The Work of Ilze and Heinrich Wolff
In 2020, the global pandemic made the world pay attention to the public execution of a Black man in America. The outpour of rage and pain against police brutality led to marches of millions of people around the world demanding justice for Black lives. The commodification of Black thought became visible in all spheres of society, and suddenly,seats were being added to the tables we usually are not invited to.
Architectural institutions quickly put out statements that revealed their premature self-awareness of their contributions to systemic racism. An immediate sense of solidarity was built demanding justice for the Black community. Now that a vaccine is available for Covid-19 and offices are planning their “return to normal” protocols, I ask myself, was the solidarity contingent on the forced deprivation of pleasure we’ve had to live in? Is this just a fleeting moment in history?
For Ilze and Heinrich Wolff, co-directors of Wolff Architects, the words fleeting, and Black don’t coexist in their work. Their practice is immersed in the critical analysis of anti-blackness as the vehicle to insert questions that dismantle conventional architecture practices. The notion of the architect as the fountainhead is rejected, to give room to a spatial practice that weaves itself into South African culture, history, and ancestral practices. The synergy between Ilze and Heinrich renders a raw and unpretentious body of work that values the multiplicity of scales—publications, installations, buildings. This interview is a reminder of the complexity of Black culture and an invitation to also pay attention to the joy of celebrating the Black community to create spaces capable of upholding our lives as citizens of the World.
Heinrich & Ilze Wolff
As a black woman in architecture, I think representation is key to the way in which we present our work and the way we develop our ideas. This first question is a little introductory question but is around identity and this was mainly tailored to Ilze, but Heinrich you can answer this question through your own identity. I see your work deeply rooted in your identity as a Black woman. I consider this level of self-awareness as a superpower because we are able to investigate the world through the multiple identities that intersects us.I think that that intersectionality can provide us with the empathy to build communities that celebrates and uplifts our cultures and traditions. In what ways do you think your identity has formed the way you understand space and shape space?
You know this is a bit like jumping straight into the very personal. I think I would like to get to know a little bit of each other first. A lot of our stuff is deeply personal; struggle is much about identity as hardship; joy and all those things find their way out into the work. We need to get to know each other a little first, in terms of how we get to the point. We can go back to this question, but I am interested in the themes you are working in your interview for the publication, and I only got to know the publication through this invitation. Maybe you can help us understand where you are coming from what your thoughts are? A little bit more on the context of this question.
Of course. When the editor approached me to interview anyone that I wanted, I immediately thought about your practice because I think there is not enough conversation on issues about coloniality, race, violence, and gender in architecture. I think that your practice speaks to that; you make spaces that are rooted in those questions, and I thought that it was important to have this in the publication in a context like Puerto Rico, where racism and many issues around violence are very much alive but still in architecture practice and architectural publications, we remain shy to talk about these topics.
Heinrich and I have talked about this for a long time and recently we have been engaging more on ideas around: How does one critically analyze anti-blackness? In terms of finding the joy of celebrating blackness. It is the kind of idea that Fred Moten talks about. What is very curious for me is that these conversations have been in our practice since day one,only now they are becoming this ‘topic’, especially in the US. The number of invitations we have got this year to talk about our work through this frame is being quite interesting to see. I think it’s got to do with the protests and all the stuff that is happening this year. We are quite conflicted about that, a friend of mine says: it is like a fever that has gripped everybody, when it has been part of our being and our work in Cape Town. Why this urge to talk about it now? Of course, we must talk about it, and it is the foundational part of our practice, but we need to be critical about why we are suddenly gripped with this fever and it’s because the violence that has escalated this past year.
I think it’s also rooted in our political apparatus. This sentiment of the other and anti-blackness, it has always been there but became stronger in the presidency of Barak Obama. Then with Trump people had free rein to express their anti-blackness and that is why it has escalated to this point we are living today.
I agree with you to some extent; it is an agenda that is dominated, in a way, by the United States’s perspective, at the moment.You can appreciate this setting in South Africa: there is the anti-abolish struggle and the democratic era, and for the last 25 years it’s been us trying to understand the nature of institutionalized racism and uproot anti-blackness. We appreciate that we are here to continue with that project and not let it be dominated by the United States, which is the dominant colonial force of our time, but letting it be governed by an agenda that is defined by political motifs in South Africa and the post-apartheid Era. For us that is the dominant way. That is not disconnected from global struggles, nor without empathy for the global struggles, but we have very particular spatial formations, since apartheid was very much a spatial practice. We are focusing on undoing, addressing, and criticizing but also this project of celebrating black lives in spatial forms, what does that mean? That is what we are investigating.
I really enjoy and find it very refreshing the way you talk about your practice. In a recent lecture you talked about the notion of “paying attention” to the details of the social fabric of society to be confronted with issues of race, coloniality, and gender. Issues that are uncomfortable to face, but necessary, to think about alternative ways of making space. You also personify your practice in the beautiful photograph taken of Katrima Magit where she is captured building her home with her own hands encasing her family members and belongings inside her structure. It is a depiction of your desire of building architecture that is empowering and resilient, but also not limited to the construction of the building as the end goal, but to think of architecture as a recuperation and celebration of the histories and structures around it. Can you talk more about this idea of architecture being capable of not only being a building but a way of celebrating culture and traditions? And, hasthere been any issue you have uncovered during your research so painful or impossible to process that cannot be translated into space?
I’ll start with part of the question around Katrina Magit. That photograph is fundamentally our action against curriculum, against training, against architectural pedagogy, and the way we are thought to talk about architecture in a very modernist conception. Where we are building for an imagined future public, is an abstract space; it’s empty and it will be populated afterwards. It is very idealistic and is the way we are taught during our training. You do not get asked to ask the questions, but what if we think about the contents first, conceptually, programmatically, and relationally. What if we start with that and the architecture formulates around it? That is fundamentally the key idea around how I think about that image and how it has begun to make amends to our practice in the way we think of any future building.
I would like to insert Katrina Magit within the idea of an architect thinker or a builder. It’s an ongoing conversation that I am having with the photograph, with the person in the photograph, and the environment as well. The other thing about that image is that it speaks about tectonics. We do learn about tectonics—form-making, structure—but it also speaks about non-permanence. The idea that architecture must be completely permanent, to be grounded, is the kind that has dominated our training. We are here in perpetuity making these very important structures, when in fact our indigenous ancestors—the people that we learned from and the people and spaces—were erased because of citadel modernity. These lessons were also erased. Paulo Tavares talks about epistemicide when knowledge is erased through citadel modernity. There is a kind of recuperation of that knowledge in the fact that the structure is built with intention and creativity, but it does not have to be permanent. It is a nomadic thing and there’s knowledge in there that we as architects need to harvest and use for our own practices of spatial thinking.
It very much relates to the idea whether the architect is the originator of space and the spatial project. We do not believe that putting the architect as a central figure is always useful. Simply because a lot of our training is focused on this idea of this architect genius author who makes something like Farnsworth House regardless of the protestation of the people living there or the lack of joy in the object that is received. It somehow clings the object from Mrs. Farnsworth’s objections and complaints and celebrates its greatness in absolute isolation of the misogyny of Mies Van Der Rohe.
You don’t come in and ask somebody to throw away everything that they have in their house so architects can have a new design object, so they look super cool. There is this gift that came from your grandma, there are also sentiments, backgrounds, and so on. Something that I am saying is, let us have these richer conversations.
Unlike many other kinds of arts, something about architecture is that it is a co-authorship of sorts. There are very specific skills required of an architect—and we are not backing out of offering those skills—but if in the narration of a story, whether it’s a public building or a private house, the architect’s authorship tends to dominate. That is not as satisfying as when, like Katrina Magit, you are building around the pre-existing. We begin to think on what the language of this building is and how can we extend it to an institution with all the scholars. We want to insert it in the body of thought that they are working through. Is up to us to join into that conversation. We’re trying to rid ourselves from being this sort of genius author who is the beginning and the originator of all great ideas. We just do not think we are that clever and we have no interest in having that kind story being told.
African Mobilities - Heinrich Wolff
Could you also speak a little bit about the notion of paying attention? In doing so, have you encountered an event that has been too hard to confront that is not able to be translated into space?
Our entire city is this kind of painful event because part of it was removed. I lived in a city where there was vast part of land were people lived, and they are just not there anymore. At the moment there are projects on their way to rebuild some of it, but it will never rebuild those connections and regimes of care, of hardships and joys, that was part of the fabric of the place. For instance, District six, Loyolo, The Flats,or the sites that we as a practice have identified as these sites of extreme pain, some of them are very personal. For example, my great-grandmother, whose name was Rose Febuari, used to live in one of these neighborhoods and my father lived in one of these neighborhoods. How one then begins to practice as an architect, as a spatial thinker, within this context it is a hard question to ask, but what makes it even more painful is that our training does not lead us to ask those questions.
A second layer of this evolves once you have entered the profession because we are meant to be building, developing, constructing, making, and building the city. Maybe we should not be building, maybe we should be making gardens, landscapes, or growing stuff. We do not ask that,because if you do you are not an architect—you’re an anthropologist, a social thinker, or an artist. The work that we do is very multidisciplinary. We do art interventions, I write poetry, Heinrich writes, we do a lot of stuff, but I will distinctly still call myself and our practice, an architecture practice. It is important that people perceive architecture as way of thinking as well. It is a kind of advocacy not to discard that label of architect.
What you have talked about is linked to other questions that I have, one around scale and the other around healing. When you speak about the way you approach research as a form of practice and not simply as a tool to gather knowledge makes me think on the multiplicity of scales in which your work operates in. The ideas can morph and expand into different ways of making meaningful architecture. I also see this as a critique on how you see mainstream architecture is categorized that which is not built work into art practice or academic work. Which in my opinion creates a huge barrier on making architecture that can address the violent legacies of colonialism, like racism and gender violence. I think one of the projects that most clearly embodies one of these ideas of research as practice is the project commissioned by the University of Western Cape, The Centre for Humanities Research. The way you approach the work is at the scale of publication and asking questions about spaces of liberation through the performance of art practices and through these investigations then ideas can morph into a building. Can you expand on the importance of the approaching this project at the scale of publication?Why do you think it is so central to your work that ideas are able to transfer into different scales?
Wow, these questions are very beautifully articulated. Heinrich and I, our agenda is very coupled. The research part is made through conversations around what we see; then those conversations extend to the studio so the people in our practice gather these ideas with us. There is a way in how we then use the research to make space—new kinds of space through tectonics, details, planning, and making spaces. That is a whole other dimension of architecture practice; making a building is such a big project. It’s expensive, broad, and there are so many dimensions to it where we do not often talk about all of them. The other day we talked about the strategies around gathering capital for a project, and that is one aspect of it. There are ways on how we maneuver capital to get to the kind of ethical frames that you are after for every project. In our practice I enjoy asking the difficult questions, because I find that through that struggle, one comes up with more broad ethics for a project. We both find joy in the research and in the materiality of things, and there is a synergy between the way we work. My instinct is to go into the question, and Heinrich’s is to think through making; together that makes a very rich project.
I want to add that there are some types of research that an architect does. The one that you can typify or describe as due diligence, and the other one is poetic. With due diligence you just want to see what is in there, what are the histories of the site, so that you do not have blind spots, because it’s unacceptable that you work on a site where somebody could point out a major part of its social history and you are unaware of it. We want to apply certain rigor—from its site to the way the money come from. Then,it is always useful to have a poetic attitude. If you look, for instance, at the project on the life of Bessie Head, there is general research there, but then there is a search for motifs that carry emotional charge. It is in the nature of editing and narration where it is a fragment of the story, but it is allegorical and gives hints to other parts of the story. It’s also very evocative of the personality behind it and the narratives that we want to propagate through our work, whether it’s an exhibition or a building.
In terms of the UWC project, the University of the Western Cape is a very particular institution. It was conceived by the apartheid state as a university for black people, like Bush University, and there where ten of these universities in South Africa, conceived around this idea of separate development and separate education in the racialized trajectory of the country. In 1960 the apartheid government locates this institutional space in the middle of the Cape Flats in Cape Town, and they had few faculties, theology being the dominant one—subjects that you could potentially develop a certain kind of middle class, but that could never really become part of the white population in terms of jobs. They did not offer art, medicine, engineering, or architecture—the kinds of subjects that had different opportunities. This black institution progresses out of this very terrible dark foundation of the apartheid state and becomes one of the most progressive black universities in the country because of its ideas around democracy.
In 2017 we met Premesh Lalu, who is the director of the Centre for Humanities Research. We are kind of currently working on the timeline for the university, and it’s currently unfolding, but Premesh is very interested in what would this university art institution would be like. We as a practice were quickly fascinated by this question. In addition, we asked what the spatial practice of this university would be like, also bearing in mind that they do not have an architecture school—or still do not have it, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t practice space. The architects that made the buildings on the campus assumed there was nothing there and built these discreet buildings. Even though they were quite liberal in their thinking they still brought a very Eurocentric way of making space in a modernist conception. We drew from the energy of UWC to think what this institution should be like and through that research we found the picture of Katrina Magit.
African Mobilities - Lindsey Appolis
I wonder how the research then relates to the tectonics because you presented a couple of images of how you guys envision the space.
I think it is not as easy as thinking the research is going to tell us how to make. It’s not as easy as that, this kind of linear way of thinking, because creativity is quite subjective as well, and is about conversations around the people that are motivating the project. But we find that responding existing buildings that maybe opens conversations around space and our own history of space making. I do not think is as simple as just research and then create it’s a little more complex than that.
But somehow that is the way we are taught, right? Like you make research and then somehow it translates into physical form.
Yeah, but what Heinrich was saying is that the research allows for poetic storytelling; that is what we are after: the poetics, the story, the narrative, the site.
I think that what you got to understand is what you do if you haven’t done that research, you just do not understand the world around this institution or the site, then you are relying on your own creativity and your own motives in a way. You can describe our attitude by contrasting it with a book that was recently published by Valerio Olgiatti on the non-referential, where basically it’s saying that in hybrid societies, where everybody shares different references,it is impossible to refer to anything. That might be true in contexts like Switzerland, butif you are working in the context of a postcolonial,post-apartheid society where both theytold black people, indigenous people that their cultures, their practices, their narratives, their expressions are useless, even inferior to European ways, it can’t be like that.
There’s an ongoing project of recovering and celebrating black lives, and that is what is extraordinary about the weaving work of the Congo, or the mural work of southern Africa, or the mines of southern Africa. Those were great culture achievements, so how do we participate in that, how do we take that forward? This idea of a culturally neutral building that just relies on pure tectonics, an expression of construction, circulation, light, those sorts of things, that is just not good enough. We do not think that those stories are rich enough and I don’t think that it gives the users of the buildings, citizens of the urban area, appreciation that the building is valuable. You must recognize that the building or space has been a part of the ongoing building traditions of its context, without falling this mentality of ‘the architect is the expert, the person who knows how to do it, and the architect will demonstrate how to do your proper architecture, and you guys are just building the city for yourselves, and we will have to break it down eventually’. That participatory narration that comes out of research, we feel, is a richer way of telling stories through our buildings.
Another theme that I wanted to touch is healing. When describing the work and contributions of Bessie Headyou talk about their juxtaposition of this possession and community building on restorative work. One been most of the time generated by the state as an act of erasure of the black body, and the other as an act of resistance from those been disenfranchised. In this resistance is what I think about when I see your work, the intentionality of reclaiming and restoring the places that once were as a way of building, and I quote, “alternative spaces of the imagination”. That translates into an emancipatory architecture. What have been the social, culture or political ramifications that you have seen that perhaps have emerge from the projects like “Summer Flowers”, were you are, in a way, introducing people to the past?
What you say now is very beautiful but is a very lofty explanation of what we are doing, and I do not think is that important as what you are saying. I totally appreciate your explanation, but I feel a little hectic when people start using these words like “healing”. We are just trying to do our best, but it becomes uncomfortable with all these big words in all these projects, when they are quite humble interventions. I fell in love with the work of Bessie Head because of the house that she did, and I wanted to do something amazing with this thing and the garden project.
We did nothing more than write letters, pressed flowers and it was for ourselves. We went to Botswana, a neighboring African country in South Africa—first time I ever visit this place and I am 40 years old—, and that was a healing experience in itself. We go to New York, Chicago, to all these places, but we hadn’t gone to our neighboring country. So, just to see that space was transformative for me, and potentially, has a healing effect. The people that we work with in the office, the group of women, you can see from each other that in the conversations elicited by just this act of pressing flowers and gathering the plant material was healing. And then having another conversation with these extraordinary curators of the Biennale, Yesomi Omulo, Sepake Angiama and Paulo Tavares was also healing. Because we were kind of terrorized as architects by our own education, and that terror is traumatic. Why must I find out at the age of 39 that there was this extraordinary woman, Bessie Head, who made this extraordinary house? I probably would never heard or found out about it, if had not been for my own curiosity and the resources that we had at the time through this commission in Chicago. So, that is a kind of a healing from that epistemicide that I spoke about. If that extends to a kind of healing practice for others, I have no idea; I cannot claim that our work is healing for others. We try our best, but we are not missionaries or doctors or anything like that.
And this ties to my last question, because I was watching a lecture by Walter Mignolo…
Yes, Walter! We know him!
Oh really? Wow!
Yes! He came to our office and we had a meal together, he is a lovely man.
Oh, that is amazing. He was speaking about the concept of decoloniality, being a present needin order to restitute what has been destitute, and about the importance of actively working in the present towards pluriversal futures. Which makes me think about your work, but more specifically, about your interventions to restore culture justice by providing spaces for people to enjoy once more, spaces like the Guillotine Cinema and the Alabama Cinema. I think that this reclaiming and honoring of the past can begin to restitute justice through space making which also, it’s a way in which “Summer Flowers” translates as well. Do you see your work in the present as the path towards a pluriverse future?
I think “Pluriverse” is a very good way of explaining it. Heinrich and I were having this conversation last night, about this very idea of how education just dominating with this thing that you must be one type of architect, produce one type of knowledge, this is one thing. We know from our own experiences that is not the case. I think again in this idea towards what Fred talks about,of the critical analysis of anti-blackness in service of its eradication. We do it because we want to get rid of it, as quickly as possible, this idea of racism, and anti-blackness, and all of that, but also, we got to think about how we find expression of joys. He does not talk about it as an anti-depressant, as far as I know, or as a kind of a healing concept but you can read the two are together. You cannot sit all day and get depressed of how anti-black, anti-female, and anti-indigenous the world is, or you will die from trauma. So, you need to find the joys of it, and people that have created joys and found strength, and I found music as that energy and that healing energy, that sense of creating. So, when we were listening to Winston Mankunku earlier, that song happened to debut in a building that I am interested in. When this architecture and particular music collides, you begin to think, “oh my, disciplines can also participate in this conversation.”
I think the other thing to add is that in undoing anti-blackness, the question is, what are the motives that hold it in place? For me one of the primary motives behind racism is economic exploitation and to understand how contemporary capitalism organizes itself in a desire of an underclass, label class, a non-entrepreneurial class, and how architects and urban designers collaborate in their projects. Because it’s not just the consequence of some mean evildoerssitting in dark rooms, it’s people who applied for rights at the local municipality in the clear light of day, achieve those rights, and its entirely legal, what they have achieved. And yet it serves the purpose of marginalizing large amounts of people, the same demographic has been marginalized before. We need to understand what those motives are and how space is organizing in service of those motives, so we can then begin to say: lets speak to them, let’s criticize them, and try to undo them. That is another interest of our work.
Katriena Majiet - photo by Paul Grendon
I guess the second part of this question is, what types of spaces can you envision, then, in a future where all these ills of coloniality are eradicated from our spaces?
I can imagine spaces of communality, real communal practice. You will notice that all the projects that we identify as the sites for our interventions, they have something in common, and it has to do with the idea that at one point these were these spaces where people got together to watch their phone, to garden, to just be, to hangout. I feel like we have certain of those spaces, but there is so much that has been lost in our society through these processes of force removals, eradication, and slum clearance. This happened 50 years ago and so we’re still kind of reeling from that. I would like to see society where that idea dominates. The factory that I wrote the book on, an electrical factory, yes, it was a capitalist monument; it was a space were capital economic or enterprise for basically one family, at the expense of thousands of families in Cape Town, women work there, a lot of black women work there. So, how can we imagine this factory, which is now currently vacant, as a way to repair that, and instill some economic and spatial justice through this building. I would like love to see that building become this kind of example of how we can all be more communal, more caring, and sensible in the way we make buildings.
I would suggest that communality is not necessarily that sort of warm fuzzy thing, with all of us holding hands, and getting group hugs; and it does not mean that personal interest or a degree of natural selfishness is an anti-statue of communality. It’s a normal human instinct for people to look after each other. If I make a ton of money because I work really hard out of a self-motivation then that is fine, it’s not a contradiction to communality, but true communality is impossible when people are treated unequally and with exclusion of spatial practices. I think that is what we are in pursue of.
Wow, that is beautiful. Well, maybe I can circle back to the first question.
Yes, let us hear it again.
It’s around this question of identity, because to do meaningful work, or to do work that is not driven by capitalist pursue, you really need to be self-aware of who you are, your history, your past, and in a way confront that, as you say, and celebrate it as well. So, if you can elaborate a little bit about that.
Yeah, so I come from a society that we were told what race, what class, and in some cases, even the building, told you what gender you should be. That kind of taxonomy of categorization, we are actively deconstructing that, we are actively thinking through other constructions of the south, other than these rationalized categories. Reading about the nuances of those categories is astonishingly absurd. In South Africa, a person like me, with the kind of hair that I have, skin color, class demographic, there was a category for somebody like me, there was another category for somebody Islamic, with different hair. Color instilled further categorization. It’s bizarre and prehistoric in a way; it does not even make any sense.
I think that there is a pursuit of thinking through blackness as a kind of solidarity beyond the geographical borders of Africa, for instance. There is a kind of sense of one needing to extend this idea of race into ideas around solidarity, community, and blackness. It’s not just about skin, it’s about thinking through what it is that we long for and what we want to recuperate. So, in some way, my identity is, obviously still evolving, as an architect, and I am comfortable with it. Learning more, I am in the eve of turning 40 and I do not know who I am. It is quite nice, but I also do know what I am not. I know that I’m not going to be one of those people that’sbound to a project that demands one answer, or an outcome in service of individual desires. I’m in services of communal desires, communal practice, and we both are, together, as a couple.
I think part of growing up in highly divided society is that we are taught to be blind to each other.We need to be open to each other and really look at what people are doing and what matters to them, what they value. One other thing, and maybe it’s more a matter of gender than of race, but a lot of the talk is about the place of women or the lives of women today, but very little is asked of men to consider balancing the positions that men have in society. Your very basic example is that I am very fascinated by the work of my maternal ancestors. Most of my maternal ancestors work at jobs, but they also rule at the kitchen and in the kitchen, they produce things of immense pleasure, aesthetic pleasure, that is entirely temporal. So, we look at Katrina Megit making a building that can move around, and we think of that building as temporal. But this idea that you have a beautiful meal that gets eaten within minutes of being done and is gone forever has this ongoing legacy and memory. The labor of my maternal ancestors entirely dominates in the memories of those homes—and they were beautiful and extraordinary things, producing joy, togetherness. But we need to begin to think of what that aesthetics of temporality mean as a contribution, a perspective that comes from really thinking through the work of my maternal ancestors more than my paternal ancestors, and what that can mean for architecture.
Pumflet Alabama cover
Dattner Architects (New York, USA)
Rose Florian is a Black Puerto Rican designer interested in radical world-building, centered in decolonial practices. In her work she explores the intersection between race, colonialism, and feminism as a gateway to understand deep rooted systems that shape today’s communities. She believes that design can have a unique ability to disrupt hierarchical structures to provide spaces for those who are misrepresented. Florián, has a Masters in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Urban Design from Harvard Graduate School of Design. Her current research, “Unearthed Spaces”, focuses on the unrecognized building practices brought to the Caribbean by enslaved African technologists.