The Capacity of Critique in a Colonial Knowledge Validating Cannon
Writing and feature visual by Khensani de Klerk
Today’s theme is one that has been discussed before in a different context, and a revisit is essential for us to learn more about: validation, authorship and audacity, particularly in the realm of critique. We look to Denise Scott-Brown who remains one of the most prolific critics of planning and architecture from the 60s onwards, seeing it predominantly as a social act and a discipline of politics. Her critique of planning was not solely a pragmatic view of the content of the discipline but more so the polity and social dynamic and problematic(s) of planning approaches. She interrogated the attitudes of planners and architects from the 60s onwards and provoked and contributed to a new way of progressive thinking which forms the foundation to social spatial discourse today. Scott-Brown was functioning in a completely modern traditional cannon, opening up the doors for political dialogue to enter a traditional and stubbornly so architectural planning discourse. Today we thank her for this, because this way of thinking catalyzed the development of questioning the roles of professionals in spatial discourse and arguing that it is a fundamentally social one that cannot ignore the politics of society.
Scott-Brown grew up and was educated in Johannesburg South Africa at Witwatersrand University and then went on to extending her qualifications at the AA in London and the University of Pennsylvania in the US. With Jewish parental lineage, she was born in Zambia. It is quintessential to mention these various sites of location that she identified with as Taiye Selasi puts it so eloquently, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local to”. This multi-locality is seen in Scott-Brown’s writing when she affirms her African and American identities when speaking about politics from those particular contexts.
Multi-locality is an apparent ever-growing trend in an undeniably tightening global community. This is all a result of an accelerating advancement in technology and mobility rendering (forms of) access easy and fast. One is able to take a 4-hour flight to a completely different country or simply connect to an international live conference meeting over Skype. The coding of human relationship interaction has become extremely complex. This complexity has become normalized with little acknowledgement as to how fast the growth has occurred, which has rendered the complexity simple from a users perspective. Are we accelerating nonchalantly at a rate with which we cannot keep up?
With this almost utopian picture of reality painted of an open access world, a plethora of issues centered on movement and information control have added problematic blurs to the artwork. Movement, being a physical experience, is easier to control through bureaucracy and governmental control, taking for example the unfortunate and painful no-entry sign that the US “Trump era” has put up to Iranians. A restriction. Then there is movement that is not as easy to control, that of information. Here, control and information become contested topics by potentially tampering with freedom of individual expression and communication. However, it seems to be more complex than that. The categories of information that we receive on a daily basis have become blurry. What is news? What is true? What are the authors’ credentials? What validates authorship? Who has the right to not only write, but also write and publish? What certifies publishing in a virtual world where individuals are able to publish on platforms and implement change? Is a blog a credible source of information? Is free information, credible? Is a monetized magazine more legitimate than an open access site?
And so we see the provocative nature of this article, and how it in itself, could pose a paradox. It remains a critique on critique through a medium that lies in “blurry credibility” – a blog. Fortunately, Matri-Archi rejects the notion of following tradition blindly, and acknowledges that the context we find ourselves in today, as previously painted, gives space for critique such as this blog, to make instrumental change and foster discourse of meaning. In doing so, it specifically situates itself from an African perspective, wherein other forms of knowledge such as auditory and expressive knowledge are deemed credible forms of history and learning; something unfamiliar to the credibility of writing prevalent in the universal Western Cannon.
Do architects need to be practicing or have to have practiced for years in order to give credible critique? If the answer is yes, then surely a person such as myself does not have the audacity to write about various perspectives of architecture. However, the architect has become a similarly blurry definition, which gives space to perspectives of critique. To criticize within the space, and to make it inclusive, one needs to have researched (be it through reading, or talking, discussing or engaging) enough about the topic at hand to confidently and respectfully argue a case. In this way, we do not simply bounce off and function in a closed system of referencing traditional principles, but we are able to uncover new ways of thinking, relevant to our existence today and possibly the future. It is the duty of the architect to act as a writer of a language that is accessible to the unprofessional architect/layman, political stakeholder, and fellow designer. This opens access to the space of critique significantly.
Critique is not an artifact, neither is it an elite dimension, and once we come to accept this, a breakdown of the medium that carries validated knowledge will occur; and leave us in a state of confusion. Dr Lwazi Lushaba put it perfectly in his lecture to Leo Marquard residence at the University of Cape Town when he speaks about the validation of situated knowledge. He reveals and elaborates on the reality that even though South Africans may be writing about Black African Consciousness in their academic papers and theses; the colonial reality is that the source of distribution, which holds the power to reach an audience and instrumentalize learning through academic journals, is still set in the Western Cannon. Once we have published been by the Oxford Press, The New Yorker and other (meritable, we must acknowledge) and Global Northern academic institutions, have we made it! The question is, have academics, researchers and writers got the resources, determination and endurance to establish new forms of publishing sites, that also begin to question the hegemonic nature of only writing as valid, so as to include auditory, visual and expressive mediums as forms of legitimate and credible knowledge that can be taught and taken seriously.
There also lies a high level of strategy in the process of establishing situated publishing sites. As Africans, the only way to dismantle such an institutional problem is from within, whilst honestly engaging a conversation across the global community, so that we do not sink into a contemporary tribalist condition. A fine example of this apparent paradox yet strategic and mutually beneficial process is an interview that I came across recently in a magazine called Platform when passing a newspaper kiosk at Milano Centrale station in Italy. On the front page, to my excitement, was a glowing image of Prof Lesley Lokko, head of the University of Johannesburg School of Architecture, who remains a pinnacle spatial critic of our time. I asked myself, what was Lesley doing on the front cover of a European architecture magazine when all of the designers I have spoken to in Europe see Africa as an homogenous Southern site? I bought the magazine without hesitation and spent the afternoon train-ride reading the interview. Exceptional architectural critic and Associate Professor of Naples University, Luca Molinari interviewed her, on the topic of situated knowledge in African institutions. I suggest you give it a read (now On the Shelf). One can assume that many people inn Europe have given it a read, and have begun to think differently about “Africa”. But the point of the interview was not validation, the point was conversation, and if people are unwilling to do so, ignorance is painful (not bliss).
And so in and amongst all of the rhetorical questions that I hope we begin to find answers to and/or discuss, I leave you with one more, a one posed by Prof Lokko in very same interview, “Do we have to leave Africa, to become African?”
The answer is simple, but how willing are we to begin this long vested difficult change of decolonizing publishing institutions AND establishing situated ones, with cognizant reality of the collateral collapse of academia in mind?
- Scott-Brown, Denise. Having Words. London: Architectural Association, 2009.
- Lushaba, Lwazi. “Dr Lwazi Lushaba on the Black Schema at UCT-Lecture 3-Part 1/3.” Dr Lwazi Lushaba on the Black Schema at UCT-Lecture 3-Part 1/3. Cape Town: Youtube, June 26, 2017.
– Interview between Prof Lesley Lokko and Prof Luca Molinari: http://www.platform-ad.com/platform-architecture-and-design-14-2017/
– Taiye Selasi Ted Talk: “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m local to”