Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Hannah le Roux

If August is a month of migration, this August, 2015, when hundreds of refugees landed on the beaches otherwise occupied by northerners flown down for the sun, was the month when the very meaning of migration moved. In becoming so moving, so emotively present as part of the human condition, these migrations signaled a shift from a world of discrete and sometimes linked settlements to a world in flux, while the consequences became a public and heartfelt condition. The affairs of foreigners became our affair.

The private responses of many Austrians to this heartbreaking situation show great empathy for the condition of people for whom the homeland has become an ephemeral concept. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the historical flux of central Europe has long engendered an awareness of human movement and the transitory nature of occupation.

How is this consciousness applied in architecture? In the work of [Applied] Foreign Affairs, the conditions of global flux create three interlinked conditions for the lab to engage with. The first is the adoption of Africa as a site of ongoing change where migrancy and settlement correspond in unpredictable, non-linear ways. This change has material and immaterial forms, both of which interest [A]FA. The second condition is the one of the mobile lab itself and its particular qualities. The constant reflection, reformation, and looseness of the group, under Baerbel Muller’s direction, raises the question of how architecture holds course across such fluid contextual conditions. The third is the rich and circular relationship between [A]FA’s work in Africa, its “home” institution of the Angewandte, and the globalised project of contemporary architecture.

The [A]FA unit stepped into the gap of design for conditions of flux by locating its investigations in Africa around 2011, entering a vast site which it recognizes, above all, as a field of shifting conditions and inspiring energy. Unlike with the generic Africa studios that increasingly round off a Northern architecture curriculum, there is nothing a priori about the social needs, the nation, the institutions, or even the toolkits of the projects the [A]FA undertakes. Instead, the sites and collaborations emerge from connections, seemingly random opportunities inspired by Baerbel’s vivid curiosity and enthusiasm for the continent and its innovative capacities. Along the way, the projects manage to discard most of the baggage of generic sites, forms, materials, and climatic rules, those practices of modernism that have constructed a fiction regarding the settlement of Africa.

Rather than bringing an agenda to Africa, [A]FA focuses on reading and reacting to situations. These moments tend to emerge from encounters between the north and south, pauses in the circulation of practices and people from Africa to Austria and back again. With both partners simultaneously using the projects as ways to escape, settle, consolidate, or experiment, their common ground is the camp: an accommodation between nomadism and settlement that in the process, is shown to be a common global condition.

The specific objects of fascination of this lab are slippery things: the event, the social, the performative, textiles, liquids, wind, propagation, and education. These forces and the shapes they form are orchestrated by youth, but follow the wisdom of the experience of the elders with whom the lab typically seeks out an adoptive relationship. These individuals, whether they are Chief Salifu Mahama Tampurie, Petra Kron, or Faustin Linyekula, are at once deeply committed to the project sites and oriented towards a more distant horizon. Their collaboration with [A]FA hinges on the co-development of a sense of radical localness and absolute openness that lies between the affection for home and the dream of getting beyond its limitations. This apparent tension makes for unique, visionary, and yet entirely appropriate projects at each site.

The operating procedures of the lab seem to be unarticulated, but the presentations that they do convey the distinct self-consciousness and observational precision of migrants, whose skill is to scan the landscape for opportunities. The constant reassembly of student workers creates a band of nomad traders who bring a diverse set of skills, artifacts, amusements, and tales from place to place. As a collaboration between the north and south, there are issues of power at stake, particularly in the encounter between the voluntary and forced migratory paths of [A]FA and its clients. The mobility is, at worst, in one direction, given the significant cost of flights from Europe to Africa and back. But at best--and the chosen collaborators seem very shrewd when it comes to these opportunities--the foreign guests are hosted in exchange for the value that can be generated for their projects through visibility. In between these extremes, the substance of the projects lies in the conversations that serve a mutual end, which is the definition of a shared practice that spans between insider and outside knowledge.

The question of precision is critical to the success or failure of such projects, but it is unhinged from the idea of mechanical technique in favour of a direct, artisanal intelligence. In the context of material poverty within which [A]FA works, the cost of any waste is proportionally huge. At the same time, the potential of radical visions is also extremely valuable, as a way to overcome the inertia of social marginalization.

And so, in the end, [A]FA returns to the material of the modern avant-garde, layered with the contemporary forms of expressionist reading and inscription: theatrical and discursive exchanges, ephemeral constructions and images of the forces at play. In this return, the nomadism of the contemporary condition meets the change of Africa. This is the true route where A meets [A], and back again, forming a path on which the students follow in the footsteps of Baerbel and her mentor, Wolf, and his, and hers, and his, all the way back to that first moment of stepping out from the first place from where we all came and were never truly settled. 


HANNAH LE ROUX directs the architecture programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. As a writer, designer and researcher she explores the transformation of architecture through the agency of its users in Africa.