Meeting up with two of the four primary participants inthe South African Pavilion of the Biennale Architectura 2023 in Venice, it quickly becomes clear that it takes a village to raise a pavilion, as the pamphlet specially designed for visitors acknowledges. DIANE DE BEER talks to lecturer Stephen Steyn with Carla Spies (who is responsible for co-ordinating the whole project) about this year’s architectural adventure:

When the core group of Carla Spies (Spies Architects), Stephen Steyn (lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design at TUT), Dr Sechaba Maape (senior lecturer at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning) and Dr Emmanuel Nkambule (senior lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design at TUT) got together, they played with the idea that we live in a unique country and that being in this place affects how we live.

That is where they wanted their focus to be and what they hoped to visually explore and exhibit at the Biennale.

All in the field of architecture, their interest and research were aligned, which meant that each one brought something specific to the project.

Digital visuals as part of the South African Pavilion.

Stephen explains that we identify with things, creatures, ideas and, most significantly, other people. Identities, which are what drive this project, like walls, contain, convene and comfort us, but should they be too solid and too insistent, they imprison us. “It is something that defines you,” he explains, “but it shouldn’t be seen as just one thing.”

Between the abstract binary poles of ‘freedom’ and ‘containment’ there is architecture. By using our imaginations, we choose how we identify as active, conscious agents. He argues that while a space might define its occupants, it shouldn’t confine them.

Before the ‘primitive hut’, in fact, before the wall itself was conceived of as a construction, the natural world had supplied us with the architecture of the cave. The cave wall is simultaneously a containing element, and a surface of representation. Beyond this wall exists another world – intimately connected to our own, but with its own logics and forces.

The hanging ropes starting to take shape. The group from Kent&Lane who fastened the ropes to the tiles for the eventual hanging.

The future is unknown. From that darkness, full of both fears and hopes, architects pull images which, like self-fulfilling prophecies, become the future itself through construction.

 It is not fail proof; like any prophecy, it remains vague no matter how clearly articulated. And it is always subject to the influence of enormously varied and powerful forces as it travels from the world beyond the surface of representation – where the future and the past co-mingle – to our own.

And part of their quest was to reach out to the pre-colonial past, into the present post-colonial era to determine the future. Histories are alive and should constantly be revised, because so much has not been recorded in traditional ways.

The main pavilion structure (designed by Stephen and realised by Carla with the help of many others), invites visitors to a ritual performance of collective identification, community formation and initiation.

Then the exhibition unfolds and reveals itself  through three zones.

Zone I is titled The Past Is the Laboratory of the Future, and traces historical links to the architectural representation of social structures as documented in pre-colonial southern-African societies.

Scattered over 10 000 square kilometres of grassland in Mpumalanga lie the ruins of a vast civilization known as the Bokoni. The architecture of the Bokoni consisted primarily of two materials: permanent, dry-stacked stone, and ephemeral, hand-woven grass.

Rather than captured in books, the social structures (how they lived and functioned) of the Bokoni are preserved in the visible plan forms of their homesteads, and are represented by weaving practices, which can only be inferred from sub cultures still practising grass weaving today. For this element, five individual weavers were brought together to make woven artefacts that serve as scaffolding for another construction; that of a social as well as a professional network, and thus representing a community.

Part of Nkambule’s model which represents a “modern”Bokoni society.

They also found a digital way of showing the enduring solidity of the dry-stacked stone used in the construction of a Bokoni homestead, which can be accessed by a visitor to the pavilion on their smart phone.

This contemporary interpretation of traditional social practices, as they are manifested in spaces and thresholds still being built today, connects our distant history with our present and, through re-interpretation, sets new trajectories for the future.

Zone II is titled The Council of (non-human) Beings, and contains contemporary drawings on the topic of animism in architectural practice.

Here the work of Dr Maape is presented in a space inspired by the caves of Kuruman in South Africa — spaces that are dark and removed from day-to-day life, and primarily used for initiation rituals.

 In this setting, large digital prints of the living landscape, drawings that are themselves set in blackness, emphasise the value of dark and black spaces within the cultural practices of indigenous communities of South Africa.

Initiates are challenged to face their fears by facing the stereotypes of ‘dark/black as evil’, the ‘dark continent’ or ‘black magic’, inverting and exposing the false and sinister narrative of the metaphor of ‘light’ or ‘enlightenment’ in its colonial manifestation.

Part of Nkambule’s model which represents a “modern”Bokoni society.

Combining these influences with the indigenous knowledge of his home, Maape generates works that question the way we see the earth on which we design and build.

He proposes a practice that seeks the council of all beings, human and non-human, in the production of architecture, and suggests that it is in reframing concepts like ‘context’ or ‘site’ that we may be more responsive to our current planetary crises

 Zone III is titled Political Animals, and presents the organizational and curricular structures of South African architecture schools as architectural objects.

They invited students and staff from South African schools of architecture to construct sample representations of the Laboratories of the Future in which they are embedded and of which they are part. The competition format was adjusted to engage with Stephen’s research and curatorial project, resulting in six entries constructed with the assistance of Johannesburg-based ModelArt.

In the process of being transformed.

Most of this has been done in South Africa, because of the rand/euro exchange. Carla flew to Venice this a month ago to start co-ordinating the installation of the pavilion and the rest of the crew involved in the setting up, including the other three core members, followed a week later.

It is a major undertaking, but if one views their narrative (some of which I hopefully captured) with images of what’s to come, the intent and inclusive nature with which the project was put together and run, South Africans should be holding thumbs and be proud  of this young team of architects who have taken our architectural heritage with visions of the future to represent us at the prestigious 18th Biennale Architectura 2023.

 * The 18th International Architecture Exhibition, titled The Laboratory of the Future and curated by Lesley Lokko, will be open from 20 May to 26 November 2023.

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