led to race and cultural distribution changes but generally, the country is heterogeneous in that we have left pure tribalistic isolation behind).
Because we have such diverse cultures, the preservation of knowledge in these cultures should be of higher value, with language and history being prioritized not only in traditional spaces and home, but in institutions. The identity and heritage of culture should be appreciated and seen as important in institutions. A PhD thesis should be as equally praised when (if it were ever allowed) written in rich Tsonga, Xhosa or any one of the other languages our country is rich in diversity with. If an academic from Munich can publish a paper in German and be respected internationally for it, why do we insist on having only English as the prioritized language in institutional knowledge production in South AFRICA. We are missing an opportunity to produce and retain South African culture! And please, to completely expel English would be global regressive, and that is not an argument worth having. A few days ago, I attended a talk by Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, author of Decolonising the Mind where he described this contextual issue best, “no culture is inherently better than the other”. Simple.
Lokko further elaborates by saying, “The casual omission of Africa from Bannister Fletcher’s “Tree of Architecture” is evidence” of history eliding the existence of multiple identities in the formation and life of Architecture. With history being our only “credible” source of record, the imperceptive reality is that Africans have had little to nothing to say in this discourse. Let us not even get started on the neglect of audible record as a form of credible history- which is prominent in African culture but seen as lesser of a form of record due to the norm/tradition of writing (which is by all means of complete value), we’ll save that for another post of it’s own.
Moving onto the traditional methods of architecture, which I’m sure most who have gone through institutions are familiar with. Drawing, model, manifesto and product, building. We need to begin to somehow dismantle the idea of one set tradition, which is difficult. Mainly because means of architectural pragmatic process and production are tied to and centered in Western consciousness; and so to shatter this image would cause chaos and confusion in the comfortability of Architectural methods. One must realize the new image would be an artwork stippled with diverse dots. But academics aren’t willing to take the risk so radically it seems. As Lokko puts it best “Discussions of architecture are often therefore limited to traditional formal qualities supposedly intrinsic to architectural form- Architecture as an object-driven exercise”.
Last year, in 2016 the undergraduate students of UCT put together a Vertical Studio that challenged this ‘traditional formal’ approach in exhibiting mapping Woodstock in Cape Town through film, performance and installation. It broke out of the exclusive elitist language of architecture, and spoke to anyone who viewed it. We are humans, who not only intentionally, but also constantly perform and express ourselves through our instinct and daily nonchalant activities. So to involve human nature in architectural language, allowed the user, who is also the creator of space, to understand approaches of analyzing and creation in the architectural process and production. At the exhibition, language was less of a barrier. Western norms of imparting knowledge through defined media were not the only and best route, and Eurocentricism was challenged successfully. A moment of decolonizing. Unfortunately an instant moment, retrospectively seen as an after school addition to the institutional norm. (On Vertical Studio: watch the after film of the exhibition found On The Shelf, credits to Hannan Guo and Lolo Ndlovu for filming and editing.)
Refocusing tradition requires cultural shifts (I’m very frustrated with the ‘how’ question at this point. So we can talk about that in the comments box.), a very daunting possibility, which I personally feel is a risk we need to take on. If not, the condition of turbulent argument in the architectural space will inevitably lead to a change, slightly more gradual, as we become a global community. By community, not to say we will be functional, but to say that we will not be in incubated mutually exclusive tribes. In addition, authorship in design has become a big deal in the sensationalist world we live in today, with ‘Starchitects’ not only cheering choruses of Koolhaas’ but also Hadids and Adjeyes. So rest assured (but still on edge) things are moving.
The other fear of decolonizing knowledge is simply adding other identity voices to the record as an appendix. Addition if executed badly could reinforce identity hierarchy in knowledge. Let’s use the provocative title of this reading “White papers, Black Marks” as an example. Our connotations rooted in Western societal normative language have led us to associate Black Marks as smudges, undefined, mistakes, and a cause of imperfection. White papers, alludes to the idea of providing the platform for these black marks to exist on. We need to escape from this confinement of provision. Acknowledging sadly that the reality is, positions of power globally are dominated by whiteness, and so, white power is a strategic and key player in enabling and allowing space for blacks to exist. That is why we struggle and trudge and hustle ourselves to the top, and there are still only a sprinkle of us there.
My hopes are that white people are also following this blog, because intersectionality is a collage of different layers and I can’t emphasize enough how the aim is not to destroy white layers, but to destroy whiteness as a hegemonic structure. The reluctance that these structures possess when it comes to rewriting tradition is explained in length but incredibly well by Albert Hourami, who Lokko cites, “to be in someone else’s power…induces doubts about the ordering of the universe while those who have power can assume it is part of the natural order of things to invent or adopt ideas which justify their possession of it”. It is these subconscious acts of power that frame hegemony. White knowledge, history and institutions need to be open, or perhaps “vulnerable” enough to reflect and acknowledge that Western culture cannot dictate the “natural order” of things.
“For the black architect, struggling with and through this language and history, what are the metaphorical, physical, material and spatial opportunities available to them?”
Lokko poses the right questions, and the answers can only be a compilation of all of our thoughts.
The introduction of White Papers, Black Marks concludes with identifying what Architecture needs to do in order to become intersectional:
- Establish ‘race’ and ‘identity’ as valid territories of architectural exploration.
- Bring these territories into mainstream architectural discourse.
Lokko, Lesley. White Papers, Black Marks. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.
Photo: Debra Hutford Brown