Lesley Lokko is a woman with many hats. She is an architect, having practiced both in other studios and in her own. She is an academic and has experience teaching, researching and managing the sector at various higher education institutions around the world, including the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) at the University of Johannesburg, which she founded in 2015 ; at the City College of New York, where she was dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture until she apparently left abruptly during the pandemic (more on that later); and now at the African Futures Institute in Accra, a new institute and research school in architecture, which is currently being created from scratch. She is also an accomplished novelist, with 12 novels to her credit, all of which have little to do with architecture. “A lot of people are surprised when they read my books,” she says. “They say it’s not at all what they expected of me.”
More recently, she was named curator of the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale, the industry’s biggest festival, which will launch its next (and 18th) iteration in May 2023. Lesley Lokko’s many faces converge beneath her calm infinity, hard work and refreshing attitude to risk-taking – not to mention his finely tuned stance on the important and timely issues of diversity and inclusion in architecture, as well as the role of culture and African power in the world. All of this shines through his multifaceted work in academia and beyond.
“AFI provides a space for creative and critical reflection on Africa’s built environment. It is a place where theory and practice mingle and learn from each other. It recognizes how our past affects our present and engages us to build our future. Critically, with AFI, Lesley Lokko is not only rethinking the way we build and design, but she is also reassessing the way we learn and teach” – Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye, Global Head of Research, Adjaye Associates and Board Member Directors of AFI Trustees
If there ever was a shaker-upper, a true force for change, it’s Lokko. Lokko was born in Scotland to a Ghanaian father and Scottish mother and spent her childhood in Ghana. Ghana feels most like home, although she has traveled extensively and has lived over the years in London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Johannesburg and Edinburgh. After completing her studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, she practiced and taught, then had her first contact with academic administration at London Metropolitan University, where she was appointed Academic Officer in Strategic Planning and External Affairs in 2001. and research was one thing, but the business and administrative side of university life was completely different, she recalls: “I thought, I don’t want to do this! But I was very lucky, I had started writing, found an agent and a book deal, and left academia. It was a good time to leave and I got into writing fiction for the next 10-15 years. But frustrations also arose here, as Lokko found she couldn’t experiment. “I felt pigeonholed and after a while an opening presented itself and I went back to university in 2014, straight to become an associate professor in South Africa.”
Rendering of the National Cathedral of Ghana, Accra, by Adjaye Associates
She was thrilled to start her role at the University of Johannesburg. “I was able to put the question of decolonization at the center of my work; it seemed to me that the easiest and quickest way to do this was not to change something from within, but to start something new – so I started the GSA”, explains- she. Despite the administrative challenges, Lokko remembers her time at the GSA as a rewarding experience, one that defined her and allowed her to experiment. She remained there until 2019, when she was approached by the late Michael Sorkin for the position of dean at the City College of New York.
Unfortunately, Lokko’s time at City College was marred by a perfect storm of world events: the pandemic began, the murder of George Floyd sparked widespread protests, and challenges within the school quickly surfaced. . “In the United States, whenever gender, race, and work are implicated, it’s always in the context of a long history of exploitation,” she says. The pressures seemed insurmountable, leading to his decision to leave after less than a year in the role. But USA’s loss became Ghana’s gain, as tensions at City College made her realize her heart lay elsewhere. “I thought if I don’t go back to Ghana and start a school now, I never will. For me, it was very important that I come home. Could I take the experiences of working outside of Africa for so long and translate them in a way that would resonate in West Africa?
“AFI is a milestone for architecture and design education on the continent. What really excites me about AFI is the enormous potential it offers us, both in terms of how we can reimagine the built environment, but also as a space where ‘design excellence and Southern perspectives can be nurtured and championed’ – Mariam Kamara, Founder of Atelier Masomi and AFI Board Member
Lokko worked with graphic designer Fred Swart to visualize the school’s identity. Its name – African Futures Institute (AFI) – was created after a walk in Edinburgh, where Lokko came across the Edinburgh Futures Institute, part of the city’s university. “I knew I had found my name,” she recalls. ‘From there I got seed funding from the Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, set up offices [right underneath her home in Accra, which is raised on stilts]found staff [there are three people employed at the moment] and I got to work.
Rendering of the Bët-bi Museum, Senegal, by Atelier Masomi
AFI is a graduate school and will start with events, short courses and workshops in the first year (2023), before rolling out its full curriculum from 2024. Ghana has only one graduate school. ‘accredited architecture, and although AFI is not immediately accredited (‘I want it to stay that way. I like spending time where I don’t have to explain and justify myself all the time’), she says. “It’s all about the imagination, not the politics”), it’s something Lokko feels the region desperately needs. The school already has a vibrant social media presence and it has assembled a exciting group of mentors, advisors and associates to help, including David Adjaye, Ashley Shaw Scott Adjaye (see page 040), Christian Benimana of Mass Design Group, Thandi of RCA Loewenson and Sumayya Vally of Counterspace (W*265 When looking for collaborators, she keeps an open mind, an approach that defines the whole school. first look for the people I’m passionate about, the right people,” she says. “Then I integrated them, building the school around them.
“AFI is a space to reflect, provoke and create the future of practice and pedagogy of and for the continent – manifesting and speaking powerfully from our rich, diverse and hybrid places of difference” – Sumayya Vally, Founder of Counterspace and AFI Academic Advisor
The school will offer long and short courses for students, as well as teachers who want to learn more about the issues it will specialize in – diversity, equity and inclusion in the built environment, in particular the innovation and thought leadership from Africa and its Diaspora. Although she stresses that these are not quotas, she envisions a composition of 50% students from Ghana, 25% from other African countries and the remaining 25% from beyond. She wants to keep things accessible and open, and hopes that tuition fees for wealthier students will subsidize those who cannot afford them. Some parts will be delivered in person and others will be digital, both theoretical and practical, and the intention is to accept students not only with an architectural background. “Architecture works much like a nation-state, always protecting its borders. Nine out of ten times, discipline protection is about excluding ‘others’,” Lokko says. “We see this as a school and a discipline beyond the nation-state – it’s about African futures not shaped by geographic boundaries.”
A poster for the first Biennial of Islamic Arts, curated by Sumayya Vally and taking place in Jeddah from January 23 to April 24, 2023
The AFI will not initially have a fixed location, but will be inserted into the urban fabric of Accra, hosted in various locations. Lokko hopes to eventually order a permanent home for her – but that’s far in the future. For the moment, the school is entirely financed by philanthropy. Classes are due to start in 2024, after the end of the Biennale and Lokko took advantage of a break to recharge his batteries.
Meanwhile, Venice will feature prominently in Lokko’s daily life for next year. The main theme of the exhibition, entitled “The Laboratory of the Future”, puts Africa in the spotlight. Although this curatorship and AFI have occurred independently of each other, they address similar challenges across Lokko’s key areas and passions – how to live in a world of binaries and the global issues of decolonization and decarbonization. . “Africa is the laboratory of the future,” Lokko said at a Venice Biennale press conference in May. “We are the continent with the youngest population in the world, the fastest urbanising, growing at 4% per year, often at the expense of local ecosystems – so we are also at the forefront of climate change. Yes, the show will be centered on Africa, but we don’t just talk about Africa, we use it as a place to try to understand everything everywhere. After all, the Biennale itself is a workshop for the future.
‘AFI represents a new initiative that aims to engage with the world from an African perspective – not just to try to find out how we can contribute, but rather how we belong and why great architecture is not complete Without African Voices’ – Christian Benimana, Senior Principal and Managing Director, Mass Design Group, and AFI Academic Advisor
As for what the future holds, other than Venice and AFI (“School is so much a part of who I am, it’s hard to separate those two, but I hope there’s some sort of productive fusion”), she has another novel in the works, with a publisher that allows her to try new things. “It will be a little different from my others,” she says. The common thread running through it all is an effort to drive change in an area that may be slow to do any of these things. “The challenge is to figure out what the shape of an institution is at the same time as you are trying to form it. I think it was Einstein who said you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect the same result. It leads to madness. You need to be open enough to invent new structures and have enough confidence in their ability to work. §