Spatial Education and the Future of African Cities: An Interview with Matri-Archi

Led by architectural designers Khensani de Klerk and Solange Mbanefo, Matri-Archi is a collective based between Switzerland and South Africa that aims to bring African women together for the development of spatial education in African cities. Through design practice, writing, podcasts, and other initiatives, Matri-Archi — one of ArchDaily's Best New Practices of 2021 — focuses on the recognition and empowerment of women in the spatial field and architectural industry.

ArchDaily had the opportunity to talk to the co-directors of the collective on hegemonic space, informal architecture, technology, local idiosyncrasies, and the future of African and global cities. Read the full interview below.

ArchDaily: You frequently talk about an Intersectional Space and the need for it in order to achieve progressive development in Africa. Can you tell us more about this Intersectional Space? How do we catalyze it?

Matri-Archi: To begin, we have to acknowledge the historical root of intersectionality, originally cited in 1989 by African American lawyer and critical race theorist Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, as a term describing the overlooked colliding dynamics and traits within discriminated identity groups which assert their disadvantage through multiple sources of oppression including race, class, gender, religion and other identity characteristics. Furthermore, institutional structures play a consequential role as vehicles inflicting vulnerability and discrimination through the withholding of power and exclusion of non-dominant members of society.

Can you name ten world-renowned examples of black, African architects who are women?

We present this rhetorical question as an introduction to contextualize the urgency of the contemporary condition to recognize the ongoing crisis palpable through intersectional failures across geopolitical social constructs, particularly within the architectural realm. In this sense, we see intersectional space as a response, reacting to the paradigm shift of transformation towards socially and ecologically sustainable futures in the built environment. 

For Matri-Archi, Intersectional Space is both part of context and action. The ever-present globalizing context that we live in is undeniably growing in diversity with the layering of cultures and socio-political strata hosted by the built environment. In this sense, the space we refer to is a resulting overlap of discursive, digital, and physical; affected and often informed by design.

Matri-Archi embraces a collective drive to dismantle, repair, and evaluate failures that are blocking our profession’s potential to celebrate and develop diversity within spatial education and practice. Through occupying and creating Intersectional Space, design can foster symbiotic relationships with human interactions reflecting a polycentric heterogeneous landscape wherein idiosyncratic ideas continually catalyze non-discriminatory shared futures. 

Spatial Education and the Future of African Cities: An Interview with Matri-Archi - Image 2 of 5
Home; Illustration by Matri-Archi(tecture). Graphic design: Kizzy Memani, Phathu Nembilwi

AD: Your work at Matri-Archi explores the realm of spatial education. What do you mean by spatial education and why is it so important for the development of cities in Africa?

MA: As we see it, spatial education is the cornerstone of exploring, appreciating, and shaping the built environment. Academia has been commodified in the contemporary capitalist condition, born out of historical colonial and empirical injustices. It is therefore inevitable that design tools and theories, historical content, construction methods, and other mediums of knowledge acquisition, assimilation, and reproduction of the built environment do not favor the development of African urban futures. 

This troubling narrative is voided to the point of absence on the institutional scale who roll out formal development through architecture, planning, education, and construction. In contrast, spatial quality is determined by its users - how they occupy, how they use, and how they treat spaces. Anyone who interacts with the built environment is a user and contributor to the quality of that space. 

This brings to the fore a harsh reality in that the majority of the users in urban conditions live below the poverty line in climatic and cultural conditions excluded from mainstream discourse. As members of Matri-Archi who work across multiple geographies, we use our occupation of both margin and center within educational institutions between the Global North - Global South binary with intentions to expand intersectional space. How? We use existing resources in restricted spaces as a means of increasing recognition of diversity in architectural praxis and in doing so attempting to reflect the diverse world we live in, stretching and exploding this problematic binary in itself.

In this sense, we see spatial education as a tool to increase qualitative interventions in the development of future urban African communities. 

AD: Do you think the labels that set up the formal as effective and the informal as ineffective emerges in line with the fact that most architecture projects have the purpose of establishing a supposed “order” that is not found in informality? In other words, is it necessary to slander the informal so that it is possible to maintain control of the bodies?

MA: For us, this question is rhetorical, and often exhausting in having to justify. Although, indeed, the lack of any alternative perception of informality creates an ongoing architectural brief to map intangible phenomena driving informal markets, and informal lives – of which the majority of the world population live in. More so, this should be a point of responsibility to those living in formal conditions and institutions in that human and environmental resources from the informal world maintain the profits and status quo of the formal world. Without the exploitation of poor communities, the historical development of the Global North would cease to exist and so would contemporary inequality. To attempt to remedy inequality and historical injustice, which we see as working in reverse, is to depart from understanding informality spatially.

Architecture, as both a projective and servicing profession, will eventually need to respond to the growing pressures and needs of the supposed informal world which will constitute the majority of the urban population by 2050. 

From our investigations of urban nomadic patterns in Johannesburg, with a particular focus on the infrastructural needs of women trading at informal transport nodes; we see informal markets as systems too, that are extremely creative in channeling and mobilizing people, goods, and services in completely alternative and often unregistered ways. The mere existence of such systems highlights one of the many cracks in our belief that formality is normative.

In time, these systems will increasingly intersect to an uncontrollable point, defining the role of spatial practitioners and researchers as socially competent and pluri-disciplinary, which we find exciting. Our persistent attempts at challenging these systemic binaries hope to encourage a shift from design that shies away from the complexity of informality, into a design that is proactive in optimizing aspects of informality that can result in actively promoting spatial dignity, which will eventually become an incentive if population trajectories indeed ring true. 

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Exploring our knowledge(s); illustration by Matri-Archi(tecture). Graphic design: Kizzy Memani, Phathu Nembilwi

AD: Informal architecture maintains greater freedom of change in the built object which, in some way, can be more easily adapted to different occasions. What can architects learn from them and how can they intervene in it - if there is such need - without disfiguring its main characteristics?

MA: To echo Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects, “Vernacular Architecture does not go through fashion cycles. It is nearly immutable, indeed, unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection.”

We would agree that architectural forms derive from an informal improvisation of utilizing and interacting with the environment. In anthropology, the term “culture patterns” elaborates how the natural repetition of an act turns it into a habit. If proven more effective and/or superior to other tendencies, it becomes a socially encouraged practice, a culture, a norm, and eventually, a methodology that is thereafter taught to subsequent generations. The art, craft, or science of teaching departed from informal testing before being nominated to the static hall of historical dogma. In other words, a common characteristic of the informal is flux. The patterns that could eventually define a specific built object are still morphing, presenting room for us to embrace the challenge of creative freedom.

The needs of people and communities are one of the best indicators that determine design parameters, particularly looking to the potential multi-skilled responsiveness and impact of spatial practice. Market analyses often assist in the success of developments through projections, wherein we see architects using their skills to service populations as clients through participatory work. In this sense, the way in which we perceive design becomes more considerate of the lives that interventions implicate. For us, such processes require on-going, non-extractive communication with users who not only use informal infrastructures but create and maintain how effective they are. As young architects in the profession, we remain passionate about experimenting with many versions of the same (informal) solution, maintaining a dynamism to our processes and outputs. We believe that our creative translation skills and professional competencies to design can transform and amplify the already functional energy of informal systems into ecologically sustainable and socially responsible systems.

Formalizing informal systems is by no means our goal, as many formal systems are perched on ecologically unsustainable and socially abusive practices.

We simply hope to remind other spatial practitioners that there is joy in architecture as a social profession and that every line and word that we legitimize through our work has implications on society. The informality of our current case studies is an invitation to think more about new lifestyles and habits that have not yet to be addressed in the architectural sphere. As we see spatial practitioners take on the creative challenge of working within informal geographies, we are hopeful that architecture as a profession can finally evolve into establishing multi-qualitative standards that meet the moment of complexity. Clients, commissioners, and formal markets ought to get on board with this reality.

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Peeling Away at Patriarchy; illustration by Matri-Archi(tecture). Graphic design: Kizzy Memani, Phathu Nembilwi

AD: The relation between technology and local idiosyncrasies is further explored in an article you published on Matri-Archi website, and also on ArchDaily. In that feature, you analyze the role of new digital technologies, such as BIM, and the need for critical, positive thinking towards local cultural aspects. Do you think a possible alternative for African cities’ development can be found in this crossing? How?

MA: The first thing to consider before answering this question completely is why one should put the case of African cities in a special compartment in relation to the future of the built environment that works with technology through the guidance of local idiosyncrasies.

Once we break down the superiority complex of the Eurocentric point of view and start recognizing all forms of human existence, histories, technological advancement, and education on an equal level of impact to our global economy, the question starts unfolding a new mindset to examining issues.  

Technology derives from the early 17th-century greek term for systematic treatment: tekhnologia. Where Tekhne refers to art or craft. When technology is used as a tool to systematically enhance the overall efficiency and quality of life, things tend to go faster, get smaller, become lighter, and last longer, etc. The use of resources has bounced into the third industrial revolution where we now function in an inflated economy, driven by the emotional value we attribute to things. Meaning, the actual price of the raw material or resources used to produce a product is no longer in linear coherence to what it is worth. With this in mind, the potential of technological development is bringing a new school of thought to how we engage with it as a tool. 

We are currently living in an era where spatial design is evolving from Computer-Aided Design (CAD) towards the arrival of the Information age of design, such as BIM, generative design, computational modeling, etc. The fact that standardization and affordability have been driving the developments of the contemporary built environment does not mean that these are the only way forward. As contemporaries experiencing these many transitions, the information age and the new economy of knowledge exchange have broadened our horizons to seek beyond our comfort zones, explore the unknown, and challenge the rigid institutional and social systems that are outdated. Therefore, the question of being able to think about possible alternative future cities is a question that all spatial, political, architectural, urban, and design practitioners should look to, openly, because it is inevitable that new, more technological, and interconnected ways of living have already become the new normal. 

The case for cities on the African continent is paradoxically promising and worrying due to the immensity of the task. Most African nations have experienced around only 60 years of so-called independence whilst still being heavily influenced by the current geopolitical mess that drives global markets. On the promising side, this sets the tone for digital revolutions underpinned by a radical pursuit to appreciate our histories, cultures, languages, ecosystems, resources, and future generations’ experiences of the world in all of these aspects. There is no strict agenda on how the emancipation of Afrofuturistic cities should/will occur. However, it is a process that necessitates a more holistic movement for Africans by Africans and essentially returning to the Egalitarianism philosophy of central and equal origin from the continent.  

AD: What paths should be taken to break the colonial and hegemonic thinking present in architecture?

MA: We cannot claim to know or totalize a definitive action list that can break the dominant forces – both colonial and hegemonic – ingrained in our mode of living today, which is capitalistic. We believe that in order to affect change as individuals, recognition and constant reflection of how we occupy positions in and of institutions is fundamental, given the growingly individualistic world we live in as a result of digital social media. In the recent ETH Zurich Parity Talks V that we were invited to give a guest lecture and collaborate in running a workshop with, we emphasized these paths in an ongoing process of alteration, transformation, and diversity. 

We understand diversity as a liberating symbiosis between dimensions of the tangible (physical) and the intangible (abstract, discursive freedom of human thought). Recognizing (by authorship and finance) the interests, labor, and energy of individuals and initiatives currently focusing on diversity through critical thinking and creative problem solving can be a way to action institutional commitment. Such individuals and initiatives become channels capable of doing transformative prototyping without the barriers coded into the DNA of institutions that were intentionally designed to resist change outside of hegemonic norms. We believe that incorporation through collaboration and not re-creating the wheel, are ways in which we might witness and initiate change, hopefully for a fraction of our lifetime and for the lives of communities who continue to suffer at the expense of spatial conditions of which architects can, and should respond to. 

We invite you to check out ArchDaily's comprehensive coverage of the curated selection of 2021 New Practices. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you want to nominate a certain studio, firm, or architect, for the 2022 New Practices please submit your suggestions.

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Cite: Romullo Baratto. "Spatial Education and the Future of African Cities: An Interview with Matri-Archi" 04 May 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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Background photograph courtesy of Charlie Hui, Viswerk. 2020


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