All Cities Contain “Others”
1. What is the most thrilling urban situation that you have ever experienced?
I spent a year teaching in Iowa, in the heartland of the American Midwest in the late 90s. It was the first time in decades that I’d lived “outside,” in the countryside, surrounded by fields, not buildings. I wasn’t even aware that I missed the city until one afternoon, several months after I’d moved, I made the six-hour drive along Interstate 80 to Chicago. I still remember the smell of hot asphalt as I neared the city. It washed over me through the air-conditioning ducts, an urban perfume from my “real” life. The smell of fertilizer and grass that I had surreptitiously become accustomed to was not my milieu. I think it was the first time I properly understood the city as a landscape and the first time I understood that the urban is, was, would always be—home.
2. How would you define “the urban” at this moment in time?
I’m now back in Accra where I grew up, forty years after leaving it as a seventeen-year-old to study in the UK. In London, especially when I first arrived, I learned to see the city through the eyes of the English, whom I understood to be everything I was not. London was white, English, British, imperial—a little stand-offish, cold, coded. It was the place and space where the English encountered us—foreigners, strangers, immigrants, refugees, empire’s “others.” We sat on buses and trains cheek-by-jowl, observing one another warily, looking out for signs of welcome or worse. At the time, I thought of Accra as everything London was not—not foreign, not hostile, not wary, not estranged. In my mind, Accra was the village where we all knew one another and London was the city, where we did not. Now, of course, I understand it differently. All cities contain “others.” As Richard Sennett reminds us, the city is where we learn to negotiate difference, both overt and covert simultaneously. Accra’s boundaries are sonorous—language, tone, proverb. There is as much difference in the square mile around my home on Senchi Street as there is in Soho. Negotiating it is just as hard.
3. What is the most urgent and relevant issue regarding that notion of the urban, both today and in the future? How would you approach it in terms of existing—or not yet existing—methods of analysis, discussion, and action?
I’m an educator, not a practitioner, theorist, or historian (as if those were the only available categories!), therefore questions concerning the future are always—at least for me—inseparable from the tools we use to teach us how to think about the future. Writing, drawing, speaking, performing, listening… the means of communication and representation are one and the same. How we draw/think/make/see is profoundly tied to what we draw/think/make and see: can we draw differently? Can we teach ourselves to see differently? If we accept that the city is the place in which we encounter difference—race, class, ethnicity, gender, politics, religion—and we accept that the nineteenth century tools at our disposal—plans, sections, elevations, manifestos, planning permissions—may not be equal to the task of understanding the nuances and subtle complexities that make up the contemporary city, then what do we replace them with? What are our tools and tactics for understanding and shaping what is likely to be mankind’s most permanent, profound act of projection: cities?
4. Choose the three notions of most significant interest to you from the forA on the urban open call keywords* and define them concerning the urban.
Alienation is the greatest threat facing urbanization.
Citizenship will become an increasingly irrelevant concept, yet still tied to the most stringent protocols. Who is one thing? Who is another?
Decolonisation is a gift.1
Lesley Lokko is the founder and director of the African Futures Institute (AFI) in Accra, Ghana, an independent postgraduate school of architecture and public events platform. She was the founder and director of the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, and the Dean of Architecture at The Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, CCNY. She is the editor of White Papers, Black Marks: Race, Culture, Architecture and FOLIO: Journal of Contemporary African Architecture, and the author of eleven best-selling novels. She is a founding member of the Council on Urban Initiatives, co-founded by LSE Cities, UN Habitat, and UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and Curator of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale.