Image from performance 'Popcorn Urbansim' from AD-WO

Investigating the Diasporic Condition through Architecture // Emanuel Admassu

Emanuel Admassu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and is a founding partner of the AD-WO design practice based between Brooklyn and Providence together with Jen Wood. With over five years of teaching experience in multiple programs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation as well as at Rhode Island School of Design, Admassu has a resilient commitment to research. His recent body of work examined the constructed identities of urban markets in East Africa. Admassu is involved in the investigation of prospects and difficulties associated with the diasporic condition that is implemented through his research, teaching and design practice. In my interview with Admassu he tells me more about his background, research, as well as his involvement in African Mobilities.

Can you tell me more about your design practice, AD-WO?

We have been working on projects of various scales positioned throughout the world. A lot of it is driven by our discipline’s need to negotiate between radically different sensibilities. We are currently working on several projects in Ethiopia, that requires a lot of traveling and collaboration with local practices, cultures, building techniques and zoning codes. This forces us to develop different ways of communicating and materializing our ideas, and also challenges us to constantly learn from these contexts in order to develop a more ethical practice that works against the legacy of our discipline as an extension of imperialism.

We are interested in understanding architecture as the difference between its content and container. Therefore, for each project we have to carefully define what to absorb from the cultural and physical context and also what to introduce into that context.

You are engaged with investigating the opportunities and problems associated with the diasporic condition through your research, teaching and design practice, have come to any conclusions on the topic thus far?

I moved to the US as a teenager, and have been oscillating back and forth between my identity as an Ethiopian immigrant living in the US and an American citizen visiting Ethiopia. This instability has been highly productive for my research and design practices. I am part of a growing number of African immigrants living elsewhere, while focusing on African issues through their creative production.

This diasporic condition is creating interesting types of artists and designers who are able to consistently question and challenge how the continent is represented. This issue of mobility is not unique to Africans. I teach at a private institution in North America, where the student body is made up of a growing number of international students. Therefore, this idea of designing and thinking from afar is an integral part of my pedagogy. These are students who are being trained in the Western context with hopes of contributing to their places of origin.

Photography by Elad Sarig, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

What kind of conversations are taking place in your region relating to urban planning and architecture?

There are lots of debates about what it means to be a global architect today. We are currently experiencing an intensifying level of volatility, ranging from the wealth disparities in the global south, to the unapologetic bigotry that led to Trump, Brexit, etc. We have to develop strategies to resist and compromise these contemporary forms of tribalism.

Architecture is a civic project that provides platforms for the negotiation of differences. Nevertheless, the expansion of neoliberalism is making it difficult to design genuinely public buildings. Some architects are trying to do this through speculative, self-initiated projects, while others are venturing into the realm of design/build by establishing non-profit organizations. Since we are such a young practice, we have the luxury of experimenting with all of these models.

Do you have any new critiques on it?

My critique is against the tendency for architectural discourse to solely operate from the realm of criticism. The projective aspects of our discipline are being left behind as architects are increasingly seduced with the production of knowledge as the only way to act politically.

There is an honest commitment towards a heightened sense of environmental awareness. Although I am a big fan of these approaches, we are also interested in the more traditional ways of practicing architecture by analyzing and designing new spatial conditions.

I believe the lack of agency that is currently being experienced by architects is forcing them to undermine the power of our discipline: namely our ability to manipulate physical space. It is important to operate simultaneously through design and analysis. We are interested in the production of buildings just as much as we are interested in the production of books, lectures, and exhibitions.

How are these conversations imagining future cities?

We are fundamentally interested in exploring the ways in which architecture can move past the developer paradigm and begin to design new forms of communality. The typological research we are doing with urban markets is driven by an ambition to identify urban formations that resonate across different political, cultural and economic contexts. It is also driven by an interest in exploring different forms of representation. We have to invent new ways of drawing and talking about cities if we really want to capture the dynamism of contemporary cities in Africa.

Exhibition and gallery talk for Material as Social Construct as Material (MaSCaM) exhibition

What kind of schools of thought do you follow in relation to imaging cities?

I think we need to learn from other creative disciplines when it comes to imaging cities. The slowness of our discipline forces us to always play catchup when it comes to means of representation. But that lag also leaves ample time for selective sampling and translation. This is why we have been keen to collaborate with other visual artists.

I am currently working on a project with an art historian, Anita Bateman, called Where is Africa? by and large, it is an extended set of conversations (through interviews and upcoming symposia) with contemporary artists who are actively engaged in representing the continent of Africa both within and outside its geographic boundaries. It has been inspiring to discover how these painters, photographers, curators, and academics are using their respective disciplines to grapple with the uncertainties of the present moment.

Do you feel like having younger voices added to these conversations is having a positive impact and if so please explain?

Absolutely. It’s always interesting to think about generational shifts. I enjoy having conversations with my nephews (they’re both teenagers), just to understand their cultural reference points. They have a radically different relationship with images than I do, because a large chunk of their social life happens online. The growing influence of the digital realm is somewhat disconcerting to a discipline that typically develops drawings, images and text with hopes of eventually resulting in a physical intervention. Regardless, I also think this shift opens up new opportunities to not only engage with the physical object but to also design the ways it is being mediated, disseminated, and experienced in digital space.

How do you feel about being a part of African Mobilities?

It was really refreshing to participate in an international event about African cities that centers African students’ interests and interpretations. It is an intelligent model for cultivating a Pan-African conversation about design and urbanism. It was also rewarding to observe what the students and artists appreciated about the city and the market.

From the outset, it was clear that the project was designed with an awareness of the asymmetries and pitfalls associated with projects that attempt to make Africa knowable to a Western audience. The format, the premise, and the participants of African Mobilities were selected to eschew typical, myopic interpretations and clichés. Workshops followed by a series of lectures on architecture, photography, and painting allowed us to have complex and difficult conversations about disciplinary boundaries and ethical concerns. I am looking forward to the exhibition and publication!

Below is an excerpt from animation by Ezra Wube of an on-going research project by AD–WO.


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