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Venice Biennale to Spotlight Architects from Africa and the African Diaspora

By V.L. Hendrickson
Thu, May 18, 2023 8:39amGrey Clock 2 min

The 18th edition of Venice Biennale di Architettura, dubbed The Laboratory of the Future, is set to kick off Saturday in the Italian city. This year, for the first time, the event will showcase sustainable designs from architects from Africa and the African diaspora.

Titled Guests of the Future, the exhibition’s theme is decolonization and decarbonization, and will highlight projects that have found architectural solutions for issues ranging from sustainable materials to housing issues to erased histories, according to the Ford Foundation, which, along with Bloomberg Philanthropies, is supporting the architects’ international travel to the event.

“As is the case with many elite gatherings and institutions, access to entry has been high, leaving a diverse pool of talent from displaying their expertise, and we’re hoping this will help open doors for other innovators in architecture and design from all backgrounds well into the future,” the Ford Foundation said in a statement.

This year’s Biennale, which runs through November, is curated by Ghanaian-Scottish architect, professor and novelist Lesley Lokko, who is also the founder of the African Futures Institute, established in Accra, Ghana.

“New technologies continuously appear and disappear giving us unfiltered glimpses of life in parts of the globe we will likely never visit, much less understand,” Lokko said in a statement on the event’s website. “In Europe we speak of minorities and diversity, but the truth is that the West’s minorities are the global majority; diversity is our norm. There is one place on this planet where all these questions of equity, race, hope and fear converge and coalesce. Africa.”

More than 20 projects were selected from across the continent, as well as locations from France to Fez, Morocco—the majority of which were developed by an individual or a team with five people or fewer, according to organizers.

That includes Nzinga Biegueng Mboup, a Senegalese-based architect who worked with Adjaye Associates for three years. She is now collaborating with Elementerre, a construction company specializing in local and 100% recyclable building materials, such raw earth and plants, that require less energy to create and are more suitable for hot climates.

Or the woman-owned, New York City-based Riff Studio. Its three-person team combines backgrounds outside of traditional design practice: building construction, historical research, and architectural pedagogy, respectively. “Our designs are riffs produced from dialogues between these distinct realms, as we contemplate the future of housing,” according to the firm’s website.

There’s also MOE + Art Architecture: a Nigerian firm “that is emerging as one of the leading design houses in Africa for their work to redefine African modernism,” and Cartografia Negra, “a collective based in Brazil that is working to reposition places in Sao Paolo that were used for the execution, sale, torture, and execution of enslaved people,” according to the Ford Foundation.


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


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