Writing Emanuel Admassu
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2021–ongoing Serpentine Galleries: Art & Ideas

Counterimage

A founding partner of AD—WO and Assistant Professor at Columbia GSAPP, Emanuel Admassu’s teaching, research, and design practices examine international constellations of Afrodiasporic spaces. Inspired by Serpentine’s 2021 Pavilion, designed by Counterspace, Admassu constructed a response drawing and essay reflecting on the ubiquitous and ephemeral nature of representation and constructing diasporic spaces.

“We have been trying to theorize identity as constituted, not outside but within representation; …not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exits, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak.” — Stuart Hall[1]

Counterspace’s Serpentine Pavilion reassembles a network of diasporic spaces across London. The project provokes me to consider a series of questions: How do we account for, model, and design diasporic spaces in the twenty-first century? Are these spaces of assimilation or dissimilation? Do they maintain echoes of an origin, places we came from but can never return to? As an Ethiopian immigrant, who, at this point in time, has lived the majority of his life in the United States, I’m constantly looking for echoes of the African continent: the various ways in which ‘Africa’ reifies its presence elsewhere. I find it relatively easy to trace echoes of the continent in music, fashion, painting, sculpture, and even film. But these aesthetic diffusions have been somewhat elusive in the realm of architecture—designed on or off the continent. Maybe because the epistemological enclosures of architectural pedagogy and practice have taught us to represent power instead of refusing its hold on our imagination.

By relying on specific narratives of migration and abstraction, Counterspace’s project counters tropes that essentialize African urbanism as an aberration that can only be understood through notions of “informality” or valorize ‘Britishness’ as a marker for a type of multiculturalism disentangled from the machinations of the British Empire. The design was generated from a tactful translation of everyday spaces: community centers, restaurants, places of worship, and beauty salons that have gained significance because they provide spaces for people who remain unsettled. People whose very presence challenges hegemonic notions of identity, citizenship or belonging. It is an attempt to count what philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe might call “discounted bodies.”[2] For example, one of the reference images used to deliver the project on Counterspace’s website is a photograph of a striped pink and white tarpaulin loosely draped over two ambiguous forms, one slightly shorter than the other. A much taller, and seemingly more permanent brick building forms the background. This juxtaposition of temporality and permanence, the stall and the building, brick and tarpaulin, could be read as an emblematic image of diasporic space-making—a sublime environment that is about prefiguration instead of preservation. A counterimage to architecture’s pretentions of timelessness.

The project’s unapologetic interest in form, materiality, and texture demonstrates an attempt to gather a global constellation of spaces. From a disciplinary standpoint, it could also be read as a return to phenomenology without its apolitical implications. [3] More specifically, unlike a previous generation of architects—influenced by theorists like Juhani Pallasmaa—who considered the experiential aspects of architecture without the messiness of power and subjectivity, Counterspace’s projects such as the Serpentine Pavilion 2021 and Folded Skies (2019) offer meditations on ontological conditions produced from coloniality and extraction.

What I find most fascinating about the project is its critical awareness of the fact that representation is always incomplete. It can never fully capture the nuances, topographies, rituals, subjects and power structures that make up the ever-shifting communities and spaces that it is drawing from. Therefore, it is an acknowledgement of limits, approached not through didacticism but through a sense of openness. Countering spaces and images is an active position against the placeless-ness that has dominated contemporary architectural discourse—a discourse that remains oblivious to its positionality in place and time.

At a moment marked by various racial, financial, and ecological regimes of displacement and dispossession, it seems apt to lead with an image that places movement and negation in front of the seemingly immutable façade of Western architecture. In other words, designing diasporic spaces simply starts by acknowledging their immeasurable presence in London, Johannesburg, New York, Atlanta, Accra, Addis Ababa, Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai and everywhere in between; moving architecture away from nihilism and irrelevance into a practice that is committed to dismantling and reconstructing the spaces and ideas that continue to shape us.

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Notes

  • Author:
    Emanuel Admassu,
  • References :

    [1] Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-37.

    [2] “Wars on mobility are wars whose aim is to turn discounted bodies into borders.” See Bangstad, Sindre and Nilsen, Torbjørn Tumyr (2019, September 5). Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe. New Frame. https://www.newframe.com/thoughts-on-the-planetary-an-interview-with-achille-mbembe/ Also see Mbembe, Achille. “Bodies as Borders,” in From the European South, Issue 4 (2019): 10.

    [3] Brown, Adrienne. “The Architecture of Racial Phenomena,” in Log, No. 42, Disorienting Phenomenology (Winter/Spring 2018), pp. 27-33.

  • Image:

    Drawing by AD—WO inspired by the 2021 Pavilion