Journey through South Africa’s Architectural Legacy: Biennale Architettura 2023 Showcases Innovation and Cultural Fusion


Step into a world where architecture becomes a vibrant expression of a nation’s spirit and innovation at the La Biennale di Venezia, South African Pavilion.


The 18th International Architecture Exhibition, known as La Biennale di Venezia, has opened its doors in the mesmerising city of Venice, Italy. Drawing architects and enthusiasts from every corner of the globe, this prestigious event offers a captivating glimpse into the future of architectural design. Amidst this awe-inspiring gathering of visionaries, South Africa emerges as a beacon of ingenuity, showcasing its architectural prowess and unveiling creative solutions to contemporary challenges. With the overall theme of the Biennale Architettura being “The Laboratory of the Future,” and the South African Pavilion’s theme specifically focusing on “The Structure of a People,” prepare to be enthralled as we embark on a journey through South Africa’s participation at the Biennale Architettura 2023, where the boundaries of imagination are pushed to their limits.


At the heart of South Africa’s showcase lies a profound exploration of the nation’s rich indigenous knowledge systems, woven together with forward-thinking design principles. As the theme “The Structure of a People” takes centre stage, visitors are invited to immerse themselves in a world where heritage and innovation converge. Stepping inside the pavilion, one is enveloped by a tapestry of architectural brilliance, which pays homage to the intricate blend of influences that have shaped South Africa’s development throughout the centuries. From the graceful forms of indigenous dwellings to the imposing grandeur of colonial architecture, South Africa’s architectural heritage stands as a testament to the harmonious fusion of African, European, and Asian styles. It is within this fusion that the nation’s unique architectural identity emerges, celebrating diversity and reflecting the vibrant multiculturalism that defines the very essence of South Africa. Importantly, South Africa stands for diversity, Ubuntu,(the spirit of generosity) and inspiration. It is a country  full of passion,  talent, innovation and numerous opportunities. As a country we are at a stage where we are brave enough to confront our challenges  to ensure that we build a brave, bright and inspiring future for generations to come.


The theme “The Structure of a People” within the South African Pavilion explores how architecture has shaped social structures and communities. It emphasises the potential of indigenous knowledge systems to offer solutions for global challenges. By incorporating traditional African architectural elements into contemporary designs, South African architects preserve cultural identity and foster a sense of pride and belonging among the population. As part of the Biennale Architettura 2023’s overarching theme, “The Laboratory of the Future,” curator Lesley Lokko positions the continent of Africa as a protagonist in shaping the future of architecture. The South African Pavilion aligns perfectly with this vision, as it delves deep into the sub-theme “The Structure of a People,” creating an immersive experience that showcases the power of architectural design to transform lives and communities.


The South African Pavilion was conceptualised through three cohesive exhibitions, with each zone offering a unique perspective on “The Structure of a People.” Three esteemed curators, Dr. Nkambule, Dr. Maape, and Mr. Steyn, were tasked with bringing these exhibitions to life, infusing them with their distinct expertise and creative vision. To enhance the overall experience, approximately four tonnes of black rope, locally made in South Africa, were used to create an interplay of light and dark between the zones, resulting in a coherent and integrated exhibition experience.


Let’s delve into the three zones and discover the captivating exhibits that await visitors:


Zone 1: The Past is the Laboratory of the Future


This zone takes us on a journey through time, exploring pre-colonial southern African societies with a particular focus on the Bokoni people. Through the study of stone carvings and architectural remnants, visitors gain insights into how architecture played a pivotal role in shaping the social fabric of these communities. The exhibition showcases the remarkable resilience and ingenuity of these early architects, providing a glimpse into the intricate systems that sustained their way of life.


Zone 2: The Council of (non-human) Beings


In this zone, visitors are invited to engage with contemporary drawings inspired by African philosophy. Dr. Maape challenges prevailing notions by critiquing Negritude and introducing non-western traditions of thought into architecture. Through his concept of “Kuru-mytho-futurism,” he seamlessly weaves elements of African vitality and indigenous knowledge systems into the fabric of architectural design. This thought-provoking exhibition sparks conversations on the interconnectedness of humanity, nature, and architecture.


Zone 3: Political Animals


Curator Mr. Steyn showcases the results of a national competition targeted at South African architecture schools. Lecturers and students were tasked with creating architectural models that represent the curricular and organisational structures of their schools. The exhibition proudly presents six student models or artifacts, each offering a unique perspective on social structures and sparking conversations on the role of architecture in shaping our communities. This zone serves as a platform for emerging talent and highlights the innovative thinking that is shaping the future of South African architecture.


South Africa’s participation at the Biennale Architettura 2023 provides a captivating opportunity to celebrate the nation’s architectural talent and creativity on a global stage. As visitors engage with the thought-provoking exhibits within the South African Pavilion, they become part of a collective dialogue on architectural solutions for the future. It is an invitation to imagine, innovate, and explore the boundless possibilities of architecture as a transformative force in shaping our world. The South African Pavilion at the Biennale Architettura 2023 is a testament to the collaborative efforts of visionary curators, architects, and creatives who have seamlessly woven together heritage and innovation, demonstrating the immense potential of architecture to inspire and impact lives.


Our people remain a huge asset as they continue to be such an inspiration especially when considering how they have played their part in showcasing why South Africa inspires new and different ways. This ranges from the Mama Esther who painted UK and US in IsiNdebele art, to Laduma Ngxokolo who made Brazilians insane with his IsiXhosa fashion wear.


As you embark on your journey through the South African Pavilion, prepare to be captivated by the rich tapestry of architectural brilliance, the harmonious blending of cultural influences, and the transformative power of indigenous knowledge systems. South Africa’s participation at the Biennale Architettura 2023 promises to be an experience that leaves a lasting impression, igniting a passion for architectural innovation and a deeper appreciation for the role of architecture in shaping our future.