In May of this year, Low Design Office assembled and presented a pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. DK Osseo-Asare and Ryan Bollom, AIA, led their team in the design-build process. Their work at the Venice Architecture Biennale is the culmination of more than a decade of community-based research into modular bamboo construction systems. The pavilion will be on display from May 20 to November 26 as part of the Arsenale, curated by Lesley Lokko, who is also serving as the curator for the entire Biennale this year. Writer Abigail Thomas spoke with Osseo-Asare and Bollom about the experience of designing for the Venice Biennale. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Abigail Thomas: To begin, could you explain the Venice Biennale and its theme this year?
DK Osseo-Asare: The theme this year is in two parts. The title is “The Laboratory of the Future,” and the intent here is to drive something that will live beyond the Biennale itself. It’s not just about what you get when you come and see things here, but how this can be a platform for precipitating other things in the future.
The other half of it is that it’s very much themed around Africa. The curator, Lesley Lokko, is Scottish-Ghanaian but also a dame in the United Kingdom. She has been very outspoken about how challenging it has been to showcase Africa at the Venice Biennale. In many historical contexts, there was this notion that Black people existed just to produce labor — not to be the beneficiaries of arts and culture, just to contribute to them. The current demographic projections by the UN tell us that birth rates are declining across the world, and the only place that’s still growing at a high rate is Africa. So the current projection is that, by the end of this century, more than one in three people in the world will be African. The future is African. And I think that’s why Lesley made the Venice Biennale about Africa.
I think it’s a particularly interesting Biennale because it’s bringing to the fore a lot of the tensions that are simmering beneath the surface around the world. But beyond that, we’re mostly focused on just helping make people’s lives better. We’re excited to be here because our work has been a bridge between Texas and Africa. It’s why we call ourselves “the transatlantic studio.” We’re excited to showcase some of the work we’ve been developing that is in dialogue with work in Texas. It shows how we’re thinking about the future and how we can play a role in Africa’s future in terms of the diaspora.
AT: What was the selection and proposal process like for getting your design into the Biennale?
DO: We received an invitation email that said the curator of the Biennale had been following our work and found it something that could make sense as part of what she’s trying to curate. Then there was a whole series of submissions where we started with a very succinct conceptual proposal — just a few words and an image — and the project evolved from that point in conversation between us and the curatorial team of the Biennale.
AT: How involved was Lesley Lokko in the process of developing this project?
DO: I think that Lesley has been unbelievably involved because the Venice Biennale is enormous. There’s the country pavilions and the central pavilion, and she added a number of additional events this year. It’s a huge production with so many moving parts, and so from my interactions with her, she’s been incredibly involved. That said, she had a whole team of curatorial assistants distributed around the world, so we worked primarily with the assistant curatorial team. We weren’t meeting with her directly. Although, for some of our submissions, she would send a letter with very specific feedback that we would then incorporate.
Ryan Bollom, AIA: And I think we were very lucky, too, that we were a part of her “special projects.” We are a part of her own curation, as opposed to the country pavilions. So I think that provided a lot of freedom for our proposal that maybe we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
DO: That’s true. And I could also add that I was the architect of the Ghana pavilion at the Art Biennale last year. Ghana has not yet had a pavilion at the Architecture Biennale, but it was the second time that Ghana had a pavilion at the Art Biennale. The first time was in 2019, and the architect was David Adjaye. We did a follow-up for David with the same curator, Nana Oforiatta Ayim. In 2021, she developed a new vision for the future of Ghana’s museums, monuments, and natural heritage. The government of Ghana just recently reclassified this highest tier of natural heritage as part of the museum structure. I wrote the chapter on the future of museums for Ghana as a pan-African vision. Based on that initial set of ideas and conversations, she then invited me to do the pavilion last year. It was a real honor for us.
Lesley saw the pavilion last year, so she was very keen for an opportunity to revisit what we had originally proposed. That’s why this year’s pavilion recycles the physical components of last year’s Ghana pavilion. We redeployed and modified them in a number of different ways this year. It’s a big honor for us, but it’s also tiring. The metaphor I always give is it’s like you just finished doing the winter Olympics, and then you turn around and do the summer Olympics. We spent all of last year doing the Art Biennale, and then suddenly we’re back again to do the Architecture Biennale.
AT: How did that idea of continuity impact your inspiration or the different components of your proposal?
DO: Going back many years, we’ve had a lot of interest in — as you know by the name of our firm — lowness. In the world of architecture, minimalism is usually understood as beautiful and simple white furniture in a white room. But those aesthetic ideas about what is minimal don’t always take sustainability into account. If you really want to think about something that’s minimal, you have to think about things like carbon footprint or your impact on the environment. We have a lot of interest in bamboo because it’s a carbon sink, so it actually sucks more carbon out of the environment than you end up using to turn it into a building, in certain cases. Even in regions that have historically used bamboo, the material has not always transitioned effectively into the vocabulary of modern architecture, mainly because every stick of bamboo is different. They’re non-standard. With lumber in the U.S., the trees are all different, but you go through a lot of procedures to end up with dimensional lumber. These same processes are just beginning for bamboo. That’s why in Nigeria and Ghana, we were working experimentally with bamboo and trying to solve this fundamental problem of how to take a non-standard bioproduct and turn it into standardized elements for construction.
RB: DK has been working on this technology since his undergrad thesis 20 years ago and continued to develop it in his graduate thesis. Taking it to the next step happened in 2019, when we were finalists for MoMA PS1. The modules were first introduced at that point, and we started to figure out the technology for how to put this thing together quickly and smartly and efficiently. We worked with Drophouse Design to develop the joints. Christian Klein and Matt Satter helped make prototypes of the first joints and figured out how to fit them together. We had our proposal for the first prototype, and there’s been several other iterations since then. There’s a number of different systems involved, and each one has evolved over time with each iteration.
DO: These structures, we call them fufuzela. It’s a neologism that’s trying to underscore the shared history that Africa has. If you watched the World Cup when it was in South Africa, they had what looked like plastic trumpets — they’re called vuvuzela — and they just make one sound. Traditionally they were understood as ecclesiastical instruments, used in religious ceremonies. So they had a certain role that they played within society. Africa is very much connected to sounds. Many cultures historically, at least in West Africa, would also use drums to communicate information between different areas. And in West Africa there’s a food called fufu, which is like a dough of pounded yam, cassava, or plantain. Different groups of people have their own recipe, and you normally eat it with a kind of soup or stew. You eat as a group in a way that brings people together. It’s very emblematic of African culture. It’s also representative of how close people are to the land. We put these words together to talk about an architecture of community.
We also understand them as embryos of a future architecture which is alive and sentient and mobile. Sometimes people find it very strange when we talk about that. But in many African understandings of reality, everything that is physical is considered to be spiritually active. We might talk about the human soul, but in many African cultures everything that is material has a soul or spirit energy. That means that a stone is alive, and a river is alive, and a mountain is alive. It’s a bit meta for a lot of mainstream architecture, but that’s why we see this as a long-term project of discovery and experimentation. But we do talk about the fufuzela as a living structure.
AT: I know you just now finished the installation process over in Venice. Were there any challenges that came up, or anything that worked particularly well due to your prototyping process?
DO: Our main challenge was logistical. It’s always tricky to move a bunch of people between different countries. Also, we do design-build, so we built our pavilion. A lot of other architects relied on local contractors or technicians, but for the most part we built it ourselves. We had two or three days, with a bit of help from a few technicians. We came here with bags full of power tools and started cutting and making and building.
Beyond that, what did help us is the fact that we have been doing this in a massively iterative way. Like Ryan said, I’ve spent years just building things with no budget in a forest in Nigeria or different neighborhoods in Ghana in a flexible, freeform, experimental way. That helped us to understand the materiality of bamboo and its peculiarities. Since 2019, when we were finalists for MoMA PS1, we’ve been building and experimenting and iterating. France had a national arts and culture intervention called “Africa 2020,” which was looking at the unique relationship that France has had historically — and continues to have — with Africa. We were commissioned to design a microuniversity that was somehow mobile. There, we made the first two full-scale prototypes of the fufuzela.
The fufuzela from France then traveled to Germany and were re-exhibited there. We also used digital fabrication equipment to produce components for that exhibition in Germany. After Germany, the structures then traveled to Senegal for the Dak’Art Biennale, and they are now in Ghana. The components of the one made with computer-controlled fabrication equipment became the Ghana pavilion in Venice last year. Those same elements were repurposed this year for the Architecture Biennale. Doing this series of exhibitions allowed us to have many microtests for different design aspects. We are now sharing it as an open-source technology that anyone can use.
AT: As a conscious choice made by the curator, most of the participants in “The Laboratory of the Future” are small firms or individual designers. What is the significance of giving this large platform not only to designers speaking to Africa and African diaspora, but also to smaller designers within that group?
DO: I think one of the things that’s really at the core of our work is we believe that high design and high art, at the end of the day, are always made by people. Architecture is built by people, but sometimes the folks from the building industry tend to be cut out. I think because we also build, we see everyone as collaborators: clients, other architects, and the tradesfolk we work with to put buildings together. We’re saying that architecture has to be understood as something that is collaborative and involves lots of different people from different walks of life. We’re saying that architecture is not just about architects; it involves the whole industry.
In terms of our exhibition, the main structure is playing a film on two screens, and there’s a series of drawings along the walls where we’re partly explaining our process of collaboration and partly showing the blueprints of this open-source technology. In a weird way, the screen is a form of communication. Through the screens, the structures are able to tell you a story. One of the drawings on the wall is of the fufuzela. In this drawing, we’re showing how it’s a prototype of an architecture which is not fixed in place. Normally, architecture begins with a foundation and then you build up from there. But here, this is actually self-structural — you can reorient it because it has no up; it has no front; it has no top. It can turn itself into any configuration.
AT: By showcasing this open-source technology through the pavilion and your drawings, what do you hope that people who see the structure — and the technology behind it — take away from the experience?
DO: I know this sounds grandiose, but in a way, the fufuzela are a prototype for an entirely new world of architecture. So much of architecture is built up from the DNA of the box, but the fufuzela is built up from the DNA of a sphere. So it leads to an entirely different species of structural systems. It’s hard to understand from drawings, but when you’re physically in the space, you experience what it means to be in a spherical space. It’s very different. There are no corners, and sound resonates because it doesn’t have corners to die away in. It’s definitely a new species of architectural and structural language. I think the main story of the fufuzela is that it’s a scaffolding for architectural experimentation. The hope is that when people see it, some will consciously seek it out and others may be unconsciously influenced. We see ourselves as people who want to make the future positive for everyone. We hope to build more bridges between communities and also between Africa and other places like the U.S.
Abigail Thomas works at McKinney York Architects in Austin.