an installation by kate otten architects

Venice Architecture Biennale 2023

The Laboratory of the Futurecurated by Lesley Lokko

in the section titled “Dangerous Liaisons

Hosted by La Biennale di Venezia, La Biennale Architecturra is one of the world’s most prestigious architectural events, attracting a multitude of diverse academics, practitioners, writers and critics from around the world, to present, discuss and debate a broad range of ideas through the architectural lens. The curator of this year’s exhibition is Scottish-Ghanian architect, academic and novelist, Professor Lesley Lokko OBE - the first Black architect appointed by La Biennale di Venezia to lead the event.  Kate Otten Architects is honoured to have been invited to participate in this prestigious event. 

In response to the invitation and brief from the curator, Lesley Lokko, and through the lens of how we conceptualise and make architecture, we have designed a piece called ‘threads’.  This architectural installation tells a visual story of Johannesburg, the city where our work as architects takes place.  It is a story about how gold came to be here, the mining thereof and the outcomes of this process, narrated by women through different weavings and readings that describe this long history.

We have designed, crafted and drawn the various parts of the piece and then worked closely with two creative collectives, namely The Herd Designs and Frances vH, for the realisation of the work.  It speaks to our intuitive and collaborative mode of making architecture where colour, light and pattern are important elements in our expression as well as the tactile act of making by hand. ‘threads’offers different ways of seeing, creating new opportunities for making place for the future that nurtures the human spirit.

The golden thread of Johannesburg’s history started some two billion years ago when a massive meteorite crashed into the earth approximately 100kms south of the city sending debris and gold deposits flying, which eventually came to rest in an arc-shaped ridge radiating from the Vredefort Dome – now a world heritage site.  The discovery of this gold in 1886, and the gold rush that followed, led to the establishment of Johannesburg and the start of a Dangerous Liaison - between land and people, between great wealth and exploitation. 

Unlike a linear, patriarchal recording, ‘threads’ tells a story that is a simultaneous, intuitive reading of landscape and social geographies, told through age-old traditions of craft and making by hand.  

There are many readings of this work including an anthropological one where the mohair tapestry is a cloak to wrap the body, the beadwork a necklace to adorn it. The cloak is simultaneously a sociological mapping of the surface landscape and topography where green spaces correspond to privileged, wealthy areas and tree-less areas to poor neighbourhoods, with mining waste dividing the two. Gold mines are represented by yellow pompoms and water courses by blue threads. A round loom was specifically designed for the piece so that the radial nature of the explosion could be represented.  

The beaded necklace is an astrological reading of the night sky above the Vredefort Dome depicting the milky way and constellations.  Through this reading, the extracted gold is claimed as an African artefact rather than a commodity to be exported abroad.  The glass beads were carefully chosen for colour and consistency and the direction and change of direction of the pattern of threading meticulously ordered to achieve the desired asymmetrical shapes.

The backdrop to the work is a contour map showing the mining towns found along the arc-shaped ridge.  The piece is lit from above marking shadows on the floor that represent the geology of the area and inscribe it in a circle, defining a space between the floor and weavings.   This 3-dimensional, immersive space invites the viewer to experience the piece from above and below, from ‘inside’ and from ‘outside’ as one would any built work of architecture.