Lesley Lokko has always done things a bit differently. The Ghanaian-Scottish architect, academic and writer is almost as well known for her racy novels – she has written 12 – as she is for her design acumen. But it is, of course, the latter that saw her becoming the first African woman to be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture last month.
Widely considered one of the sector’s fiercest campaigners for equality and inclusion, Lokko (who curated the 2023 Venice Biennale with a raw focus on postcolonial Africa) received the award not so much for a body of physical work but rather for the impact her ideas, values and teachings have had on the wider design community. Proof, once more, that she does things a little differently.
Architecture and design have been close to her heart since childhood, when, growing up in Accra, she would flip through homes and interior magazines brought over by friends visiting from the UK and fill out the forms at the back for kitchen brochures. ‘The Ghanian post was awful,’ she says. ‘So, I would wait six months, and then 15 would arrive at once. I used to love looking through them, examining how the kitchens looked, how they had been fitted. This never struck me as strange. It was just my thing.’
Her first architectural sketch was for a friend in LA who wanted to open a chicken restaurant. Lokko, who was 19 at the time, drew up a plan for the interior and counter and promptly shifted her focus from a career in law to architecture. She returned to the UK and took up a place at The Bartlett.
In the years that followed, Lokko – who has taught in Johannesburg, London, Accra and Edinburgh and is founder and director of the African Futures Institute in Ghana – realised that her passion for design and the built world was deeply embedded in cultural identity.
This theme has run through many of her ideas and teachings since, culminating in her Gold Award triumph. Indeed, on the announcement of her selection as the 2024 recipient, the RIBA Honours Committee said: ‘For over two decades Lokko has been rightly recognised for her groundbreaking contributions to architectural education, dialogue and discourse from a Global South perspective – relentlessly pursuing inclusivity and equity in the field.’
So, what better way to mark such a historic win than to look at five times Lokko has, true to form, done things a bit differently.
The 2023 Venice Biennale
When Lokko was appointed curator of the 2023 Biennale in December 2021, she became the first Black architect and the fourth woman to lead the biannual event. It came as little surprise when she announced that the 18th edition would focus on Africa under the title The Laboratory of the Future.
Comparably, little traditional architecture was included in the curation. Lokko shook things up by delving into themes and ideas using mediums and tools other than conventional projects. Highlights included a woven triptych made by a Bengali collective depicting a flood-proof home and a film on how the game of dominoes impacted communities of the South London Windrush generation.
The ‘Curator’s Special Projects’ covered topics from sustainability, gender and memory, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye created a black timber pyramid “to cultivate a forest of light and shadow. The whole event, described as an exploration of decarbonisation and decolonisation, was like none other in both theme and content.
Completed in 2005, Lokko designed and built her own house in Accra, the city where she grew up. Described as a ‘modern mud house’, its bricks were dug out of the mud on the land Lokko bought for the project, compressed and left to dry in the sun. A single-space dwelling, ‘rooms’ have been created using clever positioning of larger pieces of furniture such as bookcases and the space is ‘punctuated by pieces of architectural art.’ In 2008, Lokko described the build as the most stressful period of her life.
Race, space, equality and inclusion
Lokko’s focus on the intersection of race and space has punctuated her career. She has often spoken out on subjects and issues many have shied away from, and, more than that, she has used her findings to make significant, lasting changes. One such change occurred in 2015 when recognising there was a lack of equality in educational opportunities, she established the Graduate School of Architecture in Johannesburg. Modelled on the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and London’s Architectural Association, it is the only school of its kind in Africa. Lokko became head of the school and associate professor of architecture at the University of Johannesburg.
“A profound act of self-preservation”
In October 2020, Lokko made a public stand when she resigned as dean of the Spitzer School of Architecture in New York after just ten months in the role. She called her decision a ‘profound act of self-preservation’ in a statement published by Architectural Record, citing a crippling workload and a lack of empathy for Black people, and Black women in particular, as the main reasons behind her decision to leave. The ultimate call-out, Lokko said at the time, ‘no job is worth one’s life and at times I genuinely feared for my own.’ Such an honest, public approach shone a light on an issue which, in Lokko’s own words, ‘is by no means unique to Spitzer.’ Her experience has been described as ‘a damning indictment of US academic institutions.’
Home is where the heart is
Lokko is known for her academic prowess and teachings across the globe. But when it came to bringing the power of that academic thought to the city where she spent her formative years, she wanted to leave a legacy. In 2020, she founded the African Futures Institute, an independent postgraduate school of architecture in Accra. Lokko has been bold and open-minded enough to allow it to evolve from a traditional institute – which she now realises might not be the right path, given the infrastructure required – to become an academic hub where ideas are taken directly to students as part of a wider conversation around key issues related in design and culture.