Lesley Lokko. (Photo: Murdo Macleod. Courtesy the African Futures Institute)
Lesley Lokko. (Photo: Murdo Macleod. Courtesy the African Futures Institute)

Lesley Lokko Positions Africa as a Laboratory for Harnessing the Vast Possibilities of the Future

The architect, scholar, and novelist talks about her plans for this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale and for the African Futures Institute in Accra.
By Spencer Bailey
March 15, 2023
16 minute read

For Lesley Lokko, plurality comes naturally. Born in Scotland to a Ghanaian father and a Scottish mother, and moving frequently between Ghana and the U.K. during her youth, the architect-scholar-novelist has long navigated these countries through an insider-outsider lens. As the curator of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, titled “The Laboratory of the Future,” she’s bringing exactly this outlook to the main exhibition. On view from May 20 through Nov. 26, the six-part presentation will put the spotlight on Africa for the first time in the Biennale’s history—with more than half of the contributors hailing from Africa or from the African diaspora. The timing of Lokko’s Biennale appointment is not so coincidental: In 2020, she founded the African Futures Institute in Accra, a new architecture school and research institute that, as with her Biennale show, positions Africa as a laboratory for harnessing the vast possibilities of the future.

On the latest episode of our At a Distance podcast, Lokko explains how, for decades now, she has been “using the very rich context of Africa as a testing ground for ideas about where—and what—the architect of the future, of the twenty-second and twenty-third century, should be thinking about.” Below, a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Click here to listen to the full interview on our At a Distance podcast.

Let’s start with the theme of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale: “The Laboratory of the Future.” Through your work at the African Futures Institute, one of the questions you’ve been exploring is: What if Africa were truly understood as the laboratory of the future? I was hoping you could take me back to the roots of this question for you, which also seem to be the roots of the Biennale’s theme.

To be completely honest, in 2020, I kept thinking about the fact that, if I don’t make this move now and start a school now, I probably never will. But I didn’t have a name for it. I had moved back to Edinburgh, and one day, on my way to the gym, I walked past a building with a big billboard that said Edinburgh Futures Institute, which is an initiative of the University of Edinburgh—it’s a kind of experimental “cluster” within the university. I thought, Futures Institute. That’s absolutely what I want to say.

I’d always thought about using the very rich context of Africa as a testing ground for ideas about where—and what—the architect of the future, of the twenty-second and twenty-third century, should be thinking about. It was quite serendipitous: this billboard appeared, the idea of starting up a school came, and the idea of an experimental workshop had always been at the back of my mind. So that’s how they all came together.

The AFI really started in July 2021, and I was appointed the curator [of the Biennale] in November 2021. So the two things weren’t exactly simultaneous, but they happened very close to one another. The Biennale exhibition, in a sense, became a continuation of the same conversation.

This is the first time ever that the Architecture Biennale has put the spotlight on Africa and the African diaspora. Compared to years past, this is really a much more diverse, polyvocal affair. On a personal level, what does it mean to you to be this year’s curator, and to be shaping conversations around this incredible plurality of voices?

It’s kind of surreal. I don’t know that this was ever in the picture. But I think, in the last two to three years—for me, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests are inextricably linked. There was a real shift in the global appetite, but also global attention span, around how these issues are connected to the built environment, how they’re connected to issues of both social and environmental justice, that things are not separate anymore.

Somehow, the position of being both inside and outside something simultaneously allows you to understand things in a more pluralistic way. Even as a child moving between Ghana and the U.K., I understood instinctively that there was more to the world than what was in front of you at any given point, because I had seen and experienced other worlds. The position of being plural in terms of your language, your voice, your culture has always seemed a natural position to me. It’s serendipitous that, at the age of 60, suddenly the world is open to hearing plurality in a way that, I think, thirty years ago, it wasn’t.

What have been some of your approaches to exploring the vastness of Africa and the African diaspora? How did you go about organizing and curating this exhibition?

Even to talk about “Africa,” in one sense, is a kind of fallacy, and to talk about “decolonization” and “decarbonization.” They’re really broad categories. I’ve always found that the more specific you can be about your interest in something, actually, the easier it is to open up and become richer and more complex. If you start with a very complex idea, eventually you become very lost.

So, for me, it was really important to say, “Look, there are two or three things here.” One is the idea of the workshop, the idea that it’s not a laboratory in the scientific sense of the word, where you set up the conditions to perfectly engineer an outcome. This is much more about Booker T. Washington’s idea of the workshop as a place of liberation, where people come together in collaboration to explore something. So that was very clear to me. Then there’s the idea of the future. We’re the world’s youngest continent. The majority of our population has its future in front of them, so the future is a really important conceptual and political space. I think the global success of things like Wakanda, Black Panther, and Afrofuturism prepared the ground, in a way to, to receive these very imaginative ideas about the future. And the idea also of having a story that is not “wrong”—I don’t say that the story of architecture was a “wrong” story. I just say it’s an unfinished or an incomplete story. Now, suddenly, we have the possibility to hear other narratives that enrich that story.

I find it interesting that, for the first time ever, nearly half of participants are from individual practices of five people or less. Could you speak about this? Throughout much of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, there has been such a high value placed on scale and on growth, but I think these smaller firms have so much potential to shape culture and society through a collective approach.


Rather than, say, a “mega-firm” or celebrity architect top-down approach.

That was directly influenced by the last ten years I’ve had in academia. I’m not a practicing architect. I’ve always been involved in academia, and one of the big disappointments, for me, about academia was that the longer I stayed in it, and the higher I rose in the management structures of academia, the less I understood academia as a place of any kind of change. The bigger and more established the institution, in some sense, the less ability it has to change, because it’s less flexible and much less fluid.

I think there’s something about the scale of practice in Africa and in the diaspora that has never had either the finances or the resources—the infrastructure—to build at scale. So things have remained smaller scale, but also incredibly nimble, and very easy to pick up on change, and also to take action. So it was very important to me in the Biennale to shine the light on that form of practice, because it’s an alternative model. It means, also, alternative organizational structures, which you never speak about as an architect—the conversation is always about design. But actually, the design of your office—who reports to whom, what the financial structures are—is as important as anything that you will ever build.

You frame and describe the Biennale’s participants as “practitioners,” not architects, urbanists, designers, et cetera. Why did you decide to make this distinction?

I remember a conversation that I had with David Adjaye that was really significant for me. It was about five or six years ago. We were talking in Johannesburg, and he said to me, “We build buildings as African or diasporic architects, but we also build knowledge, and the building of knowledge is every bit as important as material—as a building.” It made me think back maybe twenty years to my time as a student, which was when I first heard the word praxis. It was somebody explaining to me that her praxis included teaching and building and writing and activism—X, Y, Z. I was always very drawn to that idea of a polyvalent practice.

In looking for architects and artists and filmmakers, and people in the African diaspora who are involved in multiple outputs, it just seemed a natural distinction to call them “practitioners.” But then what was also very interesting was finding other people who are not African, not diasporic, not Black, who also work in exactly the same way. And that community of thinkers also really opened my eyes to the idea that you can build kinship with people who are not like you in any way, shape, or form, but who think like you.

Central to this year’s Biennale is the role of the imagination, and you began creating the Africa Futures Institute from a series of “what if” questions. I have to bring up here that you're also a fiction writer, and you have your thirteenth novel coming out next year.

Maybe. [Laughs]

So, in this context, I wanted to ask: Where do you see the line between fiction and reality, and how essential is it for architects, urbanists, and other practitioners to think speculatively, and to ask “what if” questions in their day-to-day work, in decisions big and small?

To answer that fully, I think I would have to go back again to my undergraduate training. And I don’t know that it was ever said explicitly to me. And it may also be that I interpreted the feedback wrongly—I’m very open to that. But my sense at the time, of being an African or Black student, was that I was not allowed to be speculative. That Africa was a continent of so much need, so much scarcity, so much deprivation, that imagination was really left to those who had the resources to imagine. My instinctive reaction against that was both political and personal. I wanted to claim the right to be as imaginative as anyone else. And that was a long time ago.

But I also think that there’s something in the psyche of cultures that are both simultaneously very old—Africa is the world’s oldest continent, at one level—but also young. This tension between a very deep past, an interrupted or truncated present, and a very open, unimagined future is a really potent combination.

The future isn’t just an idea, it’s a place. And architects are so intimately involved in place. It seems to me to be a really logical place to start working. The tension between planning and imagination is maybe the way I would put it. I think that the architect is the interlocutor between the plan and the imaginary, and that somehow the job of the architect is to translate between those two paradigms, which are actually quite different.

Underlying our conversation, explicitly or not, has been the subject of decolonization. You’re making decolonization and decarbonization the foundation of both the Biennale and the Africa Futures Institute. What are some of the greatest misunderstandings, as you see it, around decolonization and decarbonization, particularly in the realm of architecture?

That’s a really great question. I think there are a couple. I’ve said it many times, but the Black body was Europe’s first unit of energy. From my perspective, this relationship between, let’s say, the colony and carbon—they’re linked in the body. That’s the first thing. But the second thing is, people think about those things as states: You achieve decolonization, you achieve decarbonization. Actually, they are not; they are ongoing, endless processes. I don’t think one ever reaches the end product, because there is no end state. I suppose I’ve become aware, more now in the last three or four years than I ever was, that change can sometimes be sparked by a catalyst. I would say Covid was one. The murder of George Floyd was another one. Those were brutal moments. But then change itself happens in very long, incremental timespans. So decolonization, to me, is an example of that. It’s a long process. There are moments where the speed of change or the awareness is sped up—it’s catalytic, it’s immediate—and then there are moments where it’s so slow that you don’t know that anything has changed.

Yeah, something can happen so slowly you don’t perceive it. And then one day, you wake up, and—

It has changed, yeah. I was thinking the other day that, for example, that I would never say, in English, the word fireman anymore. I would say fireperson. The gendering of certain things—it took a long time for me to change my language. But it did change. I think with the kind of opening up of our understanding of gender, for example, it’s going to take a long time to overcome the grammar of saying they and their, but it will happen. Language, for me, is a very good example. It trickles along very slowly. And then suddenly, there’s a new vocabulary.

Well, I’ve always argued that architecture is a form of writing. It was interesting hearing you talk about the fluidity of architecture earlier, because I think, if we’re talking about gender in language, thinking about the fluidity of architecture in that sense is also very interesting. It’s something that I think is shifting, even if not many people perceive it right now.

One hundred percent. I still remember reading [architect and theoretician] Jennifer Bloomer as a fourth-year student, and just closing one of her chapters and thinking, I didn’t know it was possible to write like this. Every so often you come across a writer who so expands your understanding of what language can do. I think you’re absolutely right: Architecture is also a kind of language; it’s a kind of écriture. And teaching, particularly in Southern Africa and in Ghana over the past four or five years, to bear witness to what students who come to this language from other perspectives can bring to it has been mind-blowing.