How do you think the architecture world needs to change to become global?
»I think for quite a long time, certainly in architectural discourse, it was very clear that there was a center which was more or less the global north and, maybe Japan. And the discourse in that world was canon. 20–25 years ago, we began to see people from »other« worlds coming into the global north and bringing experiences and histories and ways of talking about architecture, that the canon was not well equipped to hear.
There was a sense that if you suddenly opened the door to other views or other ways of thinking, your own authority would be questioned. The only way to deal with this was to say, it’s peripheral, it’s to the side of architecture.
And I think what’s happened over the past five years, climate change, racial justice, social justice, the pandemic, public health, even war, suddenly now these things they’re center stage and architects who thought of themselves as being at the center suddenly don’t have the language for it. And I think this has been a real shift.«
How can this shift be used to maintain momentum?
»When I started working in South Africa, we were dealing with an architectural profession that was closely aligned with apartheid. The spatial ideology of apartheid could not have happened if the architecture profession at some level was not complicit. In the South African context, architects could not be these left-leaning, Avant garde, innocent community. Actually, they were implicated. I realized quickly that in order to move beyond the, let’s say the binary of good and evil, black and white, you had to rely on another figure. Somebody else had to be the bridge between these two camps.
For me, architecture has always been a discipline of translation. You translate an idea into a drawing, a drawing into a model, a model into a building, a building into a city. There’s something about the DNA of the way architects think that is really to do with translation.
In South Africa, I understood that the black students – most Africans speak more than one language – know how to translate between worlds, because you live generally in one world, black African world, but you have to negotiate every day with the Western world, with modernity. I figured out that if we could equip those students to become the translators, they could take both parties by the hand. So the architect for me became this really interesting figure, somebody who resolves in really profound ways, like a negotiator.«
It doesn’t feel like you are in Accra,but the whole of Africa, how do you work to be everywhere?
»Growing up in Ghana, we always thought of ourselves as other, outside the global north. But we were very aware of the world. That’s maybe one of the conditions of growing up in a post-colonial context, is that you’re very aware of other places. Ghana and the UK have had this traffic for a long time. Sometimes with my close group of friends in Ghana, we could be in London on a Wednesday and in a Accra on a Saturday. The conversations and the language is the same. From a very early age, I had a sense that geography is not always the best indication of where you are. You carry other things with you. Sometimes that’s language, sometimes it’s manners like your etiquette, sometimes it’s relationships. I think your sense of identity is much more complex than your territory.«
You have done some teaching in Sweden with Ana Betancour. What is your view of the Nordics?
»I remember thinking, we look at the Nordic countries and we think of that being the ultimate experiment in the relationship between democracy, social welfare, egalitarianism, equality and so on – a role model. There's a kind of confidence and security, I think, that comes from people who grow up in this system. But when it hits the complexity of the outside world, then you suddenly realize that the security and the protection, it can also blunt how you deal with complexity. And I think the world is more complex now than it's ever been.«
Do you think we need to maintain this complexity to move the world forward?
»What we need to do is to understand which of the values in a modern, complex, diverse, fragmented worl that we need to keep. But how do we build them in such a way that we allow difference?«
What is your view on sustainability?
»We have a group of young diaspora researchers who are working with the AFI. We met in London recently and one of them made such a brilliant point. She said, »We talk about the management of waste. That’s how we talk about sustainability. How do you manage waste? What we never talk about, is how you change your habits so that you don’t produce it.«
We don't have the cultural conversation around sustainability. And when I look at where I’m from, from west Africa, people would say that people’s behavior comes from the factthat we don’t have a huge amount of resources, which may be true, but it also means that people’s attitudes to consumption are different. The question for the global north, is how do you change people’s attitudes towards consumption? Because getting rid of the waste through carbon offsetting or planting trees or whatever, that’s only delaying the problem.«
What do you think the future holds for architects?
»The emphasis on training people to construct buildings, I think, has taken the profession down a path of the consumption of resources. David Adjaye and I talk about this a lot when we meet. On the African continent, the job of an architect is also to build knowledge. It’s to build confidence. The building is only one part of it. There’s something about the training of an architect, which is about the construction, but I think it doesn’t only have to be a material construction. It can be about the construction of society, of institutions, and of systems. So there’s something, for me, very hopeful and optimistic about the training of an architect. And for me, this is the beginning of change.