Under the curation of architect and academic Lesley Lokko, this year’s Venice Biennale of Architecture put a powerful spotlight on the built environment of Africa, in particular on housing, a pressing issue for the continent’s dense cities as well as its far-flung villages. In a show full of surprises, five exhibitors—their work ranging from emerging technologies to intriguing historical insights—stood out, offering a panoramic view of the housing scene in Africa today.
As the founding principle of Atelier Masomi, Mariam Issoufou Kamara, a Niger-born and -based architect, has racked up an impressive list of projects, especially in the country’s capital of Niamey, where her 2016 Niamey 2000 Housing project advanced a new model for high-density living in the city. Kamara and her team used Lokko’s invitation as an opportunity to demonstrate the deeper springs of her practice, not just in the housing field but across a range of typologies, creating a mural-like illustration featuring a sampling of their portfolio. A similar tactic, this time rendered in textile, appeared in the installation from the South African-based team of Heinrich and Ilze Wolff, known for their 2013 House in the Mountains among other projects.
No less remarkable than the work on display in this year’s Biennale was the manner in which it was displayed. At the behest of the Biennale curator, participants were encouraged to share their projects via the medium of video, a low-carbon alternative to the larger and more complex installations seen in previous exhibitions. The designer-engineer team of Doudou Déme and collaborators Nzinga Biegueng Mbpou and Chérif Tall responded with “Burnt Ban”, a short film documenting their ingenious system for building houses, social projects, and more using an innovative rammed-earth brick technology. One fan of the material is Sir David Adjaye, who has included it in recent projects as part of his mission (as he put it during a public appearance during the preview week) to get architects “serious about building in Africa.”
With all the challenges facing housing in Africa today, it seems only fitting to ask: How did we get here? From London, an interesting answer came by way of the Victoria & Albert Museum, whose independent installation “Tropical Modernism: Architecture and Power in West Africa” uses video and archival materials to look at the complex cultural exchange between the U.K. and its former African colonies in Ghana after independence. Says the museum’s Chris Turner, “We wanted to show the power behind the concrete.”
Moving beyond conventional ideas of the home, designers in Venice explored the broader issues of land use and livability that are key to what’s going on today in the global South. “PlugIn Busua” from designers Glenn DeRoché and Juergen Strohmayer is an adaptive-reuse scheme for a multi-functional community facility in the Ghanaian town of Busua, located on a narrow stretch of coast where scarce land and materials for housing leaves little room for collective gathering spaces. “It was about creating a place where the community can come together without these pressures,” says DeRoché. Through their collage-like installation, composed of castoff odds and ends, the architect and his partner brought a little bit of Ghana to Italy.