An Artist-Architect's Projects Explore the Legacy of Colonialism

In a New York classroom or an African market, GSAPP Professor Emanuel Admassu questions the core tenets of architecture and urban design.

Eve Glasberg
December 21, 2022

Professor Emanuel Admassu’s art, design, and teaching embrace theory, spatial justice, and contemporary African art. His work explores the international constellation of Afrodiasporic spaces. Most recently, he has been looking at two urban marketplaces in Africa—Kariakoo in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and Merkato in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Admassu is a founding partner, with Jen Wood, of AD—WO, an art and architecture practice based in New York City, as well as Addis Ababa and Melbourne, Australia. He is also a co-founding board member of the Black Reconstruction Collective.

Columbia News caught up with Admassu recently to discuss his wide-ranging research projects, how he designed such a multidisciplinary career, and the experience of teaching at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP).

How do you manage the demands of both teaching and being an artist and architect? How do these practices overlap?

It is challenging. I try to maintain a porous boundary between teaching and my other work. My creative practice, AD-WO, in partnership with Jen Wood, is positioned between art and architecture. Sometimes, questions we encounter in the practice inform my pedagogical experiments. For example, we produced an installation called Immeasurability for a 2021 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, curated by GSAPP Professor Mabel O. Wilson and MoMA Curator Sean Anderson.

Our installation examined how property regimes enclose and attempt to make Black life measurable. As we were doing research for Immeasurability, I decided to pose a parallel question to my students: How can we disentangle architecture and urban design from property? This question initiated a series of design studios I have been teaching over the past few years, After Property. The latest in the series is Atlanta After Property, Vol. 2.

My teaching often diverges from issues and ideas we are exploring at AD-WO. There have also been scenarios where the courses I am teaching are along the same trajectory, but a few years ahead—anticipating alternative or possible futures for the practice. I like collaborating with people across disciplines and geographies at AD-WO. The courses I teach operate in a similar fashion—framing relationships between students and specific stakeholders, activists, and organizations. We collectively shape the conversation by asking questions we are interested in exploring together.

How did your interests in spatial justice and contemporary African art develop?

I’m interested in spatial practices that actively contend with coloniality. Most of these concerns deal with complex notions of representation, reparation, and justice—how people claim space in contexts that inherently negate their lives. This interest spans from urban marketplaces in Africa to Afrodiasporic spaces in Europe and North America. Conventional tools of architectural representation fail to illustrate the ephemeral conditions and the immaterial forces I study. My frustration with the limitations of architecture has inspired a looser relationship with the boundaries of the discipline.

Ongoing collaborations with contemporary artists have transformed the way we work at AD-WO. More specifically, an interest in Black spatial practices—on and off the continent of Africa—has cultivated a deep investment in the shifting terrain of contemporary African art. For the past five years, I have been co-editing a book, Where Is Africa, with curator and art historian Anita Bateman. It is an anthology of interviews, essays, and commissioned artworks, which is slated to be published in 2023. The book expands the vocabulary we use to theorize African cities and aesthetic practices. In other words, my engagement with contemporary African art is helping me reframe questions of spatial justice—mostly because dealing with these issues critically requires a willingness to destabilize the core tenets of architecture and urban design.

Can you discuss your work on two urban marketplaces—Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam and Merkato in Addis Ababa?

Two Markets is an ongoing research project, in which we have been thinking about the sediments left by regimes of racialization and ecological degradation—how these histories haunt and configure these two marketplaces and nation-states. The systems that were imposed on these sites and Indigenous peoples have been absorbed and weaponized through extraction, exploitation, and disappearance. From the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, the Mediterranean to the Red Sea—bodies, resources, and landscapes are stolen, undone, and discarded. Within this geopolitical context, African urban marketplaces offer thresholds for rural to urban mobility as alternatives to the dangers of transnational migration. The markets are built by urban Africans who have decided to stay despite neocolonial entanglements.

I am also interested in Kariakoo and Merkato because they are microcosms of Tanzania and Ethiopia. The markets embody various aspirations of sovereignty and exceptionalism, which is why current and previous political leaders have chosen these urban sites as ideal places to test explicit parts of their agendas. Two Markets is driven as well by a desire to articulate difference within regions that are often rendered as homogenous: Merkato was a resettlement project executed during the five-year Italian occupation of Ethiopia (October 1935-January 1941), while Kariakoo registers the violence of racialization experienced over 200 years of Omani and European imperial expansion in Tanzania.

Finally, Two Markets is an image-making project. We produced 18 large-scale images juxtaposing specific conditions in the two marketplaces for an exhibition in Addis Ababa and Dar Es Salaam in 2019. The works foreground spatial practices where people imagine and build new forms of collectivity despite cyclical displacement and dispossession. The project is closely tied to our interest in quotidian spaces that are used by ordinary people. We are trying to conceptualize the marketplaces as spaces of refusal against architecture’s proximity to power.  

What else are you working on now?

A few different projects—an apartment building currently under construction in Addis Ababa, research for an upcoming installation, and an exhibition design for the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2023.

The apartment building and installation are based on our research on the Ghebbi compounds of Addis Ababa. The Amharic word Ghebbi connotes a territory surrounded by a wall or fence—a zone of respite carved out of a restless city. A variety of materials are used to fence in the plots, which contain houses, parks, schools, gardens, and spaces of worship and commerce. Events are hosted there such as weddings, wakes, religious rituals and celebrations, and familial and neighborly gatherings. These compounds are under immense pressure due to the demand for density: The population of Ethiopia has doubled in my lifetime, and the median age is less than 25, so the population will continue to grow exponentially. We have been working on different designs for stacking the Ghebbis into multi-family residential buildings. The apartment building is an extension of this experiment, while the art installation meditates on the disappearance of the Ghebbi

The upcoming Bard exhibition will focus on historic and contemporary African and African diasporic metal arts. We will juxtapose historic metalwork from various parts of Africa with contemporary artworks from the diaspora.

As for teaching, I am preparing an architecture design studio for the spring 2023 semester that focuses on the restitution of looted African artifacts dispersed across European and North American museums. I taught a version of this studio in 2022, when we focused on the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC. In the spring, we will look at the Humboldt Forum, and travel to Berlin in March.

What was your path to a career that embraces academia and architecture?

I worked for a few years at an architectural firm after finishing my undergraduate degree in architecture. I enjoyed it, but I missed the limitless creativity of an architecture studio in an academic setting. So I applied to graduate school with the intention of transitioning to a hybrid model where I could teach and practice simultaneously. Since AD-WO started in 2015, I have been able to split my time between teaching and practice.   

Advice for anyone pursuing a career in either field?

The academic and professional realms of architecture and urban design are experiencing radical transformations. If you are pursuing a career in these fields, make sure to carve out space and time to experiment with new models.

What's the best part of teaching at GSAPP and Columbia?

I am lucky to work with a brilliant group of colleagues and students at GSAPP. It is a genuinely experimental environment that attracts people who are willing to critically examine and reframe disciplines that examine the built environment. It is also great to be in New York City, a place that feeds the work with endless energy and inspiration.