African Space Magicians


Lesley Lokko





The Zulu term for an architect, umqambi wesino, is a haunting and beautifully complex phrase, meaning alternatively and in no particular order “magician of space”, “maker of a situation”, or “maker of a sensation”. I can think of few equivalents in any language that so aptly describe the strange alchemy that is the hallmark of the architectural process, from the idea or concept that first takes hold in the mind’s eye, to the drawing forth of the design at various scales and from different perspectives through various media, to the explorations of scaled prototypes that test the architect’s ability to resolve the tension between the imaginary and the “real” before the built form emerges. The synthesis between desire, which is often ephemeral, and result, often alarmingly material, is always a challenge. Umqambi wesino neatly circumvents this dilemma by positing a relationship between space, situation, and sensation and by introducing a new figure, the magician/maker. It’s important to note, however, that the term does not refer to magic in the contemporary sense of the English word, with its connotations of trickery and sorcery, but rather to an ability to change states or shapes, closer to the Greek word magikē tekhnē, already already etymologically linked to archi-tekht. In South Africa – where fierce battles over language, custom, ritual, and memory are still being fought – a unique opportunity exists for architects, and architecture, to play a different role, using different tactics and tools to stitch together conflicting accounts, possibly even to resolve them. It’s a tall order.


In his study of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, György Dalos examines what the publishers describe as “the most extraordinary encounter in the history of 20th century literature”, the meeting between the fifty-six-year-old poet and the thirty-six-year-old philosopher Isaiah Berlin in Leningrad in 1945[1]. The two sat down at nine in the evening and talked for twelve hours straight. Neither gave a detailed account of their conversation, but after he left, she wrote a stanza in her epic work Poem without a Hero, in which she described him as “a man not yet appeared … strayed from the future.”[2] The reference was taken up in 1979 by the South African Nobel Prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer, at a conference at the University of Cape Town titled “The State of Art in South Africa.” At the close of her speech, she stated: “Any optimism is realistic only if we, black and white, can justify our presence talking here, by regarding ourselves as what Mannoni, in his study of the effects of colonialism, terms ‘apprentices to freedom.’ Only in that capacity may we perhaps look out for, coming over the Hex River Mountains or the Drakensberg, that guest from the future, the artist as the prophet of the resolution of divided cultures.[3] Gordimer spoke of artists in the widest-possible sense of the word, including photographers, writers, playwrights, and architects. Both Akhmatova and Gordimer refer, albeit obliquely, to the alchemical processes that all artists employ in order to translate their materiel – in the French sense of the word as “stuff” or “matter” – into form. The daily transformations of reality are the artist’s work, nowhere more acutely than in places undergoing dramatic political and social change.

But herein lies a contradiction, particularly for architects. Gordimer extended Akhmatova’s description of Berlin by drawing an analogy between freedom and the “future”, putting forth a compelling vision of the artist/architect as a “prophet”, someone – perhaps the only one – capable of reconciling a divided culture. The impetus to change, transform, remake the world is, according to Gordimer, innate: “It is in Ar[the nature of artists] to want to transform the world, just as it is a political decision for those who are not artists.”[4] Architecture may be viewed as the most overtly political of the “plastic” arts, at least in a corporeal sense. No other discipline has as immediate and permanent effect on the way we live and view the world. As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings’ thereafter they shape us.” Individual buildings aside, cities cement our attitudes toward one another through a complex web of policy, capital, fear, and desire.

While it’s true that cultures are divided in myriad ways, no division I can think of has proved more resistant to long-term equitable and inclusive resolution than race. What we mean when we use the term differs from society to society, culture to culture, of course. As with the word culture, there is no clear consensus on what race means, let alone what it actually is. Skin color? Heritage? Ancestry? Ethnicity? Irrespective of how we define it, the history of human settlement is predicated on the divisions we project onto those who are not “of our tribe”. If, as Richard Sennett has argued so persuasively, the “city is the place where we encounter those who are not like us”, our ongoing difficulties in reconciling our attitudes toward “others" suggest that four thousand years of communal living have done little to heal the scars of our projections.[5]


Segregationist policies everywhere rely on a sense of order that is enforced through aggressive legal and policing frameworks, as well as the tacit consent of the majority of the population, until such time as the center cannot hold, to evoke Chinua Achebe.[6] Apartheid is perhaps the most extreme example of the power of the state to shape and control the lives of its citizens, but like all South African cities, including and especially Johannesburg, Chicago and other American cities still carry the scars of centuries of racial and economic inequity owing to slavery and segregationist policies. Systemic oppression survives on an outward show of strength, but as history has shown us time and again, no system – no matter how strong – remains in place forever. In many ways the heritage “industry” – which packages and contains the formal and culturally approved version of events through museums, archives, exhibitions, texts, and so on – struggles to find the appropriate form or means to tell “alternative” histories, particularly those that run counter to the official narratives.

Several years ago I visited Jo Noero’s prizewinning Red Location Museum near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, which now stands dilapidated and permanently closed. Located in the neighborhood where the African National Congress was founded, it won several prestigious architectural awards, but local residents have accused the city of “building a house for dead people” while they continue to live in squalor. At the time of my visit, undertaken with architecture students from the University of cape Town, the museum was pristine, awaiting inauguration. I noticed that the signs were in three languages – English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa – and that the Xhosa translations of “standard” museum signage – Entrance, Exit, Shop, Restaurant, and so on – were sometimes four or five words long. Curious about exact translations, I asked a security guard to explain why the phrase for “museum exit”, for example, appeared to be a completely different phrase from “museum entrance”. He was baffled by the question at first but the grasped what I was trying to ask: “What is the Xhose word for museum?” He consulted with a colleague for a few minutes, then returned.

“Actually, we don’t have a word for that.”

“So what do you call a place like this?” I gesture to the building around me.

They exchange a quick glance. “This place,” his colleague interrupts coldly, “is a place for white people.”

“So what do you call the building where you go to remember something?” I ask after a moment.

They look at me increduously. “Madam, we don’t need a building for that.”

It remains one of the most powerful conversations I have ever had about architecture, anywhere.

Post-1994, museums “celebrating” the formal end of apartheid have sprung up like mushrooms in almost every municipality. Some are genuinely interesting, at least in terms of their architectural merit, others less so. For the most part they follow a tried-and-tested typology of museums and archives everywhere, due in part to public building codes, which cannot be easily ignored. The programmatic aspects dominate the form: entrances, exits, ramps, toilets, offices, exhibition spaces, and so on. One of the most puzzling conundrums, however, is the lack of experimentation in terms of what the appropriate container of history might be. As evindenced in the short conversation quoted above, we might begin to think differently about formal ideas associated with memory, history, past, present, and, critically, the future. The task for would-be African space magicians might be to rethink the spatial, formal, and material relationship between program and form or between landscape and building, inside and outside, memory and imagination, to name but a few of the binaries that dominate conventional architectural expressions of remembrance.



[1] György Dalos, The Guest from the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiac Berlin (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).
[2] Anna Akhmatova, Poem without a Hero, in “Requiem” and “Poem without a Hero”, trans. D. M. Thomas (London: Eleck, 1976), 33.
[3] Nadine Gordimer, “Relevance and Commitment”, in The Essentail Gesture: Writings, Politics, and Places, ed. Stephen Clingman (London: Cape, 1988), 143.
[4] ibid., 142
[5] Richard Sennett, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), iv.

[6] In the title of his novel Things Fall Apart (1958), Achebe evoked William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” (1919), specifically the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Originally published in … And Other Such Stories, edited by Yesomi Umolu, Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares. Chicago Architecture Biennial in association with Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019.

With thanks to the author and the editors.




VILLAGE DESIGN by Hassan Fathy