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“Recognised intellectual figures were being discarded, marginalized, or ignored because they did not fit the political objectives of capitalism and colonialism that act as a construction of the uniqueness of western modernity.”

Sibel Zandi Sayek ( The Unsung of the Canon)

Like many architecture students around the world, I have accused my school's architecture department and curriculum of being too Eurocentric. At this moment I’m aware that the accusation happens so often that it has become an unactionable truism, or an opportunity for superficial atonement. But given the pale modernist and postmodernist survey of architects that students across the world are taught ; Mies, Koolhaas, Le Corbusier, et al. — these accusations hold water.
I have, however, come to realize that the survey of architects itself is only secondary to the problems of a Eurocentric institution. The issue of the canon is a song sung all too well because it is sung too often with few results. The problem of Eurocentricity is difficult, I imagine, to uncouple from the names, buildings and manifestos we are taught in school, but the canon is not just an exercise in Western exclusivity. It also surely contains “methodological blind spots and historiographical omissions,'' that desperately need our attention. In any case, our canon is changing and widening quite rapidly, with Africa seemingly in the spotlight. I contest, however, that including the Frances Keres and Kunle Adiyemes of the world into the mainstream does not an inclusive industry, profession or education make. I believe it has more to do with interrogating the “objectives of capitalism” that aim to preserve the so-called “uniqueness of Western modernity. In fact, I contend that the criticisms levied against the profession and education by students and disgruntled practitioners remain relevant even as more architects from the margins come to gain establishment recognition.

As a student in a school that has seldom begun to do the work of showing credence to a widening canon, in the way that schools like Bartlett have with their XXX Curriculum— which mind you has its own fair share of superficiality. And despite this lack of an agenda, at least not one that is visible to its students, I am not writing this as a call to action. The arguments have already been made more eloquently by people more qualified than I. And in truth, I have no idea what an institution that is not Eurocentric would look like, let alone the steps one would have to take to get there. It must also be known that the scope of this piece of writing, with potential for hubris and extensive namedroping, extends beyond the confines of the school I attend. I’m writing this as a reflection on how the field of architecture is presented to me by establishments in that unshapely place known as the West.

Perhaps the reason architecture and its centers of knowledge are so skewed along the Euro-American axis is because architecture in the West is littered with shiny figures that knowledge can be attributed to. Architecture, as presented to the public, is a kind of rockstar enterprise with a savior in an ivory tower writing manifestos and carving their approach into the built environment near and far. This, I suspect, is a clever rhetorical tool to keep architecture relevant. While “Starchitecture”— architecture associated with a particular figure, that is— has been criticized even by some of the culprits themselves, it remains a historical fact. If there is an indictment to be made it is not of architecture, but of Western modes of intellectual attribution, that act mainly to uphold the “political objectives of capitalism”.

The periphery of architecture, particularly In Africa, has come late to the party in terms of raising its architects to the level of celebrity. This is perhaps because of this epistemological difference, as well as because of the epistemicides that took place in the colonial era. Proof of knowledge discovered outside of the West is a threat to Western exceptionalism, which is what has historically given Western knowledge Its legitimacy— hence the epistemicides. Nevertheless, African architects are now garnering a significant audience. Today the centers of knowledge seem to want to cling to relevance and legitimacy by including and co-opting the periphery, with conciliatory prizes making outside figures “the first” African to do X, or the first woman to do Y rather than interrogating and confronting the warped objectives of this current building and development paradigm.

In the architecture where points of view are conflated with individuals, we can see that the tendency to include the periphery in the center is now in full swing. In 2017, Frances Kerere, from Burkina Faso was the first African to design the prestigious Serpentine Pavilion. Three years later David Adjaye was awarded the Riba Gold Medal, a knighthood, along with a volley of other prizes including one given to him by the World Economic Forum. Four years later, the Serpentine pavilion was handed to Sumaya Valley of Counter Space— a female-run South African firm. That same year, Lesley Lokko, a Ghanaian-Scottish academic, was announced as the 2023 curator of the world's most prestigious Biennale in Venice. This year Frances Kerere was awarded the highest honor in Architecture — The Pritzker Prize— and the Serpentine was built by Theaster Gates— an African American. As a young black aspiring architect, it has certainly been inspiring to see, in what is still an old white man's game.

Full disclosure here: every person on the list above is one of my heroes. I hope dear reader, that you don’t view this as a diatribe against those who are putting their money where their mouth is. My concern is that beyond the identities of my heroes, the system that has historically excluded them is implicitly making them agents of the same practices. Africa and its diaspora seem to be in vogue in the Western seats of power, and so the scramble continues. But lest we forget that the West has not only omitted the Global South, historically it even omitted western architects who didn’t advance Western exceptionalism or a global capitalist agenda. Sibel Zandi Sayek, in her essay The Unsung of the Canon writes that “these omissions represent archetypal patterns of exclusion that apply to almost any region outside the canonical geography of industrialization”. Canonization, it seems, is dolled out according to the usefulness of an Architect or building to an agenda. So what, I ask, is the usefulness of African architects to the hegemony now ?

The aforementioned, If I have any authority here, are all deserving recipients of those prizes and commissions, with their incredible portfolio of work. I am, however, aware of this sudden volley of awards being given to Africans by the establishment. As Lesley Lokko said: “new audiences are also emerging, hungry for different narratives, different tools and different languages of space, form, and place.” Is it that these institutions are trying to retain legitimacy, by appealing to these new audiences, or is there actually a rubric that is being applied in these high places that Africans are somehow meeting in droves?

There are parallels to be made with this argument and with well-meaning movements and ideas around the world that have been co-opted by corporate interests to cloak their business in garments of tolerance despite contributing to practices that are counter intuitive to the aims of the movement they are piggybacking on. It's no secret that the LGBTQ + community for example, are up to their chests in multinationals who are using the movement to remain relevant whilst contributing nothing to the discourse or mitigation of intolerance towards them. The lesson, I am sensing, is that if you have power you can have it both ways.

When Lesley Loko said that “a new world order is emerging, with new centers of knowledge production and control” in her curatorial statement for Venice, it seemed irrefutable, given these new winds of change. But if Venice and the Pritzker— notoriously Eurocentric institutions— remain the yardstick for what is good, then is it really a new world order or is it just different guards at the gate?

Despite the apparent pessimism of this piece of writing thus far, and whilst I believe there has been a changing of the guard, I do have optimism that people like Lesley do have the industry's best interest at heart, given her far-reaching contributions to architectural education abroad and on the continent. I pray though that we don’t stop there, and that the rebuilding of our industry won’t wind up perpetuating the infractions and exclusionary behaviour of its predecessor, despite its compelling outward image. “Even the usual corpus of canonical landmarks has the potential to tell far more compelling stories”.

The canon is certainly widening and has been for a considerable time, but women have long been marginalized in the architectural community. One of the more famous cases of this marginalization is the case of Denis Scott-Brown, who was excluded when the Pritzker was awarded to her Partner Robert Venturi in ‘91. In 2013 an organisation called Women in Design at Harvard University demanded that Scott-Brown be added to the list through a petition, but Scott-Brown later said in an interview on CNN that "the Pritzker Prize was based on the fallacy that great architecture was the work of 'single lone male genius' at the expense of collaborative work." Similarly, when Farshid Moussavi was asked whether she was bothered by being referred to as a woman architect, she said that she embraced it, because it meant that she was “not the status quo” and offered more to the profession that way— ultimately, showing some awareness that “any canon, after all, improved or augmented, is an exercise in selectivity and necessarily entails mechanisms of exclusion”.

Now that spectres of Western exceptionalism and patriarchy are being exorcized out of the architecture practice, and the echo chamber of soothsayers from Venice to Davos are eyeing the continent, questions must be asked about architectural historicity, not just as convenient ways to atone for exclusion as might be fashionable now, but to understand “the skein of motives and operations, and the wide-ranging strands of ideas and expertise” that have underpinned the creation of our built environment, that — let's face it — is riddled with inequity and violence.

Even if this is just some Hegelian dialectic playing itself out through our profession with the west as the thesis, the periphery as the antithesis and the current moment as the synthesis I still contend that there is no space for nihilism. We still have some agency in chartering a path towards a more accurate representation of our professions, history and future, and can certainly ensure that merit from the periphery does not prop up the old animating forces of architecture that have for so long disenfranchised them. 

BURNING IVORY TOWERS features in Issue 2 of TWIST

Davies, Catriona. “Denise Scott Brown: Architecture Favors ‘Lone Male Genius’ over Women | CNN Business.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 May 2013, scott-brown-pritzker-prize.

“Biennale Architettura 2023: Introduction by Lesley Lokko.” La Biennale Di Venezia, 31 May 2022, architecture/2023/introduction-lesley-lokko.

Epistemologies of the South - gies_of_the_South.pdf.

Zandi-Sayek, Sibel. “The Unsung of the Canon: Does a Global Architectural History Need New Landmarks?” ABE Journal, no. 6, 2014,

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